By Prashant Narang, Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India
The Right to Education Act, 2009 — a central law — governs school education across India. States also have their respective laws. In total, there are 145 state laws and 101 corresponding rules under those laws.
Most do not apply to public schools. Public schools are thanked for their existence and no questions are asked ever. On the other hand, private schools follow infinite rules, and please everyone. Despite that, they are at the receiving end of criticism. No appreciation, and constant pressure to do more.
In India, as we emphasized in our recent background paper for the regional report on non-state actors in education in South Asia, most regulations in pre-primary, primary and secondary education focus on infrastructure and inputs only. This includes classrooms, minimum land, teacher qualifications, teacher salaries and fees. As a result, private schools spend a lot of time and resources complying with these norms instead of focusing on innovating pedagogy, which could have been spent instead on making the teaching and learning experience fun and engaging. Our content analysis shows that hardly any state law has used the phrase ‘learning outcomes’ or even ‘outcomes’. This misplaced focus has been noted in the National Education Policy, 2020.
Input norms for schools in India can be excessive. For example, in Assam, the minimum land requirement to open a school is one bigha (or 2,508 m2). Similarly in Delhi, you may be asked for 3,000-4,000 m2 of land for your school to be affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). This makes the cost of compliance huge. It may, depending on the area, cost between INR 200-500 million (or US$2.5-6 million) to get that land and start a school. A trust or society cannot arrange for such huge funds, a for-profit company can. Bu, most states (except Uttar Pradesh and Haryana) do not allow for-profit companies to run and operate schools. The not-for-profit condition makes it very difficult for schools to access capital and credit.
This is not the only difficulty in opening a private school. You need an essentiality certificate to start, i.e. to prove that the school is essential to a locality. But how do you prove that? What makes a school ‘essential’ is not clearly laid down in law. It is therefore up to the whims and fancies of a bureaucrat. It is interesting that the government does not need to justify opening a school even though it uses taxpayers’ money to do the same. The National Education Policy has taken note of empty public schools and recommended clubbing such schools to form a cluster and save costs.
Once opened, a private school will need to be recognised by the same government department that also runs public schools. In other words, the same government department has the power to regulate its competitors. While the department can shut down its competing private schools for non-compliance with input norms, its own public schools can continue to operate without compliance. It’s a cricket match where the umpire also belongs to one of the teams and hence the match is rigged.
No wonder private schools are over-regulated and government schools are under-regulated. NEP 2020 calls it ‘regulatory asymmetry’. In this context, private schools are viewed as the ‘other’ who are constantly ‘disciplined’ through numerous regulations. Even though they offer affordable education at a fraction of cost that a state government incurs on its schools, private schools are vilified for being profit-seeking. This ‘othering’ is entrenched both in the law as well as in practice.
How can this be changed?
Rules need to change. The National Education Policy has recommended setting up an impartial regulator to ensure a level-playing field. Private schools should have more autonomy to perform better: freedom to access capital and credit, freedom to hire and fire teachers, and freedom to set their fee. The best accountability mechanism for private schools would be more competition. Government should make it easier for new entrants to set up schools so that parents have more choice and there is more innovation.
The National Education Policy has advocated for a disclosure-based regulatory framework. This will help parents to make a more informed choice. Let the regulator engage third parties for assessments and bring in more transparency on the learning outcomes. These assessments should be done for both private and public schools, and the results should be made available in the public domain.
We all know that the quality of education in India and in South Asia is extremely poor. Low quality is a direct consequence of poor governance and regulatory discrimination. This discrimination needs to be addressed. Private schools deserve to be treated as equal and the children studying in those schools deserve their choices to be respected.