Category Archives: Education

What Have we Learnt from OLPC?

This article has been cross-posted from the Educational Technology Debate.

Wayan Vota started an Educational Technology Debate on what the OLPC has achieved thus far with the assertion that the OLPC is “changing education, technology, even culture in ways beyond any one person’s understanding.”

Going by some of the comments that follow one could be excused for thinking that the OLPC is the best thing to happen to the world since sliced bread. The XO laptop will magically transform students into self-learners (“peers working collaboratively in teams”). A more balanced followup by Scott Kipp still proposes that thanks to the OLPC, “evaluations, discussions and policy assessments about whether or not to have computers in the classroom will very soon be entirely obsolete, if not already.”

Such overwhelming enthusiasm is surely out of place, and perhaps a bit of perspective is important.

For one lets be realistic that the OLPC is not “revolutionalizing” education. Yes, OLPC will soon have 1 million XO laptops in circulation. But compare that with 121 million children not in school, 668 million children that started primary school in 2007, or the 774 million illiterate adults and the OLPC does not seem that revolutionary. No doubt, computers will be important in the future to deliver education, but a lot of schools still struggle with having a blackboard or even a building. So lets not overstate either the scale or the impact of the OLPC.

Second, it is a stretch to say, as Wayan does, that the XO spawned the netbook. What the XO did do was spawn the Classmate PC. But the next step is a bit of a stretch.

Even if the XO did spawn the netbook, the lesson from this is two-fold. First, that non-profit initiatives such as the OLPC are particularly well-suited to creating new innovations, particularly for under-served populations.

Conversely, and this is the second lesson, the dissemination of commercially viable innovations is best left to the private sector. The XO laptop still costs upward of the original USD 100 target price. Meanwhile, the Amazon Kindle costs USD 259, the cheapest netbook now costs USD 98, and in developed countries netbooks are available for free with Internet/data plans. So the second lesson is that if you want cheap computers, don’t let a single institution – particularly a non-profit – build it as a monopoly.

A third lesson, to paraphrase Scott, is that teachers are part of the solution – not the problem. This is not wording that OLPC proponents would like because constructionsm sees teachers as a corrupting influence. Too much of the broader debate around the quality of education in developing countries also lays blame on teachers – without exploring the context in which they operate. Yet, is there an OLPC project that has substituted teachers with laptops? So, the second lesson is that if you want to achieve education for all, spend more on teachers and on computers. And if you must choose between the two, spend on the former.

Finally, it has also taught us that policymakers don’t always make the most judicious use of taxpayer money. The approximately USD 150 million spent on XO laptops, for instance, is the same annual amount needed to achieve 100% literacy in Brazil. Yes, the OLPC has certain other benefits, such as evaluating the impact, benefits and drawbacks of computers in the classroom. But at a potential price-tag of USD 66.8 billion for all the world’s primary school children, it would be a very expensive experiment indeed.

Lessons for India in America’s Academic Achievement Gap

McKinsey has released a new report (hat tip to the Atlantic) presenting some eye-popping numbers on how much America’s Academic achievement gap costs the USA. According to them the loss in productivity / innovation is equivalent to 16% of America’s current GDP – or about the size of Italy’s economy. Thomas Friedman has already opined about how this means the end of America, though the Atlantic takes a more sanguine view.

But hidden amongst those massive numbers is something that is far more relevant to India – the variance in the achievement gap across income and racial groups.

Furthermore, the gap between students from rich and poor families is much more pronounced in the United States than in other OECD nations. In a world-class system like Finland’s, socioeconomic standing is far less predictive of student achievement. All things being equal, a low-income student in the United States is far less likely to do well in school than a low-income student in Finland. Given the enormous economic impact of educational achievement, this is one of the best indicators of equal opportunity in a society, and one on which the United States fares poorly.

This is lesson number one for an India that is still deciding on which model is best for its education system. Since India must provide equal opportunity to its many minorities, no matter which model it chooses its defining purpose must be to promote upward mobility through equal access to education. Or, in other words access, not just quality, is important.

Highlighting the problem is the fact that the differential in achievements is even wider for minority groups:

On average, black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age. This racial gap exists regardless of how it is measured, including both achievement (e.g., test score) and attainment (e.g., graduation rate) measures.

