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Direct cash transfer to poor students? Private interest 'masked' as policy critique

By Sandeep Pandey, Praveen Srivastava*
Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, Professor of Education Economics at University College London and President of City Montessori School Lucknow, in a critique of the draft New Education Policy (NEP) has identified poor school and teacher accountability as the main cause of learning crisis in public schools. She has advocated Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to parents to enable them to have the purchasing power to hold the schools accountable.
She is against increase in education budget citing a lavish pupil teacher ratio of 12 and expenditure of Rs 51,917 per pupil on teacher salary in elementary public schools. She is obviously promoting the interest of private, so-called unaided schools, over public schools which is understandable as she heads the largest chain of private school CMS in Lucknow. However, this is clearly in conflict with her role as an academic who is supposed to be working for public interest.
The narrative around DBT is easy to sell as the ruling government claims to have transferred benefits with reduced corruption in many of the centrally sponsored schemes. But is the same model applicable in the field of education? At least research disagrees with this logic.
A study conducted in 2018 in East Delhi with 800 households in low-income neighbourhoods finds no or negative impact of such transfers/vouchers in the learning level of the students. The results of the study are consistent with the studies conducted prior to this study.
Suggestion by the author is feeble as it ignores the socio-political realities surrounding the education system. The problem of our primary schooling is because of the different type of schools for children from different types of backgrounds, thus differentiating childhood based on their socio-economic backgrounds.
Geeta Gandhi repeats the gross mistake of not keeping the child at the centre of education policy and misses out on the importance of equity, accessibility, quality and affordability to let children have equal opportunity.
She fails to mention, and so does NEP, that the only model which has succeeded in achieving universalisation of primary education around the world is the Common School System, which is run, funded and regulated by government, and in India is a 1968 Kothari Commission recommendation.
Geeta Gandhi thinks government cannot play all the roles of policy maker, operator, assessor and regulator of schools. However, it is the same government which runs good quality Kendriya and Navodaya Vidyalayas and world class higher educational institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), All-India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMSs), Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and various National Law Universities (NLUs).
Hence by advancing a flawed logic she is trying to belittle the public schools. Around 65 percent children still attend public schools and to propose a solution which only focuses on the population which is ready to make a shift to private schools will be naive at multiple levels.
Deeper look at her suggestion also raises fundamental questions about the author's interest in pushing the interest of the private schools and catering to the interest of only privileged children. In fact, the private schools can be directly held responsible for the deterioration in quality of government schools as slowly the children of ruling elites made a switch from government to private schools.
Another important piece of information missing from Geeta Gandhi's article and NEP is the 2015 Allahabad High Court judgement of Justice Sudhir Agrawal, which sought to make it mandatory for everyone receiving a government salary to send their children to government schools.
Implementation of this judgement, to which the Uttar Pradesh government has turned a blind eye so far, could be a step in the direction of moving towards common school system and an effective remedy to the learning crisis that Geeta Gandhi is alluding to in her article. But this will wean away significant section of her clients.
Geeta Gandhi Kingdon
Except for some elite urban schools, most private schools, especially in rural areas, are known to run mass copying rackets. Students can pass their Board examinations in exchange for a certain sum of money which is divided between the school management and the education department officials. The NEP too ignores this widespread phenomenon, especially in north India, and avoids making any suggestion for elimination of this aberration.
Geeta Gandhi is an advocate of DBT. Then why is her school not admitting children under section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 which offers at least 25% seats for free education from classes I to VIII to children of disadvantaged groups and weaker sections with their fees to be paid by the government directly to the school?
Segregation in the current schooling system is conspicuous. To deal with same, abovementioned section was provided for in the RTE Act at the entry-level. Even a simple Google search on violation of the RTE Act brings it to the notice that her own school has not been admitting children under this provision.
CMS has admitted 13 children because of a court order in 2015-16 and two on its own in 2018-19 out of 31, 55, 296 and 270 admissions ordered by the basic education department in 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively, implying a compliance of only 2.3% of the admission orders. And these number of admissions ordered are nowhere near the standard 25% prescribed by the law. Curiously Geeta Gandhi talks about unaccountability of the public schools in her article!
If CMS would have honoured all the abovementioned admissions it would have gained Rs 35,20,800 as direct transfer from the government in the academic year 2018-19 towards the fees of these children. Hence it is clear that it is not really the DBT that CMS is interested in. It simply doesn't want underprivileged children to sit beside the children from elite class. It is crass discrimination against the poor.
There are other egregious examples of alleged unaccountability behaviour of CMS. Some of its branches are said to be running without certificates of land from revenue department and no objection certificates from education department on encroached lands. There are pending demolition orders against its Indira Nagar and Mahanagar branches and a court case pending against its Jopling Road branch for the last over 25 years.
CMS authorities were charged for reportedly running a "bank" from its Chowk branch offering 12-13% interest on deposits. While the public schools may be laggards when it comes to quality of teaching-learning, competitive schools like CMS create undue pressure on students leading to suicides at times. A student of class IX of Gomti Nagar branch committed suicide because of "unreasonable" academic demands of CMS.
One reason for abrasive competitiveness in private schools is the infiltration of these schools by coaching institutions and CMS is no exception to this. The NEP doesn't offer any convincing solution to the menace of coaching institutions. There is probably no government school which is run with so many violations of rules and laws as CMS branches.
The only model which has succeeded in achieving universalisation of primary education around the world is the Common School System
India spends only 4.6% of its Gross Domestic Product on education, whereas Kothari Commission recommendation and a global standard spent by other countries is 6%. To argue to not increase India's expenditure on education is a prescription to deny large number of underprivileged children especially from rural areas any decent quality of education or any education at all.
By quoting average figures of pupil-teacher ratio or the expenditure per pupil Geeta Gandhi is masking the large number of schools where a single teacher may be handling more than one class simultaneously in her classroom in complete violation of norms of pupil-teacher ratio under the RTE Act.
Geeta Gandhi's attempt to defend the indefensible in the garb of an academic have come a cropper. She cannot be in London and Lucknow at the same time, ideologically speaking.
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*Sandeep Pandey is Magsasay Award winning academic and activist, Praveen Srivastava teaches at Queen's College, Lucknow. Ishu Gupta, researcher at IIM-Ahmedabad has providing useful feedback. Contacts: ashaashram@yahoo.com, pks123rs@yahoo.com

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