More funds for secondary level, but can the government spent it well?

Indian Express, February 16, 2006

Ila Patnaik

The goverment is expected to spend part of the education cess on
secondary education this year. Until now, the prime focus of education
policy has been the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which attempts to
ensure that all children in India attend primary school. Improvements
in primary education are creating increased demand for secondary
education. The next step is, then, to find ways to take children
beyond Class V by creating adequate capacity in secondary schools.

It has been reported that 25 percent of the education cess may be set
aside for secondary education in 2006-07. How can Budget 2006
effectively spend about Rs.2000 crore more on secondary education?

Today, the capacity and policy framework at the secondary level is
inadequate. The SSA focuses on Class I through VIII. There are 206,269
middle schools in the country. But the number of high/secondary
schools, which go from Class IX to XII, is only 126,047.

The gap in rural areas is higher than the average. In urban areas, the
weakness of the public system is overcome by private schools. Can
rural children relocate to a neighbouring town to attend school?
Though the actual fee for private schools is often quite low, living
in the town involves additional living expenses. The total outlay is
out of reach for the poorest rural students. There are publicly funded
scholarship schemes available for SC and ST students in a number of
states. Tamil Nadu gives bicycles to girls in villages enrolled in
secondary schools to enable them to attend schools that are further
away. But, in general, states do not have enough funds to put money
into secondary schooling.

Further, a major lacuna has emerged in education in India as a
consequence of resources being directed towards a social agenda. This
is that there are very few initiatives to promote merit. A few rare
initiatives like "gaon ki beti" by the Madhya Pradesh State Government
reward excellence - but this barely gives one scholarhip to one bright
girl student in a village. Today India has some of the best higher
education institutions in the world like the IITs, but the quality of
education for the average child in India is extremely low.

In this context, how can the new money for secondary education be best
spent? The traditional approach is that the government open a large
number of secondary schools. The difficulties and costs of this
strategy can be gauged by the experience the government has had with
running primary schools. Getting good secondary school teachers to
work in rural schools will be a big task. Getting teachers to be
present in school will be another job and getting them to teach, when
they face no threat of dismissal or pay cut, equally onerous. The
traditional approach has failed to provide quality education in
elementary schools.

The other option is to facilitate the best students to study in nearby
secondary schools by offering them scholarships which can support
expenditures on fees, books, living expenses, etc. A scholarship of
just Rs.300 per month suffices. Scholarships can be allocated to
states based on the population. So UP will have more scholarships than
Goa. Students enrolled in Class IX in any school, public or private,
should be chosen by the state government on the basis of merit,
through a standardised scholarship examination administered at Class
VIII. The money should be given directly to the student or the mother
through a money order or a transfer to a bank account. It should be
given to them for a period of 4 years - Class IX to Class XII,
requiring that the child is promoted to the next class.

The arithmetic works out so that Rs.2000 crore pays for 5.5 million
scholarships. This number is big enough to generate a supply response
from schools in the private sector. More sections will be added to
higher classes. More private middle schools will add higher classes to
secondary schools. More secondary schools will be opened. The quality
of the schools will improve as better students will be able to afford
education. If the allocation is raised to 50 percent of the cess
starting 2007-08 for the duration of the 11 Plan, then by the end of
the Eleventh Plan period there should be considerably widened capacity
for secondary schooling in India.

At present, the central and state governments together spend
approximately Rs 3000 per student through the public education
system. The scholarship is nearly the same amount, but instead of
getting lost in the bottomless pit of the government system where
there is no evaluation or accountability, it puts the money directly
into the hands of the parent who can choose which school the child
will attend.

But won't the already privileged students, who any way do better at
school, get all the scholarships? First, let us remember, the poor
students are much more motivated to get the scholarships, and would
thus try harder for the examination. The scholarship gives them a
chance to go to upper grades, something which they cannot otherwise
do. Second, even among the children who are not poor, a merit based
scholarship comes with prestige and will incentivise them to work

When every village child (and parent) knows that such a scholarship is
available for more education provided there is merit, the performance
in elementary school will also improve. Allocating money to secondary
schooling in this manner can, therefore, not only provide secondary
education, it can push elementary education beyond merely enrolment
and towards better outcomes. Encouraging bright and hard working
students to go for higher education will have mutlitple benefits. As a
country and a growing economy with a fast expanding service sector,
India needs a large well educated labour force. The money will be well
spent even from a purely commercial point of view as it will increase
human capital and give higher GDP growth.