In India one would expect the same to be true of students from lower castes or from economically poor backgrounds. The vast majority of those students go to government schools, and thus this adds weight to the argument made by Azim Premji that India must improve its government schools:

This is what the government school classroom represents; it represents the dreams and aspirations of India in a way that no other school system can. If we wish to transform India, this is where we have to begin. I suppose it is clear why we do grave injustice when we think of government schools as “schools for the poor”.

The third insight is that higher expenditure on the education system does not automatically translate into better achievement. The US spends the most, per capita, of any OECD country, yet is ranked 25th. The McKinsey report concludes that “by one measure we get 60 percent less for our education dollars in terms of average test-score results than do other wealthy nations.”

Of course, I do not wish to say that India does not need to spend more. It does. Yet, more money is not the only solution, and for a resource constrained country other alternatives must be looked at. A lot can be achieved through non-monetary incentives involving social engineering and treating the teaching profession with an element of decency.

There is much that separates the US from India. But appearently one problem that we do share is the inability of school going children to access a relatively decent education, despite the presence of world-class institutions. This problem is not simply one of quality, but also of access to quality, and there is a dichotomy between the two because resources must be addressed to only one problem at a time. In finding a solution Indian policymakers would do well to learn from the reality in the USA. They must turn the debate on education away from a focus on improving quality per se, to one of improving the quality of education where it is most lacking.

Educating India: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

In a recent op-ed for the Hindu, Dreze et all comment on the state of India’s elementary education, as noted by their Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE). Their article is a captivating summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly about India’s public education system.

The promising news is that much has improved. Appearently, school infrastructure has improved tremendously since the first PROBE survey in 1996-97. Disparities in enrollment have reduced, and mid-day meals now supplement education with nutrition. Most of all, school enrollment has improved to the point where “the goal of universal school participation is within reach.”

The bad news is that just as much has not improved. While the framework conditions might have improved, schools continue to fail in the actual delivery of education. Indeed,  “in rural north India, on an average day, there is no teaching activity in about half of the primary schools.” And where their is teaching, it is of an extremely poor quality.

And the ugly truth seems to be that there are no quick fixes – and few seem to care. Contract teacher and local empowerment have largely failed. But the most damming evidence is against the solution proposed by liberal economists of a wholesale privatization of education:

The proliferation of private schools in both urban and rural areas often creates an impression that this is the solution. A closer look at the evidence, however, does not support these expectations. The quality of private schools varies a great deal, and the ’cheaper’ ones (those that are accessible to poor families) are not very different from government schools. Their success in attracting children is not always a reflection of better teaching standards; some of them also take advantage of the ignorance of parents, for example, with misleading claims of being “English medium.” Further, a privatised schooling system is inherently inequitable, as schooling opportunities depend on one’s ability to pay. It also puts girls at a disadvantage: boys accounted for 74 per cent of all children enrolled in private schools in the 2006 survey (compared with 51 per cent of children enrolled in government schools). Private schooling therefore defeats one of the main purposes of ’universal elementary education’ – breaking the old barriers of class, caste, and gender in Indian society.

The evidence of the PROBE team directly contradicts other studies that suggest private schools to be better than government ones (evidence for private schools here, against here). It also seems to bear out the fear of most social scientists that private schools undermine social inequity. Therefore, it is likely to only energize the debate on which system is better. But PROBE provides a final argument for improving government schools that has seldom been considered before.

Despite the recent mushrooming of private schools, about 80 per cent of school-going children were enrolled in government schools in 2006 – the same as in 1996. This situation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, which makes it imperative to do something about classroom activity levels in government schools, instead of giving up on them.

Clearly, private education has a role to play in educating India’s masses. But the last 10 years show that given the right pressures on government education can improve. So rather than give up on 80% of our schools, this report should be treated as a call to action to achieve the remaining change that is still necessary.

For an overview of recent discussions on this debate and further references, see a prior post Rebuttal: Education and the State. For a more comprehensive assessment, see the Annual Status of Education  Report (ASER).

Note: The PROBE report itself seems not to be freely available – curious given its intended purpose and title. Anyone know if it is available online?

Regulating Education in India: How Much?

The Wall Street Journal is carrying a front page article (at least on the webpage) on the extent to which India’s higher education is failing its people. Not surprisingly, I also found an interesting commentary on Atanu Dey’s blog on this WSJ piece (education is one of his pet peeves).

The WSJ goes into excruciating details of how India’s license Raj is stiffling education and education providers.

“There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India that runs deep,” said Sam Pitroda, chairman of commission, in a report. “The system as a whole is overregulated.”

