Monday, February 23, 2009

Private schools and education

I had blogged earlier about the increasing importance of private schools in our education policies, especially in the urban areas where an estimated 55% children go to private schools. The graphic below only confirms this.

Recognized private schools have contributed an overwhleming 95.7% to the increase in primary school enrolment in urban areas in the 1993-2002 period, and 71.7% to the increase in upper primary enrolment. The figures for rural areas were smaller at 24.4% and 23.2% respectively. The share of private schools in increase in high school enrolment is relatively less in both cities and villages. The figures for the rural areas may be an under-estimate given the presence of large numbers of unrecognized primary and upper primary schools. The prima facie conclusions are

1. Private schools have made spectacular inroads, in both rural and urban areas, and across levels of schooling. The progress has been highest in high schools, an indication of the fact that high schools are a remunerative business activity.
2. Private primary and upper-primary schools have displaced government schools as the driving force behind increasing primary and upper-primary enrolment in towns and cities.
3. Government primary and upper-primary schools continue to be vital in rural areas.
4. Expansion of high school enrolment, in both rural and urban areas, continues to be heavily reliant on government schools.

It is undeniable that private schools, atleast to the extent of primary and upper-primary schools in urban areas, have proliferated in large numbers and have become the most important determinants in basic schooling in our towns and cities. Poor children are paying fees ranging from atleast Rs 50 to Rs 500 per month, and attending private schools in large numbers.

All this raises a few important issues. Is it not time for a more focussed school education policy, which takes into account the role of private schools? Should the education department not be focussing more on its rural schools at all levels? Should government's primary focus be on running high schools in urban areas, while regulating private schools and prescribing standards in primary and upper-primary schools there?

None of this should be mistaken as an advocacy for government to abdicate from its fundamental role of delivering free education and to privatize education. The challenge is to leverage the existing resources, both private and public, in a more efficient manner to deliver universal and good quality education. The administration of a policy that factors these realities can be facilitated by using school vouchers and other incentives.

Manish Sabharwal in Financial Express draws attention to certain provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2008, presently under discussion in the Parliament. It contains a provision for providing 25% reservation in all private schools for children nominated by Government. The author is right about many of the apprehensions that could possibly distort this provision.

But his is not without precedent. There are successfully administered ongoing schemes in states like Andhra Pradesh (Best Available School Scheme), wherein meritorious tribal students (selected based on written tests), at all levels, are selected and admitted to good private schools. The government pays the fees directly to the private school. State governments should take cue from such programs and use the 25% seats reserved in private schools to benefit meritorious poor students.

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