|Dilemma of school education
R. M. B. Senanayake
Free education is not really free
Economists point out that whenever a publicly provided private good like education or health care is in short supply a private or informal market emerges. Non-economists call such markets black markets. So although the government has officially banned the levy of money for admission to prestigious schools, donations are levied and paid for willingly by parents who can afford to pay. The original intention in providing free education was undoubtedly to give everybody access to education without being constrained by low incomes. But a scarce good cannot be allocated except through a market, call it a black-market if you wish. Attempts to do so by administrative allocation have failed not only here but even in the Communist countries where the allocation was by the party bureaucracy. Fairness then flies out of the window. So although the government aims to provide education free to enable all to avail themselves of it, it cannot succeed because corruption sets in with the politico-bureaucratic system which will lead to the emergence of a price for admission and the poor will be priced out through the illegal and corrupt levy by principals, politicians or bureaucrats who get in on the act.
Deadweight costs and bad examples
There are also the costs of the unnecessary apparatus, which has to be set up to monitor the rule about admissions laid down by the bureaucracy. So documents have to be produced by parents as proof of residence within the catchment area of the school. These documents are more often bogus and if the bureaucracy is to stick to the rule they have to be verified. All this involves record keeping and documentation by parents and school authorities. All these costs are what economists call "deadweight costs" which do nothing to add to the GDP. They are not only a waste of effort but also a tale of fraud and chicanery. Should the State encourage such cheating? What sort of moral example do the parents show the children who know very well the fraud that is being perpetrated by their parents in admitting them to schools in the city?
Look at the problem from the point of view of the principal. He has a choice between sticking rigidly to the rule or relaxing it for politicians and other high-ups who influence or determine his career. He has to please them for his very survival in the job. Otherwise he might end up in the wilderness. But if he is caught violating the law even once, then the punishment is the same as if he violated the rule a hundred times. So he has a drastic choice between staying within the law and losing his position (perhaps being transferred to some out of the way school) or joining in the corruption whole-heartedly. Have you observed that whenever a parent files action in court against the decision of a principal to reject admission to his child, the school invariably compromises and agrees to admit the litigants child? What does this mean? Every parent if he can afford should go to the courts to appeal against the decision. The minister has this time refused to allow appeals. He should instead allow appeals to some authority, which could enforce the law. The corrupt system would then collapse.
Co-ordinate selections at least
But there is something the minister can do to ease the problem. Today the situation is confusing since parents make multiple applications to several schools. So some schools are heavily over-subscribed. Even after the first wave of offers goes out parents feel that they must hold on to the offer from one school until the other schools dispose of his applications to them. They wait until they get a firm offer from one of the schools they prefer or the most preferred school. Officially there is no free choice for parents at all. They are expected to send their children to the nearest school. But ours is a society where cant and hypocrisy thrives.
Is it not possible to have a system where there is both parental choice as well as a greater degree of certainty and less confusion? One way is to give the popular schools greater flexibility to expand. If when there are more children applying than the number of vacancies, the school is allowed to hire additional teachers more could be accommodated. But since the government pays the salaries for teachers this option is not available. If on the other hand there are vouchers which will be issued to pupils, which carry a greater value in respect of lower income families, then the school will admit the child if it can find the space. Of course there is a limit to capacity. But some flexibility is possible. Suppose a popular school is given the freedom to hire more teachers provided they have the classroom space. As it is, what happens is that the numbers in the classroom keep on increasing. It is not possible for a teacher to teach a class which exceeds 35 pupils. This expansion is often to accommodate the requests of politicians. But the teachers as well as the pupils suffer.
The growth of self-governing schools and greater freedom for management to the principal and head teacher is absolutely essential. But some co-ordination of the admissions procedure should cut down on the time and give a better admissions service. All the chosen applicants could be announced the same day. This can be done using a networked computer. This will mean that the parents dont have to hold on to places until they receive a decision from their preferred schools. This will release the schools, which are the second or third preferences of the parents to fill their vacancies more speedily. The whole admissions procedure would then be streamlined even if it doesnt satisfy all the parents first preferences.
Self-management in schools
In Britain, USA and other countries, schools have autonomy. Some schools are run by religious bodies but are completely funded by the state while giving them autonomy. Perhaps in a plural society like ours what is required is to insist that children of all communities be admitted at least up to the proportion of their numbers in the population.
The government rushed into the take-over of denominational schools without giving any thought as to how to manage them. So education bureaucrats started managing schools by circulars. They did not pay attention to the need for participation of the parents in the management of the schools. Schools practise participative management all over the democratic world.
There are school boards, which are legally empowered to manage the school provided they do so according to the central government policy. They draw up their own budgets and have them approved by the ministry or local education authority. Thereafter they are empowered to spend the money without referring every purchase to education officials. They are empowered to hire and fire teachers provided they follow the procedures laid down by the authority. This gives the parents authority to manage the school through the principal who functions like the managing director of a firm. He is accountable to the school board which functions like the board of directors of a private firm.
In the absence of parents participation in the management of schools what happens is that the principal or headmaster is pitted against the strongly unionised teachers. Like elsewhere in the public sector schools are run for the benefit not of their customers but of the employees, which in this case are the teachers. Teachers like other public employees prefer bureaucratic management than participative management, where the parents have a say. The principal is the only one on the side of management and he too might prefer to play to the gallery, which in this case are the teachers whose work and conduct he is expected to supervise. So he would rather take the side of the teachers than of the consumersthe pupils. This type of management cannot produce results. So the tail wags the dog. The students, particularly those in the upper classes now see through this farce in management and strike out blindly since their voice is not heard. So advanced level students assault the principal in a school which was well run before nationalisation. Its time the government realised that parents who are stakeholders are allowed to participate in the management of schools.
Dr. Tara De Mel whom I interviewed last week pointed out that the education reforms she introduced included a programme of school based management for schools where the pupils exceeded 2500. There were to be school management councils with autonomy in running their schools. They will operate independently but within the framework of the National Education Policy. The idea is to make the school principals true managers and leaders of the school. She stated that the entire system of school education needed to be freed from the shackles of the bureaucracy and the politicians.
The personnel management of the teachers requires an independent commission as in the case of the police and the public service. Does the 17th Amendment to the Constitution provide for an independent commission for the teachers who are now being subject to the arbitrary actions of the politicians when it comes to transfers and disciplinary procedures? Dr. De Mel was not sure. Should the teachers be given full political rights? Politicisation cannot be avoided as long as the teachers are given the right to be affiliated to a political party and campaign for candidates of their chosen political party. So their political rights, except the right to cast the vote, should be withdrawn. This was the situation prior to 1974 both under the colonial regime as well as under the post-Independence regimes before the United Left Front government of the 1970s. Politicisation is the bane of the education system as it is of the entire administration.
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