Make government schools accountable

Our education system doesn’t need more money, or more infrastructure or guest teachers or remedial classes, it needs internal governance and accountability

The recent ASER report on the state of education in India drives further a troubling fact about the public school system—more than ever before, parents are moving their children from government schools to private schools. Indeed, ASER researchers found that the proportion of students aged 6-14 in rural areas enrolled in private schools has grown from 22% in 2009 to 31% in 2014. In many states, over 50% of the children are now opting for private schools. Is the public school system headed towards being completely irrelevant? Are we really, as a country, delivering on Right to Education? What’s driving the switch to the private system? Why are private schools better than government schools? One hypothesis is that private schools are better funded and have more to spend on delivering the curriculum. While intuitive, this conclusion does not hold up.

Simply dividing the education budget for any state by the number of children enrolled in government schools will indicate that the education cost per child in the government system is in the range of Rs 1,500-2,500 per month. Of course, this is a simplistic assessment; the state also uses the education budget to do many other things such as policy-making, policy compliance, regulatory compliance and assessments. However, it would be safe to presume that those costs are not the bulk of the expenditure of the education system.

Even if we take the lower end of the scale—R1,500 per child per month—there is more money in government schools than many affordable private schools, where fees range from R200 per month to R1,000 per month. Data suggests that, despite less money per child and lower costs overall, these affordable private schools are actually able to provide better education than government schools.

So, if it’s not money, what is it? Why is it that a teacher in an affordable private school, getting paid less than Rs 10,000 a month, is able to provide a better quality of education than a teacher in a government school who earns a minimum of Rs 25,000 a month? It’s possible to blame the government school learning situation on outside factors. For example, the disadvantaged demographics that government schools cater to or the no-detention policy they have to strictly adhere to, but these factors cannot explain everything.

The answer lies in accountability. There is a lack of accountability placed on the government school system and a lack of accountability for each individual within it. Unlike private schools, in the government school system, it’s next to impossible to fire someone for poor performance. You cannot penalise someone for absenteeism, for poor performing kids. Forget penalisation, today these metrics are not even measured. Similarly, you can’t reward someone for consistently putting in more effort to solve problems and ensure kids learn. Salaries aren’t linked to an individual’s work output. Once you have a government job, you know you will keep it, till you retire.

So, in this environment, where you can’t reward someone for doing well, or move them on for doing poorly, what can we do to improve performance? What makes government systems perform? Why do mid-day meals still get served in every school? Why classrooms, toilets and walls are still getting built over time?

Careful observation and experience indicates a few things that do work in such environments.

Overwhelmingly, it is seen that what gets measured, observed and talked about, gets done. If people feel that they will be measured by their record on creating school infrastructure and delivering student schemes, then they will place the emphasis on that. On the other hand, if it’s their effort to improve academic outcomes within schools that is seen, measured and praised, then that will become their focus.

What government systems need today are a number of mechanisms that shift the emphasis from the former towards the latter. In schools and across the system, we need academic monitoring, rather than monitoring of infrastructure and schemes. We need to invest in competency/learning assessments of every child, class and school—and track these over time—not as a measure of the child but as a measure of the teacher, the principal, the block officer and the system.

Imagine if meetings from the highest to the lowest level of the education system were focused on school academics and how to ensure their quality, and these topics were also strongly reflected in performance reviews. Imagine if when the BEEO visited a school, he asked how the studying is going and not just if the mid-day meal got served. Imagine a Principal Secretary who got monthly or quarterly school-by-school academic reports from every school. The vocabulary of the organisation would be different. And the needle would certainly move.
Achieving such a shift will require three things.

One, a relentless top-down focus on the academic agenda and accountability. The ask for academic output needs to start from the chief minister to the education minister to the Principal Secretary and then trickle down all the way to schools. The ask needs to be consistent and persistent—weekly, monthly, quarterly meetings focusing only on this topic.

Two, a significantly more data-driven approach to accountability is needed. Experience indicates that it will not be enough to ask for anecdotal data from the field to understand whether learning is effective. It’s only when we collect and discuss data teacher-by-teacher, class-by-class and school-by-school that real accountability is felt and the action begins. With technology, connectivity and smart devices becoming more ubiquitous, this vision is very much possible.

Three, it will require perseverance. Forcing teachers to teach in the tough environments (poor infrastructure, remote schools) and demographics (children of migrant parents with no academic support at home) of a public school is not easy. Teachers and headmasters represent a large vote bank. They are used to working in a certain way. The political leadership will have to deal with the short-term prospect of displeasing this voter group in the hope of winning the longer-term trust of a much larger one—the end-beneficiaries.

The most critical thing our education system needs today is not more money. It’s neither external CSR support for more infrastructure, more guest teachers or more remedial classes. They create parallel mechanisms assuming the existing ones just cannot work. Our education system needs internal governance. It needs accountability.

Arindam Bhattacharya is managing director, BCG India. Seema Bansal is director of BCG India’s Social Impact and Public Sector practice

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