Access-oriented reforms have led to near-universal education in India. But there’s an unintended consequence – far too many small-scale schools. Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) Garima Batra and Seema Bansal give their views on how to put this problem right.
We have a vision of the ideal government school in India. Around five hundred pupils, from Grades 1 to 12, with all the children in the local area attending. It’s eight o’clock in the morning – some pupils are walking to school, others arrive from two or three miles away by bus, many are cycling. There’s an active principal and a staffroom of 15 talented teachers ready to take lessons in their own specialist subject – enrolment is on the increase.
The state of government education
In some cases, this vision has become a reality. The state of Rajasthan, for example, has reduced the number of its schools by around 20% by merging several small-scale schools to create one well-resourced school for each Gram Panchayat (village). These integrated schools extend from Grade 1-10/12, offering older pupils easier access to senior secondary education.
But this is the exception rather than the rule. Now, of course, we recognise that India has made significant strides in children’s education over the last two decades. The launch of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) in 2001 was a defining policy move. So was the opening of new schools across the country under the Right to Education, along with benefits such as midday meal schemes, free uniforms and textbooks, and vastly improved infrastructure. These reforms have ensured ~97% Grade 1 enrolment nationwide.
Alongside all this progress, though, a major problem has arisen: there are just too many schools, particularly small-scale ones. There’s one school to every square kilometre, as specified by legislation. But the result is that India now has about 420,000 government schools with fewer than 50 students, of which 110,000 schools have less than 20 pupils. There are usually only one or two teachers in these schools, for all of Classes 1-5 (for primary schools) / 6-8 (for middle schools).
The outcome is that India has around 280 million students studying in 1.5 million schools. Compare that with China, which has 220 million students in only 266,000 schools.
The problem with small-scale schools
We must arrive at the right number of schools for the country. In our view, this should be 500,000 to 600,000 – fully-resourced, efficient, attractive to children and parents alike.
And that’s what small-scale schools struggle to offer. Often they don’t have a principal at all, and typically they suffer from too few teachers for each combination of subject and grade – perhaps one teacher for Grades 1 to 3, another for Grades 4 and 5. Many have only two or three active classrooms, where all 50-100 students are seated together, and there’s commonly a shortage of facilities such as playgrounds and laboratories. Children aren’t getting the subject focus and teacher attention that they need. Finally, from a system management standpoint, the very large number of schools make any visit-based coaching and monitoring/accountability efforts by block and district officials very hard to execute and track.
So, in spite of all the government’s investment in education, nearly 45% of Indian children go to private schools. The next challenge facing us, therefore, is to provide a high quality of education that encourages more children into the government sector.
Delivering our vision
A meticulous process is required for this initiative to succeed. Within each area, we should identify several schools that are suitable for consolidation before selecting a host school based on its distance from the others and its capacity to house the desired number of pupils. Then we have to arrange efficient transport to ensure that all children have easy access. Block-level committees need to lead the implementation effort and ensure all stakeholders are aligned. Detailed consolidation guidelines need to be issued, and grievance redressal committees set up to deal with any issues that come up. Implementation needs to be closely monitored to ensure the benefits of consolidation are actually realised. In the past 15 years, we’ve taken schools to children – now we need to take our children to the schools.
The Jharkhand experience
The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has initiated the physical consolidation of small-scale schools: 4,600 out of 39,000 have already merged. Their reorganisation involved detailed field inspections, together with consultations at local level with multiple stakeholders – including parents, teachers, local authorities, children, and local communities.
The benefits to Jharkhand have already been significant: there’s a greater availability of teachers, access to better infrastructure and much better monitoring and governance of schools. There are substantial funds to invest in new facilities, while vacant buildings and infrastructure are being repurposed for the benefit of the whole community.
Seeing positive public impact throughout India
We want to see the benefits already experienced by states such as Jharkhand and Rajasthan to proliferate nationwide. Large integrated schools managed by an able and energetic principal, supported by skilled teachers and well-functioning infrastructure – schools that will serve to attract all the parents and children from their catchment area.
What if our ideal school were the norm in every Indian state? By consolidating our schools, we can improve the quality of our children’s education, and all India will reap the reward.
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