15 Mar 2009, 0249 hrs IST, Hemali Chhapia, TNN

More kids in private schools in Maharashtra, TN now

 MUMBAI: Even as public schools are mushrooming around the country, thanks to the education cess that powers the UPA government's flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme, the student numbers in government schools are dwindling. Fewer parents are opting to put or keep their kids in free schools across India. This trend is pronounced in two states-Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu-where, for the first time in 2007-08, the student population in private schools exceeded that in public schools.

The most recent data released by the Union government reveals some disquieting truths. Between 2002-03 and 2007-08, state governments constructed and started a total of 1.49 lakh schools across the country, and boasted increased enrolment. But the reality was strikingly different-the student population kept dwindling in the public institutes. Educationists note that private fee-levying English-medium schools, once popular in urban centres, are increasingly sought after in even the most obscure corners of the country.

Between 2002-03 and 2007-08, Maharashtra started 1,874 new public schools (primary and upper primary). But educationist J M Abhayankar notes that the state cleared the decks for opening an even larger number of private schools in rural areas. "There was a time when districts merely had zilla parishad-run schools. Now, Maharashtra's countryside has close to 6,000 private schools running at full capacity," Abhayankar adds. Little wonder then that the total enrolment numbers in government schools fell from 80 lakh to 77.5 lakh, while in private schools they soared from 73.5 lakh to over 79 lakh.

Equally telling is the data from Tamil Nadu, where the student numbers in private schools have outpaced those in public institutes. Chennai-based education activist S S Rajagopalan points out that his government has a policy of encouraging private schools so that the state's financial commitment dips. "It's a two-pronged attack--permit private schools to start, and reduce facilities in the government schools by not filling up teaching posts."

The Tamil Nadu government set up 3,139 schools between 2002-03 and 2007-08 under the SSA, but Rajagopalan observes that only "new buildings" came up. "If private primary schools have five teachers, the government institutes have just two teachers," he says. Parents cottoned on and "even ordinary people living a hand-to-mouth existence started moving their children to private schools".

At issue is what National University of Education Planning and Administration (NUEPA) vice-chancellor Ved Prakash calls "the large-scale privatization of school education". But the enrolment numbers for private schools available with the District Information System for Education (DISE) are way short of the real figures, says another NUEPA research fellow.

"Government data on the student population in private schools is way lower than in actuality. Across India, there are tens of thousands of unrecognized private schools which are not recorded in any government registry." Recently released government figures reflect information that has been collected from 98% of the country's recognized schools.

The thousands of crores of rupees collected through the education cess has indeed funded school buildings. But educationists know the harsher truth-- imparting quality education needs more than just money.

15 March, 2009