who knows even a little bit about school education in
India knows that it is largely about exclusion. Only
a tiny minority of children in our country get anything
resembling a decent schooling – the rest are either
excluded altogether, or provided very poor quality education
with weak infrastructure and inadequate pedagogic attention,
which in turn encourages high rates of dropout.
As with so much else in Indian society, the reasons
for such exclusion are dominantly, but not exclusively
economic. Of course the poor everywhere are adversely
affected, because they cannot afford expensive private
schools and must suffer whatever conditions prevail
in government-run schools in their areas of residence.
Those living in backward regions are affected because
they often simply do not have school near enough for
the children to attend regularly. But in addition, a
wide range of various forms of social discrimination
operate to exclude children from particular castes of
communities, or linguistic categories, or other groups,
even when the schooling is ostensibly open to all.
The sheer extent of the exclusion from schooling is
evident from the official data relating to schooling.
Of around 200 million children in the age-group 6-14
years, 30 million never enrol at all. Of those who do
join school, 36 per cent drop out at the primary stage,
by Class 5. By Class 8 the drop out rate is 52 per cent.
This means that less than half of the children under
14 years actually get the minimum schooling of 8 years
mandated by the Constitution.
Some of this is because the physical infrastructure
for schooling is still completely inadequate in our
country. Around 30 per cent of our villages do not have
a primary school within the village; another 16 per
cent do not have one within 3 km of the village. Even
in urban areas, there are many slum settlements without
access to schools. One-fifth of the primary schools
in India function without a proper building; another
one-fifth operate out of only one room for all the five
classes, and many do not have electricity connections.
Facilities such as separate toilets for girls and boys
and clean drinking water are rare.
Even where the physical infrastructure is better, teachers
in many parts of the country have to deal with huge
and multi-grade classes. They are often forced to teach
subjects for which they are pedagogically not prepared,
with only the barest minimum of basic teaching aids.
They have to deal with syllabi which are out of tune
with their students' experienced reality and aspirations.
So it is not particularly surprising that the quality
of education in such circumstances in sub-standard.
Clearly, substantially increased public spending in
such areas is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition
for improving the quality of education.
But of course that is still not the only reason for
exclusion, or for having to experience poor quality
education. It will be no surprise to any reader that
most of the children excluded from schooling are poor,
or that the majority of them are girls, or that they
are dominantly from marginalised and deprived social
groups such as Dalits, tribals, backward castes and
certain religious minorities. Explicit and implicit
social discrimination remains a potent factor in depriving
such children of good education.
In this matter of discrimination, private schools in
India (except for a few run by certain charitable organisations
and well-meaning NGOs) have typically been even worse
than government run schools. Quite apart from anecdotal
evidence, there is confirmation of this from the spate
of legal judgements condemning various private schools
in the major metros for not conforming to the required
criteria of admission, so as to exclude children from
Given all this, it is quite remarkable to find that
proponents of a voucher system for school education
are claiming that the purpose of a such a scheme is
"to empower poor students so that they can attend a
school of their choice." A voucher system is essentially
one whereby parents are allowed to choose the school
to which they send their children (private or government)
and get reimbursed for the expenses partly or fully
by the government.
Votaries of this scheme have been getting louder in
recent times. The typical arguments presented in favour
of this scheme are that it would lead to increased choice
for parents and students, especially among the poor,
and it would force schools to improve quality in the
competition to attract students. It is argued that such
a scheme would therefore deal with both the problems
of poor quality and limited access that currently plague
Such schemes have been tried in certain states of the
US, as well as in modified form in other countries.
In some developing countries, because of shortage of
funds, vouchers are not supplied to all children but
to a subset (in Bangladesh to girls from defined poor
families; in Colombia through a random allocation to
thirty per cent of students).
Even votaries of the system admit that it presumes a
great deal of institutional capacity. Obviously, such
schemes only make sense when there are sufficient schools
in the local area to create a real possibility of "choice";
when it is possible for parents and children to make
informed judgements about quality on the basis of easily
accessible information; when schools are not allowed
to discriminate between students on non-financial grounds;
and so on.
Even when such conditions do exist, the actual experience
with vouchers has been mixed at best, with varying assessments
of whether there has been improvement in school quality
and access as a result. But it should be completely
obvious that where such conditions do not exist – which
is clearly the case in most of India - the chances are
that a voucher scheme would simply shift resources away
from a public education system that is already desperately
underfunded, and continue to exclude disadvantaged children.
In any case, as we have seen, given the overall context
of social discrimination, private schools in India will
continue to exclude children from deprived and marginalised
sections unless they are forced to do so. The voucher
system has no element of compulsion for schools, only
supposedly "free choice" for all.
The basic thrust of government education spending today
must surely be to ensure that all children have access
to government schools, and to raise the quality of these
schools. The issue of access of poor and disadvantaged
children can be addressed more comprehensively through
common schooling in both public and private institutions.
The proposal in an earlier draft of the Right to Education
Bill which is yet to be placed in Parliament, of forcing
private schools to admit 25 per cent of the students
from "weaker sections", to be funded by the government,
was a step in this direction. It is interesting that
those who are so keen on the voucher system, had bitterly
opposed that particular provision.
A further assumption made by proponents of vouchers
is that private schools are necessarily, or generally,
better than government schools. It is true that in the
recent Prathama study of schooling in different states,
private schools appear to score better in terms of test
results of children, than neighbouring government schools.
Yet the same study finds higher test scores of children
in government schools in West Bengal, with hardly any
private schools, than in private schools in UP, which
are coming up rapidly and now account for 30 per cent
of schools. This could even suggest that the main effect
of unregulated expansion of private schools is to worsen
the government school system.
The problem of quality in our schools is complex and
multi-dimensional, related to resources and to a range
of institutional features. It is far too simplistic
to believe that it can be dealt with merely by increasing
competition across schools. A voucher system would not
only divert much-needed resources, it would also divert
our attention from addressing the real issues involved
in improving quality in school education.