Ideas

Reaping The Demographic Dividend: It’s Time To Think Outside Of The (Government School) Box

A girl in a government school. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • With the mandate the current government has, it must show bold resolve to improve primary education.

    All governments in the past, including Modi 1.0, have focussed largely on higher education.

    The current spend on each government school student, by way of fat teacher salaries, is disproportionately higher than the dividend reaped in terms of quality education.

You can also read this article in Hindi- शिक्षा के लिए सीमाओं से आगे सोचें, जनसांख्यिकी लाभांश का लाभ उठाएँ

Primary education has got a rough deal in the country right from the time of first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who preferred to focus more on higher education. Narendra Modi has done the same in his first term, ignoring the all-important elementary education but initiating many reforms to improve the quality of colleges and universities. If the latest budget is any indication, we are unlikely to witness a change in priorities. High expectations from the National Education Policy (NEP) to fix the primary school system also stand belied as it failed to suggest any big-bang reforms.

Education is listed as one of the subjects in the concurrent list. Hence, it’s a responsibility of both the central and state governments. Still, the central governments have shied away from launching initiatives to arrest the falling standards of primary school education. The last big push came in 2009 in the form of the Right to Education Act. Had the Act been framed and executed in the right manner, it could’ve changed the face of elementary education in the country, but it ended up doing more harm than good.

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Where do we go from here? The demographic data and its analysis published in the Economic Survey can prove to be very useful while framing the policy on reforming elementary school education.

India’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is expected to come out to 1.8 in the 2021 census (below the replacement level rate of 2.1 - the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from the current generation to the next). Throw in India’s skewed sex ratio to the equation and the effective TFR becomes even lower. The situation in as many as 13 major states is even more worrisome. (Those advocating for a population control Bill need to reconsider their position). The survey says that the number of schoolgoing children (age 5-14) will fall by 18.2 per cent between 2021-2041 (234 million students to 191 million) and schools per million will rise from around 6,000 (2016) to over 7,600 (2041), meaning that schools per capita will go up, assuming no new schools come up in this period.

And as is the case with TFR, changes for some states will be more drastic than others in terms of schools too.

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This has a number of policy implications. The survey talks about only one: merging or consolidating government elementary schools so that they remain viable and the need to shift focus from quantity to quality. This is not a novel idea and in fact, the New Education Policy committee has devoted quite a lot of space on how to go about this. It reasons that since we now have too many schools with small student strengths, they should be consolidated into a School Complex (at least administratively, if not feasible to do so physically). This will help them share each other’s resources and also improve governance. But neither the draft NEP nor the Economic Survey has concrete solutions to offer in terms of fixing accountability of teachers and overhauling the governance of the government schools - two of the most fundamental reasons why they are in such a terrible condition.

The Survey’s suggestion is good, but one is surprised that it stopped only at that. Indian policymakers and their advisers really need to think outside of the (government school) box. Consider the numbers. The District Information System for Education (DISE) data shows that between 2010 and 2017, enrollment in government elementary schools fell by 2.4 crore students but rose by 2.1 crore in recognised private schools.

Now, we can either focus on implementing half-hearted solutions to fix government schools, which will waste another decade or two, or, we can be realistic and focus on delivering quality education for millions of poor students via the private sector in one generation. From a purely electoral perspective, one can understand the hesitations of politicians to take on teacher unions, but no one is stopping them to directly fund poor students by Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) on the condition that they use the amount to go to any school of their choice.

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In a decade, the unions will themselves get weakened to the point of irrelevance and slowly fade away.

As far as the Budget is concerned, this DBT project can be funded by diverting money from government schools to poor children. In 41 per cent of the public schools, which had an enrollment of less than 50 students each (around four lakh schools), the government spent more than Rs 50,000 per student on teacher salaries alone. Other expenditure (like on infrastructure) is extra. If we were to spend the money via DBT (say Rs 2,000 per month and 24,000 per year, the spend on teacher salaries alone can pay for double the number of students. Instead of educating 1.2 crore students badly (average of students in these tiny schools is around 30), we can facilitate quality education for 2.4 crore students.

Now, the Survey estimates that the number of school-going children is going to come down by 18 per cent in the next two decades. This means that per child expenditure via cash transfer will keep going up without investing new money. Still, if we tie it up with inflation, that should be very much affordable as well, given modest increases in the education budget. There is no possibility of these DBTs becoming a burden. Those budget private schools, which benefit from this market of crores of new students, can be brought under a fee-regulatory Act (a contract, if you will) - think Ayushman Bharat sort of scheme for the primary education sector.

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Money is not the problem when it comes to fixing our primary education system. What is lacking is the will and proper utilisation of already available resources. It’s not that we aren’t spending enough, but we aren’t spending it wisely. It’s time the government changed that.

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