Money can’t teach kids to read & write

Given the poor literacy and school completion rates in India after more than 50 years of independence, the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the new coalition government promises to increase public spending on education from 4.1% of GDP to 6%. However, many developing countries have achieved better results with far little spends. And there we have India ’s problem — wasteful spending.

India spends 4.1% of its GDP on education but boasts of just 65% literacy. China , on the other hand, spends only 2.2 % of GDP on education, yet has 91% literacy. Sri Lanka and Indonesia spend only 1.3% of GDP on education, yet have literacy rates of 92.5% and 88% respectively.

Even the UK and the US spend only 4.4% and 4.9% of GDP respectively on public education, far below the CMP target of 6%. The UK and the US are high-wage economies where education is relatively expensive. Many low-wage countries in Asia (see table) have achieved high literacy rates by spending around 2% of GDP or less on education.

Public spending per student should be a certain proportion of per capita GDP. This ratio in India equals that of the US at 20.8%. This is much higher than that in the UK (15.8%), China (11.56%), Sri Lanka (6.1%) or Indonesia (6%). This drives home the same point, that by international standards India already spends a high proportion of funds on education. The problem is not lack of money but lack of quality. Teachers in government schools earn twice or thrice the salary that teachers in private schools earn, yet are unmotivated, skip school, and teach very little. One survey by Pratichi in select West Bengal schools showed that only 7% of students could spell their own names.

One consequence of this lack of quality education is a very high drop-out rate, or wasted education spending, in other words. It must be noted that just 59% of students in India complete Class Five.

This is far less than Bangladesh (65%) and even Vietnam (85%) or Indonesia (89.5). All these countries spend far less on education than India does.

Instead of outlining steps to end this huge waste in education spending, the CMP proposes to spend even more, with no details of reforms to improve quality.

Then there’s the promise of a mid-day meals programme. School meals may attract more students, but can’t impart educational skills. Kerala and Sri Lanka achieved near-full literacy without any resort to food.

If a cook regularly prepares lunch for students but teachers come irregularly, the institution becomes less of a school and more of a restaurant that is occasionally visited by teachers.

In China , teachers are hired on three-year contracts by counties, and are fired if they do not perform. But in India teachers belong to trade unions that are accountable only to a distant state capital, not the people they serve. Reforms could include empowering panchayats or parents’ association to at least withhold the pay of absentee teachers, if not fire them. But this would antagonise trade unions, and so finds no mention in the CMP.

An alternative is to give education vouchers to parents, which can be used to buy an education at competing private schools. An education voucher scheme works best in relatively big villages and towns where a multiplicity of schools is feasible.

Unfortunately, the CMP has no ideas at all on reforming government schools. Rather, it proposes to spend more than ever on the existing dysfunctional system.

What do you think?