Why Decentralisation Might Mean Better Primary Education?

Vikas Argod

The scale is unbelievable. It is a massive network of 10 lac public elementary schools- about 80 percent of total schools in India. The budgetary allocation for elementary education in 2009-10 was at 97,255 crores. Gross Enrollment Rate has crossed 95 percent. Overall literacy rate has increased. But, the “learning levels” in government schools, especially in the north, have steadily declined and it is quite alarming. This picture is dismal because three out of four don’t learn enough to pass threshold in a year. One in three children complete lower primary, having spent 5,000 hours in school, still lacking the most fundamental of skills – reading. Obvious question, why?

According to the core concepts of Shikshana, a child needs three important resources for better performance at school: “adequate nutrition, optimal space and a dedicated teacher”. Government interventions like mid-day meals, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan have shown promising improvement on first two counts. However, teacher has become the serious bottleneck. How can we fix this? Higher salary? Tighter control? More visits by block officer? A big NO.

Answer lies in incentivising via decentralisation. Allow “decentralised decision-making” to create “government funded locally managed schools”. Currently 77 percent of education budget goes toward teachers and management, 15 percent on infrastructure. Interventions aimed directly at children account for just 7 percent. All teacher related decision making lies with education bureaucracy. In order to engage citizens, RTE mandates the creation of School Management Committees (SMCs). They are tasked with coming up with a plan based on which expenditures should be decided. But centralised delivery system has disempowered these committees giving no incentives for parents to take part.  Decentralisation of schools through SMCs should be major incentive for local people to take responsibility.

First, SMCs should get, “untied block grant structure that would enable the school to take spending decisions based on its own felt needs.” Currently SMCs can spend 5 percent of funds, but this is packaged with red-tape. If SMCs are given authority to use the money on school felt needs, rather as decided by district or block officials, it would be better spent. These ‘untied’ grants should be finalised soon after the annual budget to give adequate time to plan before the start of academic year.

Second, the teachers should be made accountable to SMCs, with periodic performance appraisal of teachers by SMCs and also option to award incentives. They could even propose disciplinary actions against teachers for failure to deliver. However, steps should be taken to avoid principal-agent problems.

Third, the SMC members should be trained for strengthening their planning capacity. RTE allocates money for training without laying down any steps to spend. So, money remains mostly unspent. For efficient use of training funds, voucher system should be followed. The members will use vouchers to get trained on community planning. They now have an incentive of personal development which in turn motivates more people to get into SMCs.

Along with these changes,  “a transparent fund tracking system holds the key to a strong, accountable, decentralised system of delivery”. Real time tracking of finances is important. The SMCs should be elected by a local election, predominantly by parents, with tenure limits of two terms. This step would avoid moral hazard, given parents would always like their children to go to better governed schools.

Incentivising the SMCs with greater control and role in the school’s development has the potential to solve many interconnected problems in education system. Given SMCs are already in place, giving them additional control, in a phase wise manner, is certainly a right step toward achieving better quality of education.

Vikas Argod actively volunteers at IndiaGoverns Research Institute, a Bangalore based public policy data analysis organisation. He works for a business data analysis company in Pittsburgh, US. Views expressed here are personal.


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