On Delhi government's order to remove 62 types of admission criteria to schools

"Directorate of Education vide its circular dated 8/12/2015 directed all the Private Unaided Recognized Schools to develop and adopt criteria for admissions for the 75% Open Seats to Entry Level Classes for session 2016-17 which shall be clear, well defined, equitable, non-discriminatory, unambiguous and transparent."

After schools uploaded the criteria, the Delhi government reviewed them and passed an order scrapping 62 admission criteria (please read the full list of criteria). This has led to a wide debate on the merits and demerits of such decision. This discourse demonstrates five aspects of reform narratives in education.

First, the discourse and debate on this decision is symptomatic of the general debate on private school regulations in India, a debate which is influenced by headlines without getting into details and the one loaded with biases. Some responses to this decision came within few minutes after the decision was announced, substantiating this observation. It is humanely impossible to study the 62 criteria within few minutes and comment on them.

As this blog has argued earlier, private schools are subject to unreasonable regulations. Private schools find it expensive in terms of money, time and efforts, to adhere to these regulations. Private schools and those championing their cause thus feel that any new regulation is going to a burden on them, painting all the regulations with same brush, which is reflected in the discourse.

The 62 criteria can be divided into broadly three categories – frivolous (submitting two photographs, ID proof etc); discriminatory (parental occupation, smoking and eating habits of parents etc); possibility of misuse (mandating use of school bus etc). Unlike now, an honest, informed and productive debate on this would have been a debate on the desirability of each of the 62 individual criteria or as per their category and not decide base on generic arguments.

Two, the discourse depicts the moral asymmetries associated with the word 'private', role of the school as an institution and fragmented approach of narratives in education. This blog has earlier strongly argued for making it legal to earn profits from education. It has also observed that the narrative on education is highly fragmented, with each trying to analyze the issue from a narrow perspective. One can observe both of these in the discourse on this decision.

The word ‘profit’ is subject to diverse interpretations and value judgments. This blog argued for legalizing profit making from the perspective that there is nothing wrong in making profit from providing education services. On the other hand, opponents to this idea view ‘profit’ as ‘profit at any cost’. Consider this example - a while back, Tamil Nadu government had passed an order banning schools to have students of two types of services in same school with different treatment meted to students based on their  fee. Champions of private schools and autonomy argue that there is nothing wrong with this policy of schools and that schools should have the right and freedom to do so. It is argued that railways and flights have differential services in same train and flight based on the price paid and that schools can follow that too. The other side argues that schools are places to nurture humans and have a social responsibility and that such discriminatory practices are not acceptable in schools.

Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) had earlier drafted a Prevention of Malpractices in School Bill, which had similar provisions where denial of admission to students suffering from HIV/AIDS is one of the prohibited practices. This is also an issue of social relevance of school as an institution, which doesn’t authenticate and amplify the social prejudices, instead takes lead in eradicating them. From the autonomy perspective, one can argue that schools have the right to set criteria for admission and hence have the right to deny admission to such children. From the other perspective, one can argue that schools have social responsibility and cannot resort to such practices. The ‘discriminatory’ criteria of ‘religious ethos’, food and drinking habits of parents etc listed in the Delhi government’s order come under the same category.

In this discourse, champions of private school and autonomy fail to acknowledge the social relevance of school as an institution and dismiss opposition to such practices. This line of arguments confirms opponent’s fear that allowing ‘for-profit’ schools would increase such instances as such people would pursue any means to earn ‘profits’, without concern for social relevance of school and education, increasing the resistance to such reform. This is also the reason for one of the fears over voucher system. Some worry that that if vouchers are allowed, there is a possibility of private schools becoming a monopoly and can resort to such non-acceptable practices and their resistance to adhere to regulations can make it difficult to regulate them.  On the other hand, opponents of legalizing ‘for-profit’ education mistake the social relevance of school as an institution to the tax-nature of the organization and fail to acknowledge constraints due to making such rules. It may be noted that one can still be socially responsible without being discriminatory, while still making profits. In summary, one side doesn't appreciate the sociological aspect of the context and the other side doesn't appreciate the economics of the context.

