The Poor Make an Educational Choice

Though it had been around for a long time, in 2003-04, a disturbing trend began to be dramatically visible in the government school system: a large number of districts began to report a decrease in the number of children enrolled. However, this decrease was not due to any slowing down in the growth rate of child population. Nor was it because accurate data was now available in place of the earlier inflated numbers. And since the number of children reported to be out of school was not increasing either, what accounted for the children missing from government schools? Yes, you guessed it – they were shifting to the ever-spreading network of the low-fee private schools.
The number of districts reporting such decreased enrolment stood at 180 or nearly one-third the number of districts in the country. Nor was this confined to the so-called ‘backward’ states – for Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu also reported the phenomenon. In the year 2005-06, six new states reported districts with decreasing enrolment in government schools. And the situation hasn\’t really improved since.
The private schools that children migrate to come under the ‘unrecognized’ category, hence few government records are available on their numbers or growth. However, it is apparent that the increase in their numbers is astonishing. A World Bank study estimated that 28% of the rural population in the area studied had access to private schools in their own villages, and nearly half the private schools were established after 2000. Studies in Punjab showed that around 27% children studied in such schools and a similar picture obtained in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. 
This large-scale exodus has been occurring at a time when the government is spending an unprecedented amount of money and effort on education. Since 2000, tens of thousands of new schools have been opened in underserved areas and the infrastructure of existing schools boosted. Around 8.5 lakh teachers have been appointed and around 87% teachers in place provided 20 days of in-service training every year over the last few years.
Despite such efforts, anybody with any means whatever is choosing to walk across to a (usually) nearby school and pay for what they consider good education. This is in a context where education is available free in government schools, along with other incentives such as free textbooks and mid-day meals.
Like mobile phones, private education is no more the preserve of the elite. Surveys have found that 20% students in such schools are first-generation school-goers, with another 14% having parents with four (or less) years of education. Visits to such schools in the poorer regions of a state like UP put all doubts to rest. Without fail, it is the poor who are sending their children to schools that charge fees in the range of Rs. 30-100 a month. Schools manage this by paying teachers Rs. 1000-1200 per month – well below the minimum wage for unskilled labour. It is usually the educated unemployed who take this up as a means to gain experience while being on the lookout for other jobs. Therefore, teacher turnover is high, but there is a continuous stream of cheap labour available. The result is a commercially viable venture that provides subsistence level education.
In the meantime, who remains in the government system? For those hovering around the poverty line or below, there is no other recourse. Over 80% of SC and ST children in school are in government schools, which also have a higher proportion of girls and children with disabilities. In a telling comment, it is common for families with meagre resources to educate their sons in private schools and daughters in government schools. Indeed children are often enrolled in the government schools (for entitlements such as mid-day meals or uniforms) but actually attend the nearby private schools (for education)!
Unfortunately, the exodus of the more powerful and influential families has led to a greatly reduced sense of accountability in government schools. Those who are ‘left behind’ are usually the more disadvantaged groups, already disempowered due to economic and social reasons. Teachers, school heads and education officials tend to feel that it is almost ‘pointless’ to serve ‘these people’. In fact, a common refrain across the country is to complain of the ‘poor stuff we get to teach’ (and by \’poor stuff\’ they mean children!). There is an increasing tendency to blame the poor for not being able to support their wards at home or provide educational resource and the like. What is forgotten in all this is that education is not a favour being done to the poor – it is their right!
This is perhaps one of the reasons why the dramatic increase in inputs into the education system has not led to outcomes in terms of children’s learning levels, which continue to remain abysmal. Surveys by the NCERT and the NGO sector have repeatedly brought out how only half the children seem to learn half of what they should! During field visits to government schools, it is very common to come across children sitting unattended in class, with the teacher either absent or simply not teaching. Often, of course, the teacher has more than one class to handle and is therefore unable to teach. However, it is the sheer lack of concern for children that strikes any observer the most.
Many take the view that the expanding number of private schools is contributing to universalisation of elementary education in the country. While that is certainly true to an extent, a greater impact seems to be that in leading to reduced accountability, private schools are also contributing to a reduction in the government’s ability to universalise education in its own schools.

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