Indian Schools Are Failing Their Students

For the first time in more than two decades, the Indian government is conducting a comprehensive review of its education policy. The goal is to devise an approach better adapted to the “changing dynamics of the population,” namely its youthfulness, in order to make India a “knowledge superpower.”

It’s about time, because India’s education policy has gone dangerously off track since the implementation of the 2009 Right to Education Act (RTE Act). The law, which was designed to guarantee a good education to all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14, was hailed as a landmark reform. But six years on, school enrollment has hardly improved, and actual learning has sharply deteriorated.

With 41 percent of its population under the age of 19, according to the 2011 census, India is banking on the young to drive future economic growth. But its public schools — where 70 percent of all children study — are a disaster. In the 2009 PISA survey of the reading, math and science abilities of children in 74 countries, India ranked second-to-last, beating only Kyrgyzstan. Since then, it has refused to participate in the survey, and the RTE Act has only made matters worse.

Indian Schools Are Failing Their StudentsThe law required the establishment of free public schools in every neighborhood. It conditioned the licensing of private schools on minimum standards for physical infrastructure and staffing, including a ratio of pupils to teacher of no more than 30 to 1. It also required private schools — which usually perform better than public schools — to reserve at least 25 percent of their seats for disadvantaged children.

However sensible these measures may seem, they have been ineffectual at best, and sometimes counterproductive.

With school enrollment for children ages 6-14 already at about 95 percent in 2009, opening up more public schools hardly needed to be a priority. What’s more, the effort has failed, largely because few parents have wanted to send their children to untested establishments. Since the implementation of the RTE Act, total enrollment in public schools has fallen by 11.6 million students (while private school enrollment has risen by 16.4 million students). By the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year, nearly 97,000 public schools in India had 20 or fewer students.

The RTE Act’s focus on lowering pupil-to-teacher ratios and improving physical infrastructure was also misguided: International research does not support the notion that either factor consistently leads to better learning. In India, children in public schools perform no better than children in low-fee private schools, even though public schools generally have better facilities, such as playgrounds, as well as teachers with more training. The latest Annual Status of Education Report, a nationwide survey by the NGO Pratham, shows that reading proficiency, for example, has declined overall since 2008, and more so in public schools than private schools.

Worse, the RTE Act’s requirement that private schools meet certain infrastructure standards has forced thousands of low-fee schools to close down, even though such schools generally deliver better results than public schools. According to a study by the National Independent Schools Alliance in New Delhi, by early 2014, 4,331 private schools had been shut down and another 15,083 had received notice to close, displacing or threatening to displace about four million students. Absurdly, the public schools that many of these displaced children have been forced to attend do not meet the standards that forced the private schools to close down.

The RTE Act’s provisions protecting parents’ right to choose a school for their children have also been ineffectual. The law requiring private schools to set aside at least 25 percent of seats for poor and disadvantaged children calls for them to be selected by lottery and the government to reimburse the schools for students’ fees. But this measure has been difficult to implement, partly because the poor administrative capacity of many states complicates the already cumbersome task of identifying which students qualify for assistance. Some state governments have also claimed that the money would be better spent trying to improve the quality of public schools.

The RTE Act has been a failure, in other words, and ongoing discussions over a New Education Policy, which is to be drafted this month, are a chance to undo the damage. The drafting committee, comprising four former bureaucrats and one retired academic, is currently taking expert opinion and culling suggestions gathered from some 275,000 people through public consultations. Its main priority should be to recommend the enactment of a Right to Learn Act that would supersede the 2009 RTE Act and focus on improving the quality of teaching, a well-recognized factor in improving learning.

Teacher training must urgently be strengthened: Instructors themselves often do not master the material covered in even basic language and math textbooks used in primary classes. Teachers currently are hired and supervised by district education authorities; that authority must be transferred to local school management, which is better placed to assess performance.

Government approval for private schools should be awarded based not on infrastructure or student-to-teacher ratios but according to minimum standards of actual learning. Funding for public schools should be allotted on a per student basis, as opposed to a lump sum to schools regardless of student enrollment, as is the case now; this would give public schools an incentive to retain students by ensuring a quality education.

Parents must also be given more information about the performance of the various schools in their districts so they can make more considered decisions about where to send their children.

India must reorient its education policy to focus on improving students’ learning levels. Otherwise, it risks squandering the life chances of millions of children, as well as the entire country’s prospects at further economic progress.

Geeta Kingdon is chairwoman of education economics and international development at the Institute of Education, University College London.

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