Elementary education: UPA’s lost opportunity

Apr 1, 2014, 06.35AM IST

(Elementary education got…)

Avinash Alok

Elementary education got some attention for the first time in the history of independent India during the last 10 years of UPA rule. But despite the intent to move forward, the end result is suboptimal to say the least.

Fund allocation to elementary education was directly linked to revenue generated in the economy by imposing a 2% cess on each category of tax: corporate, income, excise, customs and service tax. It was a unique exercise to generate revenue for public expenditure on education: Rs5,010 crore toRs30,841 crore between 2004-05 and 2012-13. This money finances the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the midday meal scheme. Budgetary allocation also increased in this period.

The expenditure on elementary education, from the central pool, has increased from Rs7,689 crore in 2004-05 toRs37,150 crore proposed in the 2013-14 Budget. Total expenditure on elementary education (including states and UTs) between 2004-05 and 2012-13 increased almost four times fromRs41,900 crore to Rs1,47,000 crore. The expenditure from the central pool on elementary education is planned while it is the states' responsibility to maintain and run schools.

Did this increase in allocation reflect achange in the elementary education landscape of rural India? The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser), released in January, says that while enrolment and infrastructure have improved, learning outcomes have been stagnant or worsening. The report finds that enrolment in rural private schools has increased from around 17% in 2005 to 29% in 2013.

Does increase in enrolment in private rural schools bode well for the future of elementary education in India?

Studies over the years to compare the efficiency of private and government schools in rural India have found that after accounting for socioeconomic status (educated vs illiterate parents), there is little difference in learning outcomes of students in these schools.

These studies on private vs government schools are also clear that private schools are more cost-effective. A World Bank study in 2009 in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh found that private school teachers get seven to eight times lower pay than government school teachers. Another study, done by the Azim Premji Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, found that average expenditure per student in private schools was only one-third. This study also found private schools were more productive and efficient. But the study also concluded that there is no significant difference in learning outcomes in private and government schools.

Can cost-effectiveness be an important reason for going private in the elementary education space in the future if it does not result in achieving the objective of improvement in learning outcomes? The current status of private and government schools in rural India is unlikely to change the outcome.

Primary education for the poor, whether in rural or urban India, was never given its due for far too long to get things back on track in a hurry. The emphasis of the central government in the last 10 years has been on creating infrastructure. But the lack of emphasis on learning outcomes has led to a massive waste of resources.

Karthik Muralidharan, professor at the University of California, San Diego, a noted expert on primary education in India, writes in Ideas for India that "private schools may have a pedagogy problem but public schools have both a pedagogy and governance problem".

The governance problem is widespread. Besides inefficiency in administration, there is also the issue of corruption. All these lead to an inflated per-student cost on the system.

 So, there is clearly no "either/or" solution for primary education in rural India. Rather, there is a need to change focus. If, say, half the students in Class Vare unable to read, write and do simple numerical calculations, what is the point in finishing the syllabus for ahigher class — also, given that, generally, there are two classrooms to accommodate five classes and just 1-2 teachers! Instead, the focus should be on developing skills among students.

While there has been increased allocation for elementary education in the last decade, the lack of efficiency in use of funds and lack of focus on learning outcomes make the impact less than desirable. And, like in other areas, inefficiency in governance lets the whole system down.

The writer works for an NGO