Private schools and inequality in education

If education and the manner it is provided, or allowed to be provided, by the state engender inequality, then the very purpose of having it as a state tool for uplifting citizens and narrowing the rich-poor gap is lost.

Almost every pep talk puts rooting out inequality front and center. But at a fundamental level, if our education system rears it, then those talks are mere political humbug at best.

Private schools are booming in our country. But it could well be a telltale sign of failure in our state education.

The boom is happening for several reasons.

Some parents enroll their young child in private schools because of the entry-age bar set for government schools. Some other think that the quality of education in government school is not up to the mark; there are cases where children in government schools fall surprisingly short of the expected level of reading, literacy, and numeracy after certain years of schooling.

Then there are those that seek private schools simply because there are no space for their child in government schools due to higher-cut off marks for admissions. And the rest see it as a status symbol – a sense of elitism – to have their kids enrolled in a private school, much like owning a flashy car or the latest gizmo.

Be that as it may, we have to also get the drift of the inequality wedge that is being insidiously driven in our social fabric due to this boom: quality private school education for those who can pay and government school education for those who cannot.

Further, it can be reasonably argued that the growth of private schools has led to a downfall in the quality of education in government schools. Good teachers have resigned and got employed in the private schools because some of them pay the teachers better.

Our private schools claim to provide quality for money and the owners often tell parents who cannot afford that there are “options”.

There is nothing wrong with such a statement. But it does shine the spotlight on the rising specter of market-based education system in our country where 12% of the population still remains locked in persistent poverty. Such a system flies in the face of the high-flying policy rhetoric about poverty reduction and social inequality eradication. This argument is not a defiant holdout against the entrepreneurial spirit of our private sector. But a lot more is at stake than just that!

Can our people afford it? Where will it lead us?

The state should eliminate any choice in our school education so that all children get the same quality of education irrespective of their parents’ ability to pay. More importantly, it will allow us to groom our children on equal terms and allow them to grow up as equals, which will further help boost their confidence and self-esteem, and thereby fulfilling our constitutional requirement to direct education “towards the full development of the human personality.”

Parents shouldn’t have to choose the quality of education for their kids in a GNH society. The state has to ensure that it has the best for every child.

If we are serious about uprooting inequality, then guaranteeing the same quality and duration of schooling up to the 12th grade to all our children will get us to the first base.

One fine example to emulate is Finland, a prosperous nation positioned 6th on the happiness map. It does not have a single private school and it has one of the finest education systems in the world today.

Their rather off-kilter national education policy focuses on equality and equity and surprisingly not much on excellence and achievements, emphasising a compulsory “common basic education” for every child till they finish high school.

While our own policy of centralisation of schools offers opportunities for resource mobilisation, and hence cost-cutting, besides eliminating the need to move schools and the derived convenience, it does not address more critical needs such as addressing equality and equity in education as the Finnish model does.

Without a well-thought intervention to plug the steady haemorrhage of teachers and address teacher quality issues, the improvement in the quality of education that it aspires to achieve will remain a wild fantasy.

Finland’s model of equitable funding of schools based on needs is admirable. Schools with more students in need, from humble background, get more funding. The Finnish have heavily invested in their education system in order to adequately address capacity issues as well as in ensuring a cadre of well-qualified teachers who enjoy the privilege of being an elite member of the most respected profession in that country.

Such a model of education appears lofty and the elevation of our system to that level will no doubt require significant investment. But if we make an attempt we will have it elevated as purposeful and meaningful as we imagine it to be, helping us greatly in cultivating the entrepreneurial oomph our young boys and girls that hold the key to our future success. That is why striving for it is the right thing to do. It makes better economic sense than the market-driven idea of private schools pitching in to fill up the resource gap, which at best amounts to a budgetary stopgap measure.

Often times we talk to our children about chasing their dream. But we also want to make sure that they catch an education, one that is of the best quality that every child has access to, whether they are rich or poor.

Contributed by 

Dorji Tshering

Canberra, Australia

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