India’s national and state governments are pouring billions of dollars into expanding higher education. The Indian government, which funds about a third of India’s public higher-education costs (states pay the rest), plans a ninefold increase in spending to $17 billion over the next five years, according to a plan unveiled in 2007.

But reducing the bureaucratic burden on the sector won’t be easy. Any change in the powers of the All India Council for Technical Education requires a vote of Parliament, whose members can derive influence by pressuring educational institutions to admit children of supporters, several officials of colleges and college boards say.

“Education is a vote-getting patronage item,” says Ajit Rangnekar, deputy dean of the Indian Business School. That school, launched in 2001 with the support of India’s business elite, isn’t under the purview of the Council for Technical Education.

So far so good – that politicians and beauracrats use their position for power is hardly surprising. So yes, overregulation is a problem. And if lower regulation helped the boom in telecommunications, it is natural to expect it will also help education. But how far is enough?

Atanu goes too far in concluding that if too much government is bad then no government whatsoever must be the only way forward. The idea, that has been espoused often by many free-market economists, is that unbridled privatization of education will save us all.

To a certain extent, this assertion comes down to ideology – privatization has been en vogue. Yet, with the pendulum swinging the other way in America and elsewhere amid calls for greater regulation of everything one must pause to at least review if the alternative is so great.

Second, the suggestion that privatization is in itself a solution is too simplistic. India’s colleges suffer from red tape. However, they also suffer from lack of resources, a general paucity of trained teachers, a social framework that no longer values teachers (as it did gurus), and extreanous calls upon the attentions of teachers. The idea that the withdrawal of the government will solve all of these problems is disingenous. As Martin Carnoy had commented with regard to education vouchers:

I would like to believe, with Professor West, in a panacea that could make everyone learn more without investing enormous time and effort in improving children’s nutrition, home lives, and the way all schools deliver knowledge. Our task as educators and social reformers would be that much simpler. Unfortunately, vouchers tend to divert attention from the overall complexity of the learning problem rather than providing a real solution.

Altbach and Jayaram provide a more balanced perspective in the Hindu. Theirs is a perspective on the specific initiative (that the WSJ mentions) – the creation of world class universities. The article pokes quite a few holes into the government’s strategy. Yet, it concludes

The challenges facing the creation of world-class universities are daunting. Indeed, if India is to succeed as a great technological power with a knowledge-based economy, world-class universities are required. The first step, however, is to examine the problems and create realistic solutions. Spending large sums scattershot will not work. Nor will copying the American academic model succeed.

This is a more realistic view. But it also highlights why privatization in education will not be so easy. In India, universities have not merely been vehicles for enhancing competitiveness of a “knowledge economy.” They have had at least as important a role to play in social cohesion by providing a secular curriculum and the appearence of equal access. If we are to change that role, it cannot be done without a debate on the pros and cons.

Finally, there is one more argument against complete privatization. By all means, the government is responsible for the failure of higher education. But there are two responses to that failure – ask the government to withdraw, or hold it accountable to its citizens. I much prefer the latter. Certainly, it may not be the easier of the two, but it is how democracies should work.

Public or Private Education: A Pragmatic View

The following article was sent in as an email comment by Natasha Posarac, a friend currently working at the World Food Programme in Rome.

As a child of communism I am, of course, “in favour” of public education but really don’t know much about it in other countries. In Serbia, “private” (relating to universities only) education is for people who couldn’t get into a state university (which is free) and then they basically pay for a place in one of the private schools. I hear it is similar in Spain, with some business school exceptions. Quite a different story in Anglo-Saxon countries, no?

Therefore seems to me there is no inherently better model – a well-regulated private school system with guaranteed access to all students, guaranteed area coverage and strict and uniform learning standards can be equally good as a well-funded public system with activist parents and “correctly” set incentives for the teachers and administrators. The devil is in the details, as always.

In a country like India where inequality is accepted and status comes from family or group membership and personal wealth, the incentives for underpaid teachers to teach and parents in poor areas to demand school facilities from governments are small (all groups know they are not likely to get any satisfaction).

In China (if it’s anything like my communist education), status as a teacher is reward in itself and government should at least be seen to provide equal (if not always good) facilities for all students.

In countries with failed governments (or failed governance of areas such as slums) it seems to me there are some but not all incentives contributing to private education – for example activist parents send their children to school, aid organization gives money for teachers, WFP provides school meals for children and take-home rations to make it affordable to attend….the question is really would direct donor budgetary support to government’s education budget, together with a change management effort espousing the value of universal education produce the same or better educational result for the world’s children?

