The significance of quality education for the development and growth of any economy is well established. India, however, is too preoccupied with improving its basic literacy and enrolment levels to pay attention to quality of its school education.
In 2011 Census, the literacy rate was 74.04%, growing at 9.21% from 2001 Census. At this rate India would have 80.9% literacy level in 2021 - that is, 19% Indians would still be illiterate in 2021. As for enrolment, in 2018, 28.8%, 15.6% and 8.1% children at the age of 3, 4 and 5 years, respectively, were "not enrolled anywhere" in rural India, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of 2019, released in January 2020. "Anywhere" mean 'Anganwadi', private pre-school, or any school.
For more than a decade, the ASERs have documented the poor quality of education. Here are some of the lesser discussed factors responsible for it.
Relying on ad hoc teachers for schooling
On May 11, 2020, a group of 'shiksha mitra' - ad hoc, para-teachers or non-regular government teachers - moved the Supreme Court (SC) against the Allahabad High Court's verdict confirming the state government's decision of keeping 60% cut-off marks in the written examination held for recruiting 69,000 assistant teachers.
According to Sushil Pandey, president of a UP teachers' association, these ad hoc teachers want their recruitment irrespective of marks scored in the written exam. The logic being they are trained teachers with years of experience in teaching primary (Class I to V) and upper primary (Class VI to VIII) students, some as long as 20 years. About 23,000 of them have cleared the Uttar Pradesh Teacher Eligibility Test (UPTET) as well.
Their jobs were regularised in 2014 but the Allahabad High Court struck it down for non-transparency in their appointment in the first place - no public advertisements, no written exams, etc. They reverted back to being ad hoc teachers with a consolidated pay (honorarium) of Rs 10,000 per month. The state was asked to devise a proper recruitment policy, which it did in 2017, and conducted the written exam in 2019.
They number 1.75 lakh and constitute 29% of all primary and upper primary teachers in Uttar Pradesh (6 lakh). Total vacancy stands at 1.5 lakh (including 69,000 posts for which exam was conducted in the first round).
Patna witnessed a prolonged hunger strike by "niyojit shikshak" - ad hoc, para-teachers, or non-regular government teachers - that continued into April when the entire country was locked down. They were demanding equal-pay-for-equal-work and against the government's crackdown for not attending classes or exam duties during the strike.
They number 4.1 lakh and constitute 88.4% of total primary and upper primary teachers in Bihar (4.64 lakh), according to Manoj Kumar, a teachers' association leader. They were regularised in 2015 but were given lower pay (Rs 25,000-30,000 per month) as against regular government teachers (over Rs 40,000 at entry-level). The SC had refused to entertain their plea for equal pay in 2019, letting the state decide the matter. The state said it had no funds.
In the past two years, para-teachers from West Bengal and Jharkhand have also been on strike on multiple occasions, demanding better pay and regularisation of their jobs. West Bengal para-teachers number 39,000 or 18.5% of the total, are paid Rs 8,500-11,000 a month while regular government teachers get more than Rs 33,500 at entry-level. In Jharkhand, they (shiksha mitra) number 67,000, and are paid Rs 5,200-22,000, much less than the regular government teachers.
Ad-hoc teachers driving Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan (SSA) and RTE
Most of these para-teachers were recruited during the central government's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) drive in 2000-01, the objective of which was to implement an earlier SC order of providing free and compulsory education to children of 6-14 years. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) came in 2009 to take it forward, even though by 1999, 15 states and four union territories already had such laws.
Most of these teachers are concentrated in the backward Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand. Since their appointment was ad hoc and non-transparent, many untrained and ineligible individuals had got in at panchayat, block and district levels. This is why courts have struck down their regularisation from time to time.
Educationist Vimala Ramachandran has written how the National Committee of State Education Ministers' report of July 1999, set up to recommend an approach for Universal Elementary Education (UEE), first used the phrase 'para-teacher' and justified their induction in the run-up to the SSA at the national level. Several states, Madhya Pradesh ('Guruji'), Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan, already had such teachers by then.
In her paper "What is 'Para' about Some Teachers1?" she quoted the ministerial report: "Even after making allowance for enrolment in private unaided and unregistered private schools, the teacher shortages are very significant. It is on this account that the recruitment of para-teachers has to be considered a priority if all vacancies have to be filled up in shortest period of time. The issue of teacher/para-teacher recruitment has to be addressed by all states as the long-term implications are for the states (...) for meeting the demand for teachers in a manner that the state can afford...
"The quest for UEE as fundamental right signifies a certain sense of urgency in doing so. This urgency calls for appropriate modifications in National Policy in order to respond to local felt-needs. The recruitment of para-teachers is a step in this direction."
Such para-teachers soon spread to high schools too. For example, Bihar high schools have 11,000 guest teachers and 40,000 'niyojit shikshak' out of 54,500 teachers in all, according to Manoj Kumar mentioned earlier. Regular government teachers in high schools number only 3,500 (6.4%) of the total.
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The last study on the subject, released by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) in 2018 ("U-DISE Flash Statistics of 2016-17") says, in 2016-17 India had 89.1 lakh school teachers, out of which 11.4 lakh were contractual or part-time teachers (12.8%).
