The business of education
EDUCATION: Poor parents see education as an indispensable asset and
are willing to make enormous sacrifices to educate their children.
But the government has let down the poor in spite of the
Constitutional guarantee of right to education. Its supplies have not
corresponded with the explosive demand for education today.
For example, with emphasis given on primary schools alone poor
children were not absorbed into the net of government schools after
completing Class 5. This made them reluctantly abandon government
Although the numbers of private schools and the children attending
them are still small (estimated at about 20
per cent), more and more children are leaving government schools for
A large variety of private schools have thus emerged to respond to
the parental demand for education.
Thus, on the one hand there are the inefficient and wasteful
government schools struggling for resources, and on the other are the
fee-charging one-room English medium private schools with untrained
schoolteachers. And at the other end of the spectrum are the
air-conditioned corporate schools.
Private schools, guided by the logic of the market, have begun to
sell their wares â€śto each according to oneâ€™s ability.â€ť This mushrooming
of private schools has a profound impact on society as it produces class
inequality, fractured society, freezes upward mobility thus causing
divisiveness and disharmony.
This is contrary to the function that schools have always performed -
harmonising societies and bridging the gaps among its citizens and
The trend of poor children accessing private schools has generated a
public discourse that argues that private schools are good as against
government schools which are becoming increasingly unaccountable and
The rise in the number of poor children being sent to private schools
is given as evidence that private schools are sought after by the poor.
An undercurrent of cynicism about government schools is slowly
getting solidified, leading to policy suggestions such as giving parents
vouchers so that they can choose the schools they want their children to
study in, instead of attending a non-functioning government school.
This is further justified by making a virtue of competition wherein,
in order to survive, government schools would be compelled to perform
and become accountable.
Parallels are drawn from the telecom and airlines industries to show
how efficiency was infused in these public sector institutions once they
were threatened by the opening up of the sector to more competent
It has been argued that government schools too have to face the jolt
from private players, to make them accountable.
The assumptions that inform such arguments are seldom available for
scrutiny, and thus their veracity has not been questioned. It must be
considered that sending their children to private schools is not the
first option for poor parents as they have to make immense sacrifices to
pay the school fees and other charges.
The outcome of the debate that private schools are viable because
parents are seeking them as against government schools has far reaching
consequences for the state and its role in protecting child rights. More
than anything else the entire debate functions to systematically augment
the de-legitimisation of government schools.
Most private schools in the country today have emerged as commercial
ventures, small or big, successful or limping.
This scenario is vastly different from the private schools which had
earlier emerged to serve the educational needs of children and were
non-profit organisations and charitable trusts that depended on state
Now, in a market framework, services are offered to those children
who can buy education. Like any other product, it is now packaged, and
comes with children in proper school uniform, English medium education,
competition and home-work, discipline of learning, and if better
endowed, with picnics, computers and state of the art technology. In
their urge to acquire the â€śbrand,â€ť clients begin to spend more than what
they can afford, just as consumers of any other commodity.
Encouraging private schools as commercial enterprises compromises the
principle of universality, for it offers services only to those who can
pay. Thus the deprived and the marginalised are automatically out of its
If left unregulated, the higher end suppliers would foster further
exclusion and reinforce class differentiation. The rich and the poor
will never meet. This will inadvertently operate as a system of hidden
In a situation where children attend the schools in their locality,
and when equal standards are maintained in all schools in all
neighbourhoods, it creates citizenship, not consumers.
The children are thus able to transcend their immediate environs and
locate themselves in the context of a reality which is informed by a
sense of larger society and its complex milieu.
Thus, the first step towards bridging the gap is actually taken in
schools that provide access to all in the neighbourhood, without
spelling out preferences of any kind. So children aspire for a similar
kind of learning regardless of their class or cultural background.
The essential principle that guides state schools is inclusion as it
cannot deny any child its right to participate in the school on any
But when structures are created to exclude children, the solution is
in reforming the system, rethinking the policies on education, making
greater investments, embedded in a legal and normative framework as
enshrined in the Constitution of India and taking forward the mission of
schools for an inclusive democracy.
In this sense education is a great levelling process and a
prerequisite for creating citizens.
All of us have to ensure that our childrenâ€™s right to education is
guaranteed. All institutions must agree that they have a role to play in
this and the battle is in arriving at this agreement and commitment for
This will require firmly wading through the logic of market and
profitability that has unfortunately seeped into education. This is not
an easy task. But the debate must go on and capture everybodyâ€™s
imagination for universalising education in India.
Education being a public good must nurture and enhance the principles
of inclusion, non-discrimination, equity and justice. It cannot be a
commodity for sale to those who can afford it. It must be an entitlement
and a right that is guaranteed by the state.
The writer is the chairperson, National Commission for Protection
of Child Rights