Discourse which amplifies the misunderstanding, which is based on generic principles without acknowledging the context, can only hurt the cause of legalizing ‘for-profit’ schools. For the sake of education, it would be better if proponents of school autonomy acknowledge the social relevance of school as an institution and opponents of for-profit education to understand the constraints due to this rule and that it is possible to be a socially responsible organization despite being a for-profit organization.

Three, response to this order depicts the challenges and complexity of designing regulations, an issue of state capacity. This blog had earlier proposed a framework of state capacity which argued that capacity to design regulations is one of the components of state capacity. We are new to the concept of regulations on private schools and it is still evolving.

Some schools uploaded ‘two photographs’, ‘ID proof’ as criteria for admission. Probably they mistook criteria for verification requirements. This suggests the challenges in communicating the essence of regulations to schools.

The Delhi government has followed a participative and iterative approach here where it requested schools to set their own criteria and then looked at these criteria and removed some. As argued earlier in the blog, iterative approach can bring political challenges, which is reflected in the response to this decision.

This also highlights the importance of details of regulation and necessity of a strong, quick and responsive judicial framework. Delhi High Court specified in one of its judgments that schools have autonomy to devise the procedure to admit students but subject to condition that such criteria are fair, reasonable and transparent. Delhi government thinks that the 62 criteria are unfair, unreasonable and non-transparent. Some schools may feel that some of these criteria are fair, reasonable and transparent, in which it has to approach courts. Approaching over burdened courts is associated with costs for the petitioner and it may take valuable time to resolve such disputes hampering the school system. As we move towards more private systems and as regulations become important, it is important to have a strong judicial framework to resolve such disputes.

There are challenges in designing clearly defined regulations catering to complex situations. For instance, consider the criteria of ‘religious ethos’. There can be a school which believes in a particular type of philosophy or way of thinking and the pedagogy, environment and values in the school are designed around it. Parents being important partners in the education of children, schools expect them to share similar views to ease the process of educating the child. Banning such criteria can hamper the functioning of such schools. On the other hand, this criterion can be misused by some schools to discriminate children based on religion. It demonstrates the challenge in customizing and designing the norms accordingly.

Four, opposition from some sections demonstrates the importance of sequence of reforms in education. This blog had earlier argued that any approach to fix teacher accountability should first start with addressing their problems. Trying to make them accountable without addressing their problems results in a backlash. Similarly, in an environment where private schools are loaded with regulations, any new regulations, even if they are well meaning, will result in a backlash.

Five, the supply gaps in education, created by entry barriers. There is a lot of discussion on quotas and recommendations by MPs, MLAs and the need to ban those quotas but no one seems to ask, why do such quotas exist? Why do people seek recommendations to get admission? This is also observed in state run Kendriya Vidyalayas where the union government has increased MP’s quota from 6% to 10%. One can observe that such system is operative only in schools that are perceived to be of good quality. This demonstrates supply gaps in education. The question then is – why do we have so few schools that are perceived to be of good quality? If there is high demand, why aren’t new schools coming up? High entry barriers is one of the main reasons for this.

The land requirements to set up a school in a city like Delhi, as required by law, run into crores. It is not possible to retrieve the whole money in reasonable time frame from student fee. This makes it possible only for a few people to set up schools. To recover the money, schools pursue methods like mandating school bus, to earn extra money (third category of 62 criteria).

Quality enhancement measures like teacher training, investments in pedagogy etc are associated with high costs, which can’t be retrieved from students of one school. One can spread these costs across children, if they have a chain of schools. In current scenario, where infrastructure requirements are high, it is difficult set up such chain of schools with personal money. Neither can a person raise investments from venture capitalists; the way it is done in startups, because education is mandated to be ‘not-for-profit’ and excess money made from school should be reinvested in school, which leaves no incentive for VCs to invest. Easing these regulations can bridge supply gaps and hence address the needs of parents and children.

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