No move to make schools, teachers accountable, says Geeta Kingdon

Geeta Kingdon
In the 1980s and 1990s, a sizeable proportion of school-age children in India was out of school. The Right to Education (RTE) Act was conceptualised to tackle this. However, by the time the law was enacted in 2009, the ground reality had changed: over 96 per cent of India’s children were already in school, although they were learning very little. Ten years on, in 2019, the quality of learning remains the primary problem of the country’s education system. And the blame for that falls strongly on the lack of accountability among government schools and teachers — the main ‘elephant in the room’ — which has not been tackled. Geeta Kingdon, academic, researcher, president of the City Montessori schools in Lucknow, and also Professor of Education Economics and International Development at University College, London, spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on the draft National Education Policy (NEP), which was released recently, and talked about the reforms that the policy missed out on. Excerpts from the interview:


What, in your view, is the major shortcoming of the NEP?


The biggest problem in our education system is that of very poor learning achievement levels. The draft NEP has no convincing prescription to tackle this. In fact, its diagnosis of the causes underlying poor learning levels is incomplete. It identifies four causes of the “severe learning crisis” — lack of pre-school education, lack of good nutrition, high pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), and poor teacher training. 


However, evidence in India and other countries shows that lowering PTR does not necessarily improve child learning. The salience of teacher training is also doubtful — teachers in private schools have lesser qualifications and training and yet their results are often similar to or better than government schools. 


What is missing in the NEP’s diagnosis is the important supply-side contributor to the learning crisis – namely, the absence of robust accountability structures for schools and teachers. This is manifested in high teacher absenteeism and low teachers’ time-on-task. In my view, poor accountability in public schools is the elephant in the room.


Moreover, the draft NEP makes a mistake in seeking to push compulsory education till Grade 12. In a country at our stage of development, compulsory education till 18 is both ambitious and unrealistic. (In most industrialised countries, the age of compulsory education is till 16.) A large proportion of India’s population is engaged in agriculture, where parents need the help of their children well before they turn 18. To penalise them for not educating their wards till age 18 seems wrong. The focus needs to be on providing good quality compulsory education till age 14, one that yields not only cognitive skills of literacy and numeracy, but also higher order thinking skills. 


How about the economics of the NEP’s prescriptions? 


The NEP asks for a near doubling of education expenditure — to 20 per cent of the government’s budget. More resources can certainly help, but the current inefficiencies in the use of public education expenditure needs to be rooted out. 


According to District Information System for Education (DISE) data, in 2017-18, 41.2 per cent of all public elementary schools in India (about 4.26 lakh schools out of the total of 10.35 lakh public elementary schools in 20 major states) had 50 or fewer students, with an average enrolment of 27.9 pupils, and a pupil-teacher ratio of 12 pupils per teacher. And yet, Rs 51,917 was being spent per pupil on teacher salary alone. This was equal to 134 per cent of the per capita income of Bihar, and 45 per cent of the per capita income of India in 2017-18! Before asking the tax-payer for more money, this wasteful situation needs to be addressed. 


What is India’s present educational situation?


Surveys, including the government’s own National Achievement Survey, show that children’s learning outcomes are very poor. This is probably an important reason why 24.5 million students left the public school system and moved to private schools between 2010 and 2017, even though the former are free. 


But instead of questioning why public schools have emptied out, the NEP proposes to put all public schools in ‘school complexes’ with other nearby schools so that resources can be shared. This seems to suggest that if we provide more resources, learning levels will greatly improve. However, the fact is that public schools have emptied out not because they didn’t have enough resources, but because they were not delivering — which, in turn, is due to poor accountability structures for schools and teachers.


This needs to be tackled. Why are parents withdrawing children from public schools which have better infrastructure than private schools and better trained teachers? According to DISE data, in 2016-17, 14.5 per cent of all public schools and only 12.7 per cent of private schools fulfilled the infrastructure norms of the RTE Act. An honest diagnosis without ideological posturing is needed.


What is the one big step that can be taken to make teachers and schools more accountable?


A fundamental reform of accountability structures would be to change how schools are funded. This involves funding schools on a per student basis instead of the current ‘block’ grant wherein a school gets the same amount even if it loses children. Under a per-student grant, a direct benefit transfer (DBT) can be given to the parents in the form of cash or a voucher. A voucher-bearing parent is like a fee-paying parent — they can ‘punish’ a lax school by withdrawing the child and taking their voucher to another (better) school. The school presents all the vouchers collected from parents to a government-designated bank for reimbursement by the government. 


Under DBT voucher funding, it is in the school’s interest to retain and grow its student body. Accountability will automatically come into the system because when a school’s revenue (and hence its ability to pay teachers) depends on retaining students, the effort teachers put in will increase and the quality of outcomes will rise. This is a powerful way of eliciting higher teacher effort. Advanced countries give public funds to schools as a per student grant.


Are there any big positives in the policy?


Yes, many. A good move is the proposal to do away with standalone B.Ed colleges and situate B.Ed courses only in universities. 


So far, the government has been the funder, provider, operator, regulator, policymaker and assessor of education. This leads to many conflicts of interest. How can someone who operates in a sector also regulate the sector? How can someone who operates also assess? Will such assessment be fair and unbiased? The draft NEP separates these roles, which is a thoroughly good move. 


The NEP seeks to bring policy making under a new Rajya Shiksha Aayog created as the apex body in each state. It also proposes to establish a separate State School Regulatory Authority (SSRA) to handle the recognition, accreditation and regulation of schools. It advises a “light touch” regulation of public and private schools within the same regulatory framework. This, too, is a good provision — though there is one ambiguity. Will government schools that function without recognition be fined Rs 10,000 per day just like private schools are fined as per Section 19 of the RTE Act?

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