Outlook reports on Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh's plans to privatise schools to overcome an alarming drop in school standards in Punjab. The scheme proposed by the government seems very much like a voucher scheme whereby the Rs. 700 per month that the Government currently spends to educate a child in a government school will be handed over to private schools who will then provide the education free to the children.
If chief minister Amarinder Singh has his way, Punjab will become the first state to hand over public education, even at the primary level, to private entrepreneurs. Though there are discordant voices even in the high-powered committee set up by the state government to work out the proposal, Amarinder is firm on going ahead. "A revamp of the education system with involvement of industrial houses and well-established private schools is being done. In the first phase, the government plans to hand over about 2,000 government schools to private hands," he has said. In all, Punjab has 19,000 government schools.
The need to 'revamp' schools came after some shocking findings in a government study. It was revealed that 30 per cent of children up to class V in Punjab's government schools couldn't read or write. Then, the latest World Bank report, Resuming Punjab's Prosperity, reveals
that on any given day 36 per cent of the government primary teachers are absent. This is well above the 25 per cent for the rest of India. In absenteeism, Punjab ranks third after Bihar and Jharkhand. Even when the teachers are present, only half (49.8 per cent) were found teaching. This is below the national average of 59.5 per cent.
It is in such a dismal scenario with the government unable to check errant teachers, who otherwise draw fat salaries, that the 'privatisation plan' has been mooted. Part of the problem was that there has been no institutional check on the teachers. There is also no accountability. The government says it can do little to rein in the teachers since they are politically organised. In fact, government school teachers represent a powerful lobby connected to senior politicians. It is this teacher-politician nexus which is being blamed for the decline of education in Punjab in recent years.
The government has come in for much criticism for wringing its hands helplessly and not admitting to its own management failure. Though Punjab finance secretary K.R. Lakhanpal rationalises it, saying it's not "privatisation but an alternative delivery system to provide better education", critics have called it a sellout. In fact, with the opposition raising a hue and cry over the proposed move, the government is at pains to explain that all this will not mean higher fees in government schools.
The government spends Rs 700 per child every month. It is being proposed that this money be handed over to the private management so that free elementary education up to class VII continues.
With the fall in teaching standards, only the very poor now send their children to government schools. In every Punjab village, there are at least three or four private schools which are hugely popular. According to the Punjab School Education Board, the number of requests for affiliation coming in from rural areas is at least one-and-a-half times more than from urban areas.
The Tribune reports that the private schools don't seem to be too keen to take up the running of Government schools, particularly to avoid a confrontation with government teachers.
Taking a very clear stand on the issue of government schools, representatives of the Management Committees of government-aided private schools today made it clear to the Punjab Government that they would not take over Government schools in any manner. But they were prepared to extend the cooperation required to improve the education delivery system in the state.
Talking to The Tribune on the phone from Ropar, Mr Mohan Lal, General Secretary of the Aided School Managements, in reference to the meeting called today by, Mr Harnam Dass Johar, Education Minister (Schools), at Mohali to discuss the issue of handing over government schools to private managements, said the meeting was held without circulating any blueprint or outlines of the scheme to managements.
“It appears this Government is building castles in the air”, he said. Can one expect a worthwhile discussion on any proposal or scheme without putting it before the invitees at the meeting in black and white? he asked.
Mr Mohan Lal said government schools should continue to function. Students belonging to poor sections of society would be hit hard if the government made any structural change in the management of these schools, he added. “It is the constitutional responsibility of the state government to provide cheap and best education to all and if the government closed its schools, then poor students will be hit hard”, he added.
The government should not treat education like business. It was a social responsibility which should be performed with utmost care and conviction by the government, said Mr Mohan Lal. “We will not enter into any confrontation with government school teachers and neither will we hit their interest in any manner”, he said.
He said that it was a pleasant surprise that the government had admitted that private aided schools were providing quality education. But the government had been treating such aided schools most shabbily. Grants to such schools were not released in time.