I grew up in a small town called Hisar in Haryana. My father was a Professor at Haryana Agricultural University and I did most of my schooling at Campus School. As the name suggests, the school was meant for the children of University staff.
I left Hisar after my 10th boards. On trips back to Hisar to see family I would drop in for a chat with my school teachers. Then my family left Hisar and I never went back until recently the internet brought some of my old school mates together. On this trip to India I went back to Hisar and to Campus School after more than 20 years. It was quite a trip down memory lane.
Within hours of our arrival in Hisar, we went to see our old school. I didn’t know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The school was in ruins. Every spot that held a cherished memory of my childhood was now overgrown with weeds or in complete disrepair. It looked like something that was at the end of its natural life and should be put out of its misery. But in reality, the school had more than five times the number of students it had when I was there!
The playgrounds were all overgrown. The classrooms were falling apart. I met a few of my old teachers who lamented the state of the school. Over-stuffed with students, no funds for maintenance, interference in teacher appointments – the school was no longer the best school in Hisar. It was among the worst. University staff – those who could afford it – were sending their children to better schools outside the University.
But come to think of it, why should I be surprised about how the school turned out. It is after all a government school. It is funded by the University, which is funded by the Haryana state government. Like any institution funded by the government it would have been under-funded while having no control of fees. The use of those funds, wherever there was discretion involved, would have seen outside interference if not downright corruption. Teacher appointments would have been based upon many considerations other than competence. Ditto, teacher performance management. Slowly, the parents who cared would have pulled their children out and sent them to schools that were further away, but offered a better education. As the quality of students dropped, results would have dropped, sending the school into a tailspin.
If you read this blog, you know that I am a strong proponent of the power of markets and private enterprise. I think that it is great that there are so many private schools and colleges opening up in India. They are much needed. Our ‘population dividend’ is useless unless we have a healthy and educated workforce.
But private schools and market forces are not going to fix primary education in India. Gurcharan Das has an interesting article on the subject. Some of the data he presents is worth reproducing here:
The Kremer-Murlidharan study shows that one out of four teachers is absent from our state primary schools and of those present one out of two is not teaching.
And another one,
Today, the government the Centre and states together spends on an average Rs 4,000 per child per year on primary education. Headmasters confirm that a child can get a decent education for Rs 4,000.
This last quote is quite interesting. It raises the delicious free-market possibility of a ‘school voucher system’. The school voucher system has strong support from many economists (Milton Friedman first suggested it) and Republicans in the US and is actually being implemented in a few states to mixed results. Basically, the way it works is that the government issues vouchers to people for their children’s education. Parents can take their children to any school and use the vouchers to pay the school fees. Good schools will attract more students, bad schools won’t and basically, the market will decide which schools deserve to thrive. Since the vouchers would work at private schools also, the system would incentivize schools to offer higher quality education to attract more students and be able to raise fees.
Obviously, this kind of a system would never work in India. Like 80% of our socially targeted spending, it would never reach the beneficiary. We have no option but to make our government schools work. They serve sections of the society – rural, poor – where the difference that education makes is great. The big question is how?
Anyone interested in a more in-depth study on education in developing countries will find this interesting.
Also, on my trip to Hisar I took this photo.
They clearly haven’t repainted in the 20 years I’ve not visited, but if you look closely at the map of HAU you’ll find something interesting – just the way it was when I left 20 years ago. The legend at the bottom ‘You are here’ appears without any arrow to indicate where you are on the map!
Some things are meant to stay the way they are!