For the same level of learning outcomes and at their current efficacy levels, govt schools require additional spending far greater than current education budget
The new Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows that deterioration in learning outcomes has been arrested in 2014, but absolute numbers are still dismal. Less than half of class 5 students can read a text of class 2 level; less than half of class 8 students can do a division. If that wasn’t worrying enough, the gap in learning outcomes between private and government schools is huge.
There is a 20 percentage point difference between the proportion of students in private and government schools who have achieved basic learning outcomes in reading and arithmetic. This is despite public schools spending more per pupil in almost every state except Bihar.
The only efficient way to improve learning outcomes is by introducing more accountability in government schools. In the absence of improvements in the way government schools function, improving learning outcomes will be an extravagantly expensive affair. If government schools continue to operate at the same level of efficiency, an excess ₹ 2.32 trillion of spending is needed to achieve the learning results of the private sector, estimate Lant Pritchett and Yamini Aiyar of Harvard Kennedy School and Centre for Policy Research, respectively. That number is not only higher than the entire current spending on education, it is another 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP).
The excess cost for the government sector to reach the same learning outcomes is a sum of two parts. One, the raw cost differential or the excess spent by public schools over private schools and the incremental estimated cost needed to achieve the same results as the private sector. This number has been multiplied by the number of students to arrive at the ₹ 2.32 trillion number.
As the above charts show, there are huge state-wise disparities. In terms of absolute spending per pupil by government schools, Goa tops the charts with nearly ₹ 45,000 per pupil, while Bihar spends the least at ₹ 4,300.
At the same time, higher spending is not always commensurate with better learning outcomes. According to ASER 2011 and 2012 data, the average learning outcome for government schools in Goa is only 6 percentage points higher than that in Bihar. In Goa, the government spends nearly ₹ 40,000 more per student compared with privately educated pupils. This difference is the lowest for Bihar which is the only state that spends less money per pupil than its private sector.
But a narrow gap between government and private school per pupil costs doesn’t mean that government schools are more efficient. For example, this gap in raw costs for Uttar Pradesh is ₹ 7,890 compared with ₹ 14,877 for Maharashtra. But the learning gap between children in government and private schools is only 5.8 percentage points for Maharashtra compared with 32.3 percentage points in Uttar Pradesh. Thus, when it comes to overall excess public costs, Uttar Pradesh has to spend nearly five times more, though it should be noted that the greater number of students enrolled also adds to costs.
Pritchett and Iyer warn that merely hiking teachers’ salaries might have no incremental impact on learning outcomes in public schools. This is exactly what many political parties have been promising. It is well known that the higher expenses in government schools mostly go towards wages and salaries. Any such additional spending will have to be done sensibly.
This is the first of a two-part data journalism series on school education in India. The second part will examine the infrastructure deficit in schools.