Make education spend count! Give EWS parents a choice between govt and private schools, with coupons

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August 17, 2020 5:30 AM

Reading the latest NSSO data on household expenditure on education together with the ASER findings shows that the states that listed the worst learning outcomes had higher government school enrolment and, barring a few exceptions, tended to exhibit higher spending on private coaching.

Instead of pouring more resources into government schools, it would perhaps be better to give spending coupons to parents, to give them the choice of enrolling their wards in private schools.

NSSO data shows private coaching—excluding coaching for entrance exams—is on the decline. As per the survey for 2017-18, just a fifth of the students were availing of private coaching, compared to 26% in 2013-14. As a result, the share of general-course private coaching in household expenditure on education has shrunk from 16.5% to 12.3% in urban areas and from 14.1% to 11.2% in rural areas. A significant reason for this is perhaps the shift away from government schools towards private schools.

While ASER findings over the years clearly underscore how badly students in government schools lag their peers in private schools in terms of learning levels, NSSO’s data for 2014 shows, government-school students were spending 5-6 times more on private coaching than their private school counterparts. The mushrooming of budget private schools and the Right to Education law’s quota for EWS admissions into private schools has buoyed the shift to private schools—from a 34% share in overall school enrolment in 2014, private (both aided and unaided) schools now account for 62%; in the case of secondary and senior secondary levels, this has gone up from 44% to 61%. In the latest survey, 3.2% of parents listed saving of costs on private coaching as one of the primary reasons for preferring private schools.

Reading the latest NSSO data on household expenditure on education together with the ASER findings shows that the states that listed the worst learning outcomes had higher government school enrolment and, barring a few exceptions, tended to exhibit higher spending on private coaching. Respondents in Jharkhand and Bihar were earmarking a fourth of the total expenditure on education for private coaching, while those in the southern states, which have better learning outcomes than the pan-India figure, listed the lowest private coaching spends. But private schools—particularly the budget private schools, which are an alternative to government schools for the economically weaker classes—aren’t addressing the learning gap very effectively either.

A recent study by the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and the Omidyar Network (ON), read together with ASER findings, shows that budget private schools in rural areas had only marginally improved learning outcomes than government schools. As per CSF-ON, 35% of Grade V students in rural private schools can’t read a paragraph from a Grade II level text, and nearly 60% of them can’t do basic division. Although increasing the spend on education—this is what the new National Education Policy envisages—will help, how the government allocates this money would play a larger role in driving up learning outcomes.

Instead of pouring more resources into government schools, it would perhaps be better to give spending coupons to parents, to give them the choice of enrolling their wards in private schools. CSF-ON also calls for reimagining the regulations for budget private schools, which are forced to dedicate a big chunk of their resources to compliance on infrastructure and salaries, and are left with precious little resource to dedicate to hiring high-quality staff or adopt new pedagogical methods. Spends on education, whether by the government or the households, will have little effect without greater flexibility for schools.a

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