I would say yes. If the government doesn’t divert the money, if the politicians don’t steal it, if the slum children are counted and provided with facilities as other children, if the family manages to eat without child labour….if….all ifs that are not satisfied in probably 80% of this world. Thus people try to do the best they can with what they have and haphazard aid efforts help them in some cases – then we point to them as successes. But should it be a model? I don’t think so.

Universal free public education has only existed for a couple of hundred years in the developed world, and just because it does not yet in the developing world (or undeveloped or underdeveloped or whatever) it should not be given up on as a value.

However, it is clear that I or anybody else in the top 10% of the world’s privileged people can not expect reality to confirm to our values…yet. It is the same problem with food aid – yes maybe it creates dependence in the long term and stifles productivity and self-sufficiency. But when people are hungry what do you say? No food aid, here are some seeds to plant as the new policy is that you should be self-sufficient in the medium to long-term horizon. Until then….die?

So to summarize – yes to both public and private, whatever works in the place but public education, like public health is better as the conditions for a well functioning private market are not met in these areas – there are information failures and social benefits are greater than private benefits – therefore a clear THEORETICAL case for public.

Interesting indeed…ok, am going back to the issue of rising food prices – why don’t you do something on that?

Rebuttal: Education and the State

My last two posts (here, here) on the role of the state in providing education and conversely questioning that of the private sector, resulted in some very illuminating responses from both sides of the spectrum. As a result, I will soon followup with an additional post highlighting previously unaddressed issues in this debate (and welcome other contributions).

It is worth mentioning that some of the comments came from a very unlikely source – the E.G. West Centre at the University of Newcastle. For those unaware, the Centre is led by Prof. James Tooley who has done by far the most work on privatization of education, and is currently also President of the Education Fund at Orient Global. I have a lot of respect for his work in the trenches of urban poverty. So it is disappointing that some comments initially led me to believe that even questioning his hypothesis was seen by the Centre as a personal affront. In followup email communication though Dr. B. M. Craven was kind enough to provide substantial references in support of his argument. I will look at each of these to see if they address or counter the issues previously presented and provide them here as a possible rebuttal to my article (you decide).

Simultaneously, Dr. Craven also said he would “be glad to read any research which supports your thesis which you can recommend.”

While some data was presented in the last post, it is true that there has been little research that makes a case for public education. Of course, these days proposing any role for the State is fraught with risk but I’d still like to throw down the gauntlet to the readers.

Can you refer to any empirical studies that look at the benefits of education in a public setting and/or the failings of a private school system?

Proving the Worth of Public Education

In response to my last article defending public, state-funded education – particularly primary education in India – a few people pointed me to various studies that prove private schools are “better.” One of the most widely acknowledged of these is by Tooley & Dixon (Private Education is Good for the Poor, Cato Institute, 2005). Indeed, it is Tooley’s work on slum schools in India that got him hired by the US$100 million Orient Global Foundation. The School Choice campaign (India) also carries several studies, for those interested in more.

In view of such overwhelming “evidence,” what, after all, is the evidence in favor of public schools?

Yet, the evidence is very much there. After all, China far outperforms India on educational indicators such as enrolment and efficiency, despite having a largely public primary system. Clearly, you don’t need a private system to achieve high quality and provide universal access to education.

Closer to home, Abi at Nanopolitan shows how publicly funded Kendriya Vidyalaya schools outperform even private schools at the CBSE exams. In 2007, KV schools (of which there were 860), had a pass percentage of 95.6%. Jawahar Navodayas, had a pass percentage of 96.4%, private schools had 91.8%, and other government schools had 70.3%. Clearly, not all public schools are the same!

Another important point emerging from this post is the massive performance improvement that Delhi’s government schools displayed last year. The pass percentage of this group of schools improved from 59.73% to 77.12%. The key was offering the right carrots and sticks, as illustrated in the article. Clearly, then, improving quality is not a question of public or private, but of offering the right incentives – regardless of the system.

A third bit of evidence emerges, ironicaly, from Tooley’s study itself. A Dr. B.M. Craven writes in a comment that in Tooley’s study, “facilities such as toilets, playgrounds, desks, blackboards and computers were inferior in the private schools by comparison with the Government schools but such measures (inputs) do not appear to have affected outcomes.” Tooley’s summary also states that private unaided schools had “sometimes better facilities than government schools.” Yet, why are we settling for worse facilities, so long as they do not affect outcomes?

