With public schools not performing and private schools teaching students to compete rather than learn, India’s primary sites of education are at risk

The Rajasthan government recently decided to close down more than 17,000 schools, the Maharashtra government decided to close down about 14,000 schools and the Odisha government is closing down 195 schools because of low attendance by students. These are not stray incidents, but indicate the decline of the public education system.
The problem with the private school system can be illustrated with an example. Recently, a parent described to me what teachers in his son’s school said to him regarding the child’s poor performance in studies. Science, social science and English teachers in the school asked him, the father, to solve the problem! Are “incomplete work or misbehaviour... during school hours... not the responsibility of the teachers to handle?” the perplexed man wondered. “If my son misbehaves in [the] house or does not read or write what we tell him to, we as parents handle it. We do not take it up with the teacher. Why [do] teachers nowadays take up everything with the child’s parents,” he asks. He opines that the “teacher has to be responsible for reading and writing and the parent has to be the facilitator by buying books, pens and pencils.”
This is a trend that persists in middle and upper-end private schools and is now catching on in lower-end schools too.
The decline of public schools

Public schools are dying out simply because they don’t perform. The problem began in the late 1950s and 60s when there was growth in the number of schools, but no adequate attention was being paid to infrastructure and availability of trained teachers. In most States, teachers were paid meagre salaries and administration was inefficient. A large number of teachers in States like Rajasthan were untrained. All this affected the quality of education. Teachers lost motivation and became disgruntled.
Some governments started devolving the job of teacher administration to the Panchayati Raj in the late 1950s. This brought in the local politician, who interfered with teachers’ transfers. This and other factors such as a lack of facilities in schools, low salaries and irregularity in disbursement of salaries caused the problem of teacher absenteeism in States like Rajasthan. This led to the growth of a self-centred attitude in newly emerging teacher unions, who began to think of their own welfare first and foremost without giving much thought to the functioning of schools or the quality of education. One can hardly blame them for this attitude.
The lack of understanding of what education demands and the flawed policies of the past have resulted in the closing down of schools today
Rather than seriously addressing the problems, education planners and administrators devised quick-fix and inexpensive initiatives to address the growing demand for education. Some important factors that contributed to this mindset were the demand for more schools, the lack of FINANCIAL and other resources, the pressure of democratic polity to be seen as addressing the problems, and a lack of concern. This mindset can be clearly seen in all the programmes initiated after the 60s — non-formal education, Shiksha Karmi, the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). At each stage these initiatives were critiqued, and obvious problems in conceptualisation and planning were clearly indicated by many educationists. But they also found their advocates who built a certain kind of rhetoric to support them and advanced that rhetoric as examples of educational change.
The idea of school

One fundamental problem in these initiatives is that they undermine the very concept of school. Schools have an objective — learning — and the process demands both teachers and students to be engaged. There is a time and place set aside for the exploration of ideas in a sustained and coherent manner, and for the development of intellectual rigour and mental discipline. All this is not possible without careful selection of what is to be learnt and a sound judgment on how to teach. Therefore, the school as an organised space demands professional knowledge, deep sensitivity towards the intellectual and emotional needs of the children, and pedagogical judgment on the part of teachers. When all these are pitted against each other, the idea of school is distorted. This is precisely what our education system has been doing for the last five decades.
For example, the non-formal education scheme spent crores of rupees, and was implemented throughout the country from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. The scheme completely discarded the ideas of professional knowledge in teaching, teacher training and educational planning and thus sent a signal throughout the country that anyone can teach. It also discarded the idea of well-equipped separate spaces for schools; thus paying little heed to the need for any infrastructure. It ignored the intellectual demands of both teachers and students. Overall, it devalued education, the teacher, and the idea of school.
By the time the failure of this flawed scheme was realised, many innovators were ready with other initiatives such as Shiksha Karmi in Rajasthan. The DPEP was almost ready to be launched. The balance between professional knowledge, intellectual rigour, sensitivity to the child and infrastructural needs was never restored in any of these programmes, including SSA. This apparent lack of understanding of what good education demands and the flawed policies of the past have resulted in the closing down of schools today.
Methods of learning

Meanwhile, the private sector stepped in to cash in on parental anxiety regarding the state of education. Private schools are growing at a phenomenal rate now. Some analysts think that while the public education system is deteriorating, the private system is going from strength to strength.
This false perception is perhaps deliberately created. Private schools function for profit; this fact itself counters the idea of a caring school. A good school is where knowledge is cherished, where intellect is developed, where there is sensitivity towards the child and where there are adequate resources. Maximisation of profit prompts the owners to emphasise on competition rather than conceptual learning. Children in private schools are forced to learn by rote — and this undermines the value of understanding. Actual learning demands conceptual clarity, and is difficult and time consuming. Private schools naturally encourage the first method. In other words, they impoverish the very idea of learning to dilute the demands for a good school.
However, the most damaging aspect of the private schooling system is that private schools do not want to take responsibility for the moral growth and behaviour of the child. Their ideal is to turn themselves into consultant agencies. If a child has moral and behavioural problems, these schools will call the parents to solve the problem. For academic weaknesses they advise private tuitions. In either case, they abdicate the responsibility of an educator. Their own job thus becomes minimised, which suits better margins of profit.
The twin maladies of losing children in government schools and minimising the idea of school in the private sector are putting our schools in grave danger. We as a society seem to be far from realising that civilisations depend on education and schools are primary sites of education. If schools die, civilisations deteriorate. Unless we recognise the need for rigour in understanding, planning and implementation in education, we will be unable to arrest this downward trend and our schools will either close down or transform into consultancy services, leaving the space open for tuition shops. Of course, this turning around will demand appropriate political and economic decisions.
(Rohit Dhankar is professor and director, academic development at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and honorary secretary, Digantar, Jaipur.)