Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Is Education Really a Private Enterprise For a Few?

--Shaily Pal &Shubhendu Chakravorty
(Shaily and Shubhendu work in the Central Team of Learn, Out of the Box programme)

Uttar Pradesh is one of the most socially active and politically dynamic states in the country. Today, the position of a school owner within the power structure in the society is unique in many ways. It was during one of our field visits, when we met and interacted with a few owners of low income private schools in Uttar Pradesh. It is important to note that with any definition of private school, boundaries remain blurred. For example, ‘private’ schools may be financially aided and regulated by the state; even those that operate independent of the state still interact with governments – whether to achieve registration, get teaching materials, follow a curriculum or examination system, or just to avoid scrutiny.

It was brought to the table whence some light was thrown on the role of state government in these private schools. To our delight, the discussion wasn’t hovered by mute points instead it kept mushrooming on every front. There were only two women participants amongst the seven members of the group and we felt ecstatic seeing their confidence with every point they posed. Moreover, despite being suppressed at times amidst the bold male voices, they managed to stand by their views and made sure to be heard. Encountering that part of the discussion was like cherry on the cake for us apart from the group’s noteworthy cognizance. They held the discussion supporting and aligning with each other which made their perceptions stronger.

After an extended conversation, the group came up with a draft memorandum that was a blend of agreements, partial dissents and reality checks. Below mentioned are some of the many remarkable points the group came up with:

• Recognizing Private School Teachers
Existing workforce in low income private schools is often untrained, over-worked, underpaid and de-motivated. While regular classes are conducted in private schools, their quality is being increasingly questioned. The government could initiate an institutional mechanism of teacher recognition wherein they will be certified as trained & approved teachers after an experience of about 10-12 years and completion of other pre-determined criteria. This will ensure that the current resource is trained on industry standards and teachers seeing a financially enabled growth path for them.

• Creation of a Professional Chamber for Primary & Middle schools
Chambers or pressure groups are an integral part of a vibrant democracy and history indicates that such groups provide an additional perspective to the discourse. An urgent need of consolidating the Primary & Middle schools in some kind of a union was prevalent. Government’s initiative for forming such a professional chamber for schools and teachers could help create a common platform which is in regular communication with the government. Aspects of self-regulation could also be brought in by such a chamber.

• Checking corruption at all fronts
The participants were critical of themselves and other fellow owners for by-passing the government norms on recognition and affiliations. Corruption and nepotism is rampant in this aspect. While, there exists a policy of automatic de-recognition of the school if any false claim is proven to be made at the time of seeking recognition of affiliation. However, no such policy of defined action exists against erring officials granting recognitions on flimsy grounds. Corruption cases against officials are often lost in lengthy procedures of vigilance enquiries, if any. This creates an imbalance and results in government officials driving a corrupt nexus with the owners in the absence of any punitive action. It was agreed unanimously that it may be difficult to bring about a sea-change in ethic of the school owners in the immediate future but at least institutional corruption can be checked if those taking decisions are strongly penalized in inquiry proven cases.

• Institutionalizing funds for students and school management
The participants were sensitive towards the fact of receiving funds from the government as part of scholarships for rewarding well performing students. They believed as schools become institutionalized, they tend to become more loosely coupled and parts in a loosely coupled system work independently of each other, thus they will be able to incentivize children giving them a push to study hard.

Apart from this, the motivation behind the owners operating private schools is an intangible descriptor that is complicated by the fact that school owners of any description may express their motivations as a combination of competing commitments to philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and business interests.

This unstructured and unplanned discussion indicates the overarching role state governments have in school education, be it private or public. This group was of the view that while interference in private education is not desirable, the state government certainly has the responsibility of a providing an enabling framework to this critical aspect of human development.

With the election year approaching in Uttar Pradesh, they are upbeat of creating an impression on the state government with their ideas.

Mr. Chief Minister, hope you are listening!