“The size of the library must be 14m x 8m and it must stock a minimum of 1,500 books.”
“The head of the school must hold staff meeting at least once a month, review the work done during the month and assess the progress of the pupils.”
“The head of the school should have a Master’s degree and a degree in education, and at least 8 years of teaching experience or 5 years of administrative experience in a recognised high school.”
These are some of the sample rules if an Indian school is to be affiliated with our central board of education. According to the first rule, we don’t have to care about what sort of books we stock in a school library, we must be concerned about its size. According to the last rule, our revered ex-President APJ Abdul Kalam will not be eligible to run a school, if he chooses to set one up. Forget about running—he won’t even be eligible to teach—as he does not have a degree in education.
We can be sarcastic about rules. We can make fun of them. But for an entrepreneur who wants to set up a school, the outcome is not funny. The affiliation rulebook for CBSE board is 89-page thick. You need more than 50 different government permissions to set up a school. There are multiple approvals you have to take from the land office, fire-safety office, tax department, local municipality, state education board and, of course, the central education board. As far as education is concerned, the Licence Raj has not really ended in our country.
These rules reflect our society’s curious obsession about input rather than output. It displays a Soviet-style mindset that quality can be controlled by central diktat. Well, we all know about the shoddy consumer goods that the former Soviet Union produced. And we, of course, know about the army of educated, yet unemployable youths that Indian schools and colleges churn out.
It is not difficult to see the parallel. Excessive regulation and micromanagement do not result in quality. In global tests like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study), which benchmark school students in various countries, India languishes at the very bottom. Surely, that should tell us something about the quality about our so-called best schools?
So, what’s the solution? Nothing complicated—we don’t need a PhD thesis or a committee of educationists discussing for years to solve this. It’s simple—we must incentivise organisations to provide quality service, rather than issuing detailed instructions. Most firms try to provide good service because they would otherwise lose customers and money. A bank, or a telecom company, does not have a detailed recruitment guideline specifying the qualification to recruit their CEO. They have no guideline related to sizes of the offices and meeting rooms. They convene meetings when they are needed—which is more frequently than once a month. Those private organisations work far more efficiently than schools. They respond to changes much better. They have to be in sync with the times, otherwise they will perish.
Why can’t we let our schools also function that way? Why can’t our private schools be judged by results, rather than by the size of classrooms? Why do we need to micromanage the size of the library when we should assess reading skills? Why do we need to specify the qualifications of a maths teacher when we should evaluate the maths scores of her students? If a school does well, parents would naturally send their children there. If a school does not produce results, it will lose students and will close down. The CBSE does not need to do the job, the market will.
I understand there are some problems with the results-driven approach. First, this must go hand-in-hand with examination reforms. Our exams, as they currently stand, do not test the right skills.
Second, we must not assess only the final results, but year-on-year improvements. A school with reputation built over years tends to get good students—so they produce good results. We must have a measure to find out the value-addition over the years. This could simply be done by a standardised test conducted every two years (Class III, Class V and so on) and observing the incremental change. In the US, various states have their own standardised tests (for example, California STAR tests) by which they assess the improvement in their children every year.
Finally, a market-driven approach must not exclude poorer sections of the society. At the same time, private schools must be allowed to charge everybody based on their quality and cost structure. The solution is for the government to provide direct cash transfer to the parents of poorer students and reimbursing them for the cost of education. The invisible hand of the market works better than the heavy-handedness of the government.
By Arghya Banerjee
The author is founder, The Levelfield School, Suri, Birbhum, West Bengal.
Views are personal