Budget 2019: Bihar Schools Need Systemic Reform, Not Piecemeal Approaches

The deep discrepancy of public spending on education in the country needs to be addressed.

After the Centre announced its interim-budget for 2019-20, the Bihar government will deliver the state budget. It is worth diving deeper into this matter as the future of Bihar, especially the education of our children, depends on wise and coherent allotments which put sufficient money into the right places and embed individual budgetary items into a systemic arrangement steering towards learning for all.

Last year’s budget did not provide for such an arrangement. Education was allotted Rs 32,126 crore, of which Rs 14,039 crore went into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the Centrally sponsored scheme for elementary education. This scheme is now discontinued as elementary education, secondary education and teacher education schemes were merged by the Centre into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.

It is important to put these numbers into context. The Right to Education Act comes with mandatory minimum standards such as toilets, drinking water, qualified teachers and a maximum pupil-teacher-ratio. These standards are very conservative and do not even include electricity. Save the Children and FLAIR-Forum for Learning and Action with Innovation and Rigour calculated for 2014-15 that Bihar would have to double its spending to fulfill what children are entitled to.

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To make the numbers more accessible, per-student spending needs investigation. Based on a calculation by Ambrish Dongre and Avani Kapur from CPR’s Accountability Initiative, the per student spending in 2014-15 for children in government schools in Bihar was as little as Rs 4,088 (real expenditure). In contrast, a child in a Kendriya Vidyalaya gets public funds worth Rs 27,723.

This means that more privileged children, whose parents have stable and well-paid jobs, get almost seven-times as much public money as a farmer’s child in Bihar. In a family with three children, the gap grows further. The farmer’s children will receive around Rs 12,000, the Central servant’s children more than Rs 80,000. We can not build a fair society based on segregation.

After having pointed out the deep discrepancy of public spending on education in our country, we now turn to what Bihar can and should do to level the playing field.

Pre-primary and elementary education require highest priority.

Children start falling behind in the early years. The danger of the merged scheme is that it becomes more obscure where the money will go. The Right to Education Act and Article 21A only guarantee elementary education (class I to VIII) as a fundamental right. Fulfilling this right requires approximately doubling the spending in this area.

The farmer’s children will receive around Rs 12,000, the Central servant’s children more than Rs 80,000. A government elementary school in Bihar. Credit: Rakesh Kumar Rajak

Planning and capacity at state, district, block and cluster level needs to be improved.

The Comptroller and Accountant General in a 2017 report reviewed the implementation of the RTE Act. Its critique is hard-hitting and points the finger at consecutive governments who neglected education and upheld segregation. Funds are left untouched at the State Implementing Societies (several thousand crores each year in Bihar) and planning is poor. District plans which are meant to be based on School Development Plans are instead based on U-DISE data.

These plans often are a result of copy-and-paste to fill pages rather than a useful document serving as a planning input. Instead of blaming ‘lazy bureaucrats’, one must understand that there are more than 200 BEO vacancies in Bihar alone. Even district officials often receive little support once arriving at the education department. The whole frontline bureaucracy is not structured in a way that is conducive to learning.

Instead, a “post office” mentality prevails, as Yamini Aiyar and Shrayana Bhattacharya described the phenomenon. Block officials are evaluated by the number of reports and pages filled with sentences, often knowing that nobody will read, let alone act based on these reports. This systemic incoherence requires a disentanglement of roles, clear red lines, sufficient discretion and a general overhaul of the apparatus to orient all actors towards learning.

Harvard Professor Lant Pritchett described India as a flailing state – “a nation-state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs.” We will not fix this by piecemeal reforms and minor improvements (like the now announced and welcomed decision to recruit more than 250 BEOs in Bihar). Even laudable steps will be rendered ineffective if systemic incoherencies are not tackled. 200 more “post officers” will not improve learning.

Teachers are the key and technology cannot replace them.

Our schools depend on our teachers. And teachers are not the problem. They are just the lowest link in a chain that is plagued with incoherencies. And therefore, they are easy to attack. Yet, we should think for a moment. If the problems were not systemic, how on earth can it happen that thousands of teachers who are not connected are each individually the problem?

Obviously, there is a systemic dimension to this issue. Not only are schools often poorly equipped, lacking basic infrastructure or remote, but teachers also regularly wait for months to receive their salaries. This must end.

Also, the attempts to provide distance courses have not proven successful. The current World Bank program to facilitate ICT to train teachers as well as the Central government’s SWAYAM platform have largely failed to provide what teachers need most: practical pre-service training preparing them for what they will be confronted with in their future schools, ongoing support for what they need, not what someone else orders and cluster-level learning communities that function and are supported by a coherent and learning-oriented upwards chain in the education bureaucracy.

The DIETs and BRCs are key in this. Without high-quality and motivated faculty in these key institutions, any attempts for teacher training are doomed to fail. Digital smartboards will not solve the core issues.

In addition, there is a massive shortage of teachers in our schools. In an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha, it was stated that as on March 31, 2016, Bihar had more than 200,000 vacancies for teachers in the elementary level alone. That means that every third teacher position is vacant.

School management committees must be taken seriously.

SMCs have been neglected for years. It is unrealistic to think that without ongoing and strong state-support, illiterate mothers will be able to hold schools and teachers accountable. It is also unrealistic that information provision alone will change anything – it won’t. Instead, the state must become more proactive, provide clear actionable information and embed SMCs into a larger effort to make schools accountable to the people.

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This requires a coherent and functional bureaucracy upstream (from the cluster, block, district, to the state level). Technology can play a facilitating (not a fixing!) role here. At the Bihar Education Policy Center, we have developed a mechanism of using mobile phones and AI to coordinate SMC members and to facilitate large scale social audits. This mechanism must however be embedded in an overhaul of the bureaucratic apparatus to be met by a responsive state ‘with teeth’, as social accountability expert Jonathan Fox put it.

These points indicate that if education is to be taken seriously, we must forget about silver-bullets. We can also ignore claims that privatisation will be the solution – it won’t. Instead, we must tackle the difficult, systemic issues that plague the system, stock up the funding, mainstream fund-flows, use technology and AI wisely and not naively treating it as a panacea, steer all actors towards learning and realise that without a major shift in priorities, Bihar’s schools will not equip our children with skills for the 21st century.

It should be a project of national pride to ensure that our children visit schools where excellence and equity are practiced. If we do not change course now, the rest of the world will not wait. All our energy and resources must be pooled to achieve this goal for a new, a better Bihar.

Rakesh Kumar Rajak (@mannu_rakesh) is a project manager at the Bihar Education Policy Center. Martin Haus (@MartinHaus93) is an advisory board member at the Bihar Education Policy Center