The study is based on the District Information System for Education (DISE) database of the education ministry (MHRD), filled through self-declarations that are unverified.
The graph below shows the spread of non-regular teachers across the spectrum, including private schools.
Private schooling: High fees from students, low salary to teachers
Private schools have grown phenomenally. A 2020 study by non-government Central Square Foundation used official data to map their growth, showing that by 2017, 48% school students were in private schools ("Private Schools in India").
Private schooling costs a lot.
The final report of the National Statistical Office's survey "Household Consumption Expenditure on Education, 2017-18", released in July 2020, provides a comparison for academic sessions - as reproduced below.
Long back, the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) once examined the financial accounts of 25 elite private schools of Delhi (unaided). This report was released in 2010.
The CAG report, among others, found: (i) excess fees collected to pay higher salary and allowances to teachers to match the 6th Pay Commission recommendations were not passed on to the teachers but pocketed by their societies and trusts (ii) schools claiming loss bought expensive cars (BMW, Honda Accord, Honda City, etc.) from school funds (iii) enhanced development fees were collected even when existing funds had not been exhausted (iv) salaries and arrears were paid to non-existing staff (v) did not honour 20% reservation to children from weaker sections as mandated by law etc.
This report was based on the financial statements of these elite private schools during 2006-09. The report disappeared from the CAG's website soon after.
Taking cognisance of it in 2011, the Delhi High Court (Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh and others vs Govt. of NCT of Delhi and others) lashed out at both the CAG and Delhi's education department for laxity.
About the CAG, it said "in all these years CAG has inspected only 25 schools, that too under pressure" and about the Delhi government's education department it said there was "no evidence of scrutiny of the annual accounts and other returns" nor fulfilling "its obligation to get the accounts of the unaided recognised schools duly audited".
The Delhi government has been asking private schools to refund excess fees from time to time but this is an ad hoc arrangement.
The other striking aspect of private schools include low pay, ad hoc appointments and little social security cover for their teachers.
A World Bank study of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh schools at the time (2010) found that the private schools had "seven to eight times lower teacher salaries" than the government schools in these states. Private schools also had a lower pupil-teacher ratio.
The Delhi High Court order of 2011 mentioned earlier had also red-flagged that private schools were not paying their teachers salaries and allowances at par with government schools, as claimed. It recommended setting up a regulatory mechanism for private schools.
Since private schools, particularly the un-aided, are out of regulatory oversight, there is no official data to rely on but anecdotal evidence shows that barring the very top elite schools, most private schools pay salaries comparable to the "honorarium" paid to ad hoc, para or non-regular teachers mentioned earlier. Often they are made to sign on a higher amount but paid much less; hired on one-year contract renewed with a break in continuity to pre-empt claims for regularisation and no social security cover.
Lower pay to private teachers is not unique to India.
Even in the US, a comparative study of school teachers' pay between 1996 and 2012 ("Teacher staffing and pay differences: public and private schools" published in 2014") concluded: "In general, teachers earn less than other comparable college graduates, but the difference is mitigated if they are employed in the public sector - and more so if they have union representation as well... Public sector teachers generally receive better pay than private sector teachers, even when the former are not unionised."
What about the quality of education in India's private schools?
Private schools: Do they provide better quality education?
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been highlighting poor quality of education in India for decades, in both government and private schools in rural areas.
The latest one of ASER 2019, released in January 2020, which surveyed 26 districts in 24 states, said: only 16.2% students in Class I and 50.8% in Class III could read Class I text and 41.1% students in Class I and 72.2% in Class III could recognise 2-digit numbers.
It also provided comparative abilities of students in government and private schools.
For example, about Class I students, it said 21% children of Class I in government schools could read words as compared to 46.7% children in private schools (a gap of 112%) and commented: "Is this a fair comparison - are we comparing apples with oranges? The answer is clearly no."
The report explained: (a) "a higher proportion of older children" are in Class I in private schools, compared to government schools and (b) private school students come from "relatively affluent background" and "have more educated parents" providing (c) better home learning environment.
After controlling these factors, the gap reduces significantly (from 122% to 29%). The residual gap, the report explains, is because of (d) exposure of private school students to "school-like curricula" in pre-school as against the government school students groomed "mostly in an Anganwadi centre".
Similar findings were also mentioned in earlier ASER reports. For example, ASER 2016 report compared Class III students, found a similar difference and attributed better performance of private school students to what is happening in school.
When better attention is paid to government schools, this difference disappears and the result can be dramatic.
In the past five years, the Delhi government has demonstrated that. The government schools of Delhi have been outperforming private schools in CBSE exams repeatedly because of higher resource allocation and attention to the learning environment.
Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee took note of it and said in January 2020: "Do I think that you can aspire to do better in the government system relative to the average private school? Yes. Delhi's public schools have done it. Results in the Delhi public school system, the government school systems like the municipal schools are better than the average private school in Delhi."
"Public schools" in his observation, stands for government schools, not private schools, many of which call themselves public schools.