Why Tamil Nadu Doesn’t Need More Schools

A declining fertility rate – and hence a fall in student population – in Tamil Nadu, along with an improvement in youth literacy indicates that the state must focus on quality of education rather than building more schools.

The decreasing number of students each year allows the state to focus on improving the quality of education. Credit: Brian Glanz/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Tamil Nadu is the only state in India that does not have Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas. These schools, run by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, aim to provide quality education to students from rural and underprivileged areas of the country. Someone in Tamil Nadu filed a PIL seeking these schools in the state, and the Madras high court, in all its wisdom, asked the state government why it was not allowing these schools to be set-up in Tamil Nadu. The answer of the government is an obfuscation that does not reveal the most important development in the past decade or so that makes these schools absolutely unnecessary.

Tamil Nadu has about 61,983 fewer students, both boys and girls, in class I as compared to class IX. That is a truly stunning data point and explains almost entirely why Tamil Nadu doesn’t need any more schools.

There are two reasons why there are fewer students in class I than in class IX. The first is the decline in enrollment each year.

That is, for each successive year in the past few years, there are fewer children joining schools despite almost every child going to school. Simply because there are fewer children being born. This is what happens when a society has below replacement fertility rate for over a generation. There are now parents who themselves were born when Tamil Nadu’s total fertility rate was below replacement. Fewer parents are making even fewer babies.

The second, and even more heartening reason is that the students who enrolled in class I largely seem to have stayed in school till class IX. The magnitude of this achievement can be understood when one looks at the youth illiteracy data. Tamil Nadu has shown the maximum improvement in fighting youth illiteracy and has almost caught up with Kerala.

Tamil Nadu already has the highest gross enrollment ratio in higher education among all states. Hence, nearly all children in Tamil Nadu now go to school and stay in school, and about 45% of those who complete high school go to college.

So by any yardstick, Tamil Nadu certainly does not need more schools. Surely its existing schools can and must be improved; but what this decreasing number of students each year allows the state to do is concentrate exactly on that. Instead of playing catch-up to an ever-increasing population, a declining student population gives the state the luxury of focusing on quality. The same will become true of most other public services as well.

It is in this context that one needs to evaluate the Jawahar Navodaya Schools or any policy on education in Tamil Nadu. Does the state need more schools? The answer is no, given there are fewer students each year. Does the state need better schools? The answer to that question is always yes. But is the way to achieve that by building more schools in a state that has no need for them?

Further, the Jawahar Navodaya Schools teach Hindi and that’s deeply problematic in Tamil Nadu. Worse, why should Delhi run schools in Tamil Nadu? Especially when there’s no need for it? Isn’t that a violation of the basic federal structure? Can’t Delhi find better use for money than building schools in a state that doesn’t need any more?

A common criticism of the state board of Tamil Nadu is that its syllabus hasn’t been updated and thus its students have been rendered uncompetitive. In fact, a BJP politician, H. Raja, cited the relatively low number of students from state board of education in Tamil Nadu who cleared the JEE as proof that the state’s education policy is lacking.

All curricula of all systems of education need constant improvements. There is no disagreeing on that. However, Raja and his ilk only betray their elitist and narrow view of education with criticism that uses JEE results as a yardstick for education policy. The IITs were meant to be elite schools. They are not, cannot and should not be a measure of education policy in a state. If a state were able to achieve 1% improvement in teen literacy it’d be worth forgoing every single rank in JEE. It’s also useful at this point to remind Raja and his ilk about the purpose of education – it is an end in itself. The purpose of education is not preparation for entrance exams. It’s not even the ability to get or hold a job. Those are just beneficial side effects.

If the cost of a wider base of literate people is a narrower base of students who go to elite schools, that’s a cost worth paying. Even if that bargain were inevitable, that is. It certainly isn’t inevitable in this case, either. Far from it.

Nilakantan R.S. works as a data scientist for a tech start-up and looks at politics from that vantage point.

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