Such infrastructure is important not simply for outcomes, but in and of itself (would you prefer to send your child to a school without toilets, or one with?). It also has an important impact on limiting access and school choice (as pointed out previously, girls will be excluded in this system). Finally, it clearly points to the underlying problem of private schools – that they have no incentive to invest in anything that does not directly appear to improve quality – and will therefore not invest to correct existing inequities (through e.g. greater investment in infrastructure, outreach, etc.).

It is a sign of our times that we take all things publicly funded to be of poor quality, despite evidence to the contrary. While government is, in general, not known for service excellence, there is enough data out there showing that public schools can be very good (i.e. private schools are not necessary), and conversely, that private schools have substantial problems of their own (i.e. private schools are not sufficient to solve our problems).

As Martin Carnoy wrote: “I would like to believe, with Professor West, in a panacea that could make everyone learn more without investing enormous time and effort in improving children’s nutrition, home lives, and the way all schools deliver knowledge…Unfortunately, vouchers tend to divert attention from the overall complexity of the learning problem rather than providing a real solution.”

Education and the State: Seeking Balance

It is widely accepted that India’s education system has and continues to fail the vast majority of its population. Ironically, the country’s success in establishing a globally competitive service sector has, if anything, underscored that failure. Poor quality, however, is not the only problem. The other is access – vast numbers of children simply do not enter the primary education system or leave it too early. Literacy and enrollment are particularly low among women and other marginalized groups. This failure is most glaring when comparing India with China where illiteracy, at least, has been substantially eradicated.

These problems persist despite several initiatives by the Central government to improve outcomes. Increasingly, therefore, liberal economists, international development agencies, and philanthropies have called for a shift towards greater privatization of primary and higher education. In particular, calls emerge to disconnect the funding of education from its operation, through the provision of education vouchers.

Privatization has worked well in several situations in India. Yet as the belief that it works everywhere gains greater currency, there is a need to evaluate if education is also amenable to privatization.

The Basic Argument

The idea of private education vouchers was first put forth by Prof. Edwin G. West. More recently, high profile organizations such as the World Bank and the Orient Global Foundation (with committed funding of US$100 million) have given the idea new impetus.

The theory is simple – deregulate education and allow private operation of schools, giving parents the option to choose where they wish to send children (so called “school choice”). The resulting competition amongst schools for these “consumers” would lead them to improve quality and expand access. The obvious challenge of including poor students is solved by providing poor parents with vouchers funded by the government.

Voucher systems have been tested in several countries – developing and developed – and arguments exist for and against. But few have tested the underlying assumptions of the theory of privatization.

Testing the Assumptions

The success of a largely private system depends fundamentally on two things – a financial incentive and the natural competition of free-markets. The assumption of competition in turn assumes three things: a) that “school choice” is real, b) that it is not possible to cheat the system, and c) that information flows are reliable enough to evaluate quality.

Do these assumptions hold?

The fallacy of school choice: In a private system quality improves through competition. Yet, experience shows that true competition is unlikely here. This is first, and foremost, a matter of supply and demand. Demand for education vastly outstrips supply in India and will do so for the foreseeable future. This remains true in the most affluent areas of Delhi, where it is common for parents to apply to several schools to secure admission for their children. Further, the cost of switching schools is high, marked by a social cost to the child of readjusting to a new environment and the administrative/financial cost to parents of the process. Finally, and as pointed out by Charles Wheelan, schools tend to restrict supply simply to maintain quality. Consumer power, then, is so limited as to make “school choice” more of an illusion even in the most “privatization friendly” situations. And if it doesn’t work here what hope do parents in small, remote, poor villages have where exclusion is largely social and thus not corrected by vouchers?

The problem of cheating: The second assumption is that faced with strong incentives schools will improve actual outcomes rather than cheat the system. It is illustrative, here, to note that in response to the No Child Left Behind act, public schools in Chicago were found cheating on grades (they also underreported violence). That these were public schools is irrelevant – what is important is that faced with a top-down incentive to improve quality, schools preferred to cheat the system rather than make the necessary investments to improve actual quality.

Poor information for poorer consumers: This brings forth a final problem – that of evaluating quality. The education “market” is marked by poor information flows and by an inability of a large number of parents, who never went to school themselves, to evaluate objectively what a good school is. This again undermines the assumption that “school choice” exists. The truth is that we simply do not have a single definition of quality. Therefore, it is equally possible that schools that invest more in marketing and outreach – rather than in improving quality – will gain the most.

