The power of populists and naysayers

The growing influence on policy issues of activists who call themselves "civil society" is a worrying trend and needs to be objectively analysed. Two recent policy pronouncements will illustrate how government seems to be yielding to their pressure.

It is well established that absenteeism of teachers and poor quality of outcomes in government schools is the main factor behind the popularity of private schools with poor infrastructure that cater to the needs of the underprivileged. The management pays pittance to the teachers but such schools are still attracting students because of better teacher attendance, personal attention to each student and testing of their homework by the teachers, faster scholastic learning, and in some places greater emphasis on English. Often they run under a banyan tree or in a dilapidated building. However, the Right to Education Act insists that such schools would be closed down if they do not have an all- weather building consisting of at least one classroom for every teacher and an office-cum-store-cum-head teacher's room; barrier-free access; separate toilets for boys and girls; safe and adequate water facility to all children; kitchen for mid-day meals; playground; library; and qualified teachers.

Shutting down private schools that do not meet the required norms and standards will place an additional burden on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) funds at a time when the overall demand for primary education is still greater than supply. This is particularly so in urban areas that cater to migrants and slum dwellers. At the very least, the answer lies in improving the quality of infrastructure and outcomes in government schools and not in shutting down the private schools, thereby denying access to education to the deprived sections. However, the lobby of "fundamentalists" in the education sector is

so strong that these schools are under threat of being de-recognised under law.

... contd.

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