Recently, Delhi government schools threw up a surprise by outshining private schools in the CBSE Class 12 examinations with a stunning 90.68 passing percentage against the latter’s 88.35.
This flies in the face of a popular romanticisation of private schools as the benchmark in school education. This private sector fetish has added little value to the overall educational system of the country, while only cementing longstanding social hegemonies.
Thanks to eroding faith in public education at lower levels, it is now safe to conclude that our education system is not only broken, but also heavily ghettoised.
In most ascendant neoliberal economies like ours, ‘education’ is being increasingly seen as a consumer service that is a direct function of individuals’ financial capital. If you have more money, then you are automatically entitled to ‘better’ education. As if it’s the same thing as a golf club membership or a pair of shoes or real estate. Thanks to this dominant thought, boisterous private players now have free reign to set their own price on ‘good quality’ education and cartel-ise the fee structure, thus excluding millions from accessing this good quality education.
And so, the ultra-rich flock together, and so do the middle class and the poor – shiny schools for the moneyed, decent ones for the middle-income folks and crappy ones for the poor rags. The boxes are pretty neat. It’s like a clubhouse with varying levels of membership-based access.
This is not surprising for a country with a rapidly swelling middle and a highly secure ultra-rich class. After all, the moneyed class likes to earn its share. They want to see their ‘hard-earned’ money bear the sweetest fruit. What use is the chunky bank balance if it cannot buy a fancy school education for the kids? Or engineering coaching in an air-conditioned environment? Or an expensive watch? Or a luxury holiday?
Truth be told, the moneyed can splurge all they want. But, the problem here is that like most other material privileges, they also want to monopolise access to ‘good’ education – a building block for an inclusive, well-informed, progressive society. They would loathe to share this high-end space with those they think do not ‘contribute enough to the system’ – for example, a rickshawala.
Simply put, the rich wouldn’t like it if their kids had to study in the same classroom as a poor man’s child. Fancy stuff is reserved for them, and no one else.
But, what is worse is the internalisation of the idea that the private sector is the only viable model for high-quality education. More and more people are now convinced that free, state-sponsored education for all is as special (and non-existent) as a unicorn, or at the very least, a leftist cliché. Market economy tropes like ‘quality control’ are employed to justify that the free market model is a blessing. This is despite the fact that fancier classrooms and more amenities does not translate to meaningful education. This is also despite the absence of a single theoretical barrier to good quality state-funded education.
As a recent report by NewsClick analysed budgetary allocation data from the Delhi government to see what it gave education in the last three years, and found that greater public investments in schooling systems can actually lead to better educational outcomes. For example, more classrooms lead to more focused teaching, but usually the hassle of something like teaching outdoors discourages teachers from diversifying the classroom environment. The private sector, by virtue of its high capital accumulation, is already well placed to provide such comforts in schools, but only at high costs.
This is where the state – with its embedded systems of accountability and direct commitment to legislations like the Right to Education (RTE) Act – can play a key role in ensuring that the investments reach the remotest nooks of our unequal demography. One simply cannot expect the same from an unregulated private sector.
Truth be told, this de facto over-reliance on the private sector is rooted in two deeply-entrenched beliefs – that the state is just not competent enough to provide good quality, all-inclusive education; and that ‘excellence’ (as defined by the dominant class) is more important than equitable access, unlike in some Scandinavian countries like Finland where equal access is paramount.
Needless to say, the passive state responds to popular cynicism in equal measures. The paltry amounts dedicated to education in every single annual budget testify to this cynicism. There is just not enough popular incentive for the state to allocate more resources towards ensuring high quality education for all. It was never an election talking point, and won’t be for a long time to come.
Why should the elected government care about good schools if the public does not? The internal logic is fairly simple here.
This automatically allows private players to do with education what they do best elsewhere: industrialise, cartelise and aim for higher profit margins. In many cases, they also monopolise. Hence, the exorbitant fees in most private schools. Hence, the ridiculous overheads in private universities. Hence, the sheer impossibility of a labourer’s son studying in GD Goenka World School or Delhi Public School, RK Puram. Hence also, the structural privileges that come along with studying in ‘high-end’ institutes.
Few can openly deny that in India, there there exist two diametrically opposite worlds in education: one with marble flooring and high-tech teaching aids, the other strewn with overgrown weeds and leaky roofs. Between both, lies a heavily skewed education system that remains unregulated and highly commercialised.
Despite this visible inequality, our faith in the free market remains high as the noon sun. Are we blind or are we blind?