Unintended Consequences

There is one final test to which a private system must be put – even if private education were to improve quality, would it improve access and existing inequities in provision – or at least not make them worse? The two points cannot, of course, be delinked because any school’s outcome depends largely on the students it admits. Therefore, schools that receive students from academically poorer backgrounds must invest more to achieve the same outcomes. As Charles Wheelan said:

I expect that the Chicago Public Schools would be excellent if they had to accept only 1 of every 10 eligible students. (Indeed, the magnet schools in the system, which are allowed to select students competitively, are some of the best in the country.)

Second, education is often denied to children for a variety of causes and money or the absence of schools are only two of them. Others include the lack of roads, the lack of separate toilets for girls and boys (which prevents parents from sending girls), and the lack of “cultural capital” – such as supportive parents – which provides a select group of students with the skills to gain admission while depriving others of the same.

Can a largely private system ensure that schools help students overcome these barriers? Alternately, as education becomes a commodity, provided to the highest bidder, can its ill-effects be suppressed by ensuring necessary investments are made – such as arranging buses, building toilets, or helping disadvantaged students overcome their skills deficit through corrective courses? The obvious solution, of course, is oversight through regulation. Yet, to paraphrase economist Joan Robinson, “any State that has the capacity to prevent the ill-effects of the commoditization of education can also prevent the commoditization of education altogether; and any State that cannot prevent the commoditization of education lacks, ipso facto, the capacity to prevent its ill-effects.”

Is Privatization Necessary?

The preceding suggests that a private system is not a sufficient condition to better quality and access. Is it, however, a necessary condition? Or, is there another way of solving the problem through a public system?

There is no better argument that the same results are possible from a public system than China. As this comparison shows, China has done better than India both in providing quality and access to primary education, yet done so through a largely public system. Recent moves to privatize and deregulate education have been largely limited to higher education, with universities being encouraged to raise their own funds and endowments.

Clearly, then, privatization is not the only game in town. Nor is there any reason to believe that private schools are always preferred. For instance, a recent study in slums found that the vast majority of parents sent their children to “budget” private schools. This does not indicate a preference for private schools, but rather a lack of sufficient and good public schools. Moreover, very often in cases where both are present, private schools may be preferred not because of actual quality differences, but because of a social preference for private providers (seen as status symbols), or due to perceived rather than actual quality differences (bringing us back to the problem of defining quality).

Taking The Best of Privatization

It bears mentioning that despite its limitations, privatization does offer insight into the core problem – that public systems in India currently lack any compelling incentive to provide good education. The question should therefore be, how can incentives be built into public and private systems that ensure greater access and better quality without the negative consequences of a fully private system.

Clearly, this is possible. The American No Child Left Behind Act, despite its problems, is one example. In recent years, Delhi too has improved elementary education, largely by providing the right carrots and sticks to schools and teachers. Finally, one must also consider that the majority of government schools in India are poorly funded and managed. Simple measures such as a better working environment for teachers and basic infrastructure that indicate respect for their work would go far to provide non-financial incentives for improving quality. Indeed, without such changes comparing public and private schools is comparing apples to oranges.


The argument for privatization is at once political and ideological. It is political because it reflects how societies feel about the role of the state in providing “public” services such as healthcare and education. It is ideological because proponents often supplement demands for privatization with terms such as “economic freedom” or “choice” to justify their preference. Yet, this last confuses means with ends. The existence of choice can hardly be viewed as an end in itself in this discussion. Not only does such terminology presume that choice is informed but it is relevant in this debate only if it improves actual educational outcomes, rather than the perceived satisfaction of parents.

It would appear that privatization is neither necessary nor sufficient for better quality and access to education. Nor is money the only or even best incentive available to improve either. Yet, the debate does offer valuable insights into why our system has not worked and how to fix it. The current system can, therefore, gain much through greater competition (possibly internal) and better incentives (possibly non-financial).

Finally, this debate must recognize that quality is interlinked with access and equity. The two require clear tradeoffs – high quality can generally only come by selecting the best and conversely by denying access to the most needy. Therefore, no debate on privatization can occur without debating the balance between quality and equity that India wishes to achieve. It is as much a debate on what India’s system should be like, as it is a debate on what our national priorities are to be –to be a thoroughbred meritocracy or to offer equality of opportunity to the majority of our people.

Note: Throughout this text I have used the American English term “public school” to imply a “government school” (the British/Indian English equivalent).