Infrastructure-focus wasn’t the mistake in education. Inadequate funding was….

Exclusive focus on “inputs”, especially infrastructure is a common criticism of the education policy of past few decades. I too initially thought so, but slowly I am realising that this criticism may not be completely fair, for several reasons. 
First, the realisation of challenges in teaching first-generation learners is relatively new. It's not as if there was already existing wisdom and India chose to deliberately ignore it. Even in the US, poor neighbourhoods and those with first generation learners do face significant challenges and consistently under-perform. Therefore, expecting India’s policymakers to predict these challenges back in those days and expect them to deliver with India's weak state capacity may not be a reasonable expectation. We realised this only after addressing the then critical issue of infrastructure.

Two, infrastructure focus was inevitable in a context of low enrolments and lack of schools. Imagine that you are in a scenario where there are no schools! The first priority of the person-in-charge would be to set up schools before doing anything further. Similarly, when enrolments were low, having a physical school in the neighbourhood was important, so that children can at least be brought into schools.
Given the large scale of India, it is imaginable to think of this task occupying the complete bandwidth of the education bureaucracy, So, the presumption of those decades that establishing a school and putting a teacher in it leads to outcomes is understandable.
Three, lack of funding led to the prioritisation of improving the poor infrastructure. You can't expect teachers to work to their fullest potential if you can't provide basic facilities like toilets. Even today, infrastructure isn’t good in government schools. People’s mental picture of government schools with leaking roofs and old buildings is a testament to that process. The fact that only 30% of government schools had usable toilets before Swach Bharat Abhiyan is a testimony to this. If anything, there is still a significant need for money to be spent on infrastructure, to make government school buildings look at least decent.  Hence, whatever little money allocated to education got exhausted in salaries and infrastructure.

In other words, it’s the lack of adequate funding that led to the prioritisation of infrastructure, sidelining other important and necessary issues. It is the lack of funding that made coverage the key and not the quality. It is the lack of funding that has delayed the organisational learning process.

The lesson for policy advocates is that it is more important and productive to demand an increase in allocation to education that to prioritise the little amount that it receives currently. Definitely, money can't solve all the problems but problems can't be solved without money either. Having money will at least make people think of what to do! Currently, that thought doesn't even arise due to lack of funding that places mental constraints on policy makers' imagination of what can be done.

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