India adopted a National Policy for Children in 1974, declaring children to be the nation’s most precious asset. The population of children in a country comprise its human resources of the future and the social, economic and cultural growth development of any society or community hinges upon the quality of its human resources. Three and a half decades after the adoption of the National Policy for Children, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram grandly allocated the seemingly huge amount of Rs. 34,400 crores exclusively to the education sector in his Annual Budget last fiscal year i.e. 2007-08. The much-hyped Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was granted a handsome Rs. 13,100 crore. Yet, according to the UNESCO, India has the lowest public expenditure on education per student in the world. The prevalent differences within Indian states in per student expenditure in the year 2005-06 painted a dismal picture. The highest being Kerala, the State that spearheaded the Universal literacy movement in the country spends Rs. 1000 per student; as the figures go from bad to worse with the lowest being Uttar Pradesh spending a measly Rs 483 per child per year. So can it be said that funding is the issue with government schools? Clearly not. It is one of utilization of these funds.
There has, unfortunately come into existence, a big class and caste-divide coupled with a rural-urban divide in education, in terms of facilities and quality, which has serious social consequences and could lead to social upheaval. Schools in backward rural and tribal areas are the most neglected, and the standard of teaching deplorable. Even in other areas, schools to which children of the underprivileged have access are run by the State or local authorities. By and large, these have a poor record of performance. The most glaring of the problems with government-run schools is that of infrastructure. Poorly maintained buildings, dilapidated classrooms, ill-equipped libraries and laboratories, lack of sanitation facilities and even drinking water are issues that the students grapple with everyday. Availability of qualified teachers and the student-teacher ratio is another tale to tell. The curriculum and teaching methodologies stand obsolete and outdated, with the emphasis being on rote-learning and merely developing reading and writing skills instead of holistic education. Lack of vocational training and non-availability of such courses renders students with barely any employable skills at the end of their schooling. These factors, coupled with other social circumstances have lead to alarmingly high dropout rates in the country. Most schools are miles away and largely inaccessible to the students. While noting that adequate number of elementary schools is to be found at a “reasonable distance from habitations”, the ministry admits in its website that this is not the case with regard to secondary schools and colleges. The gross enrolment rate for elementary education in 2003-04 was 85 percent, but for secondary education, the enrolment figure stood at 39 percent. Figures put out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of School Education and Literacy indicate that as many as two-thirds of those eligible for secondary and senior secondary education remain outside the school system today. These high rates of school dropouts as a result, lead to the ineffectiveness of the reservation policy in institutes of higher education.
Complete privatisation of education is certainly not the answer. It would only drive costs of education or the whole of society higher up and cannot possibly enhance accessibility of schools substantially. The option of securing seats under the reserved category for the economically weaker students in private schools may seem like an inviting option at first glance but neither does it solve the problem of high costs of educating children, nor does it respond to the dire need for schools in rural areas. Providing free education to children belonging to this category is a policy which private schools are in disagreement with. A system in which the schools are owned by the government but managed and operated by the private sector is a workable alternative. The government could bear the costs of running the institution, with suitable incentives to the private players willing to invest in such a venture (possibly in the form of tax benefits to the private organisation); while the management and operation of the school would be in the hands of the private organisation/establishment. While this would ensure an exponential increase in the quality of education that is accessible to the masses, but it may drive up the government’s expenditure on education. However, a public-private partnership in education is the most suitable scenario to check corruption, ensure efficiency and proper utilisation of allocated funds.
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