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Towards a level playing field in K-12 education

EducationWorld August 2021 | Expert Comment

If government can provide a children’s education allowance (DBT) of Rs.2,250 per month per child to all Central government employees, why can’t it do the same for children of the poor? writes Geeta Kingdon

The Covid-19 pandemic has beamed a spotlight on the extent of private-public school inequality and its tragic consequences. In the Covid period, access to education has become highly unequal between digital haves and have-nots. This digital divide is correlated with economic status and the private and government/public schools divide. It has important lessons for education policy, which should create a level playing field for children of poor and middle class households.

The latest National Sample Survey (2017-18) with data on access to Internet connectivity confirms that access is heavily dependent upon whether children are in the country’s top or bottom income quartiles. It indicates that in the 10-14 year age group, a mere 8 percent of children in bottom income quartile households have Internet connectivity as against 51 percent in top quartile households. In the 15-19 age group, the difference is an even higher 46 percentage points, although the private/public school difference in Internet connectivity is less stark (21 percentage points). The digital divide is so wide because few government school children have access to digital devices.
Private schools are more likely to have installed computers and trained ICT (information communication technologies) teachers who quickly trained other teachers after imposition of Covid lockdown of March 2020. As a result, many private schools have been able to provide online education through Zoom and Google Meet video technologies. Government schools are at a disadvantage because very few students have Internet connectivity and digital devices at home, and schools also are less likely to have computers and computer teachers.
Understandably, the Central and state governments are embarrassed by such glaring inequality in education, particularly when it is highlighted in the media. Their response is interesting, varied and often bizarre. To maintain a semblance of equality between public and private schools, some state governments have resorted to forcing competitive budget private schools to shut down on one excuse or another, to leave children no option but to return to government schools. Others are directing private schools not to run online classes so the failure of public schools to provide online education is not so starkly apparent.

This glaring digital divide with the poor majority deprived of online learning has massive implications for inequality which is likely to widen with time as hybrid, blended teaching-learning becomes the new normal. The big question for education policy-makers is how to redress this inequality, and equalise the life chances of poor children through improving government schools. Instead of a perverse interpretation of equality that tries to level down schools for the better-off, a more constructive approach would be to improve access of children of low-income households to digitally-enabled schools.

One powerful way would be to give every poor household a direct benefit transfer (DBT) income for schooling. This will enable parents to choose tech-savvy schools — including private schools if they wish — and to purchase digital devices for children to learn from home.
Currently, government’s per-pupil expenditure in public elementary schools according to latest available data (2017-18) is above Rs.2,500 per month, in some states above Rs.4,000 per month, and in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, over Rs.5,000. Conversely, tuition fees paid by parents of private unaided schools averaged a mere Rs.1,460 per month based on NSS 2017-18 data. This is because private schools pay teacher and staff a fraction of salaries paid by government schools. NSS also reveals that 90.4 percent of private school children paid less than Rs.1,500 per month and 94.2 percent less than Rs.2,000 per month. In other words, a smaller amount than government’s per-pupil expenditure in public schools would be sufficient to enable poor households to provide their children education of their choice.

While s.12 (1) (c) of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, attempts to redress educational inequality by making it obligatory for private schools to reserve 25 percent capacity in elementary classes for poor children in return for reimbursement by the state, this provision hasn’t been effectively implemented for various reasons. Among them: many well-off and ineligible children are grabbing this benefit; states are not reimbursing private schools under the Act; the Act exempts minority schools so it is anti-Hindu, etc. Indeed the draft National Education Policy (para 8.4.2) recommended deletion of s.12 (1) (c), though NEP 2020 doesn’t incorporate this recommendation.

The Covid pandemic has exposed glaring inequalities in India’s K-12 education system. Therefore, the government needs to seriously consider a DBT education-funding programme for low-income households to multiply parental choice. If government can provide a children’s education allowance (DBT) of Rs.2,250 per month per child to all Central government employees, why can’t it do the same for children of the poor? This has become necessary to prevent deepening inequality in education in the post-pandemic digital world.

(Geeta Gandhi Kingdon is professor, Institute of Education, University College London and president, City Montessori School, Lucknow)

Other articles by Geeta Kingdon: 

Over-politicised teachers wrecking public education – Geeta Gandhi Kingdon

Towards a level playing field in K-12 education

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