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. I am being deliberatively provocative in this post.
One, 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-incharge would be to setup schools before doing any thing further. Similarly, when enrolments were low, having a physical school in 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.
Two, lack of funding led to thin spreading of funds focusing only on ensuring basic infrastructure. Coverage was the key.
Even today, infrastructure isn’t good in government schools. People’s mental picture of government schools with leaking roofs and old buildings is true to some extent. If anything, there is still a significant need for money to be spent on infrastructure, to make government school buildings look at least decent.
Three, the realisation of challenges in teaching first-generation learners is relatively new. Not just India, every country struggles with this. Even in US, poor neighbourhoods and those with first generation learners do face significant challenges and consistently under-perform.
Therefore, expecting India’s policy makers to predict these challenges back in those days, may not be a reasonable expectation. We realised this only after addressing the then critical issue of infrastructure.
Given these constraints, it may be hence unfair to criticise the infrastructure oriented approach of past decades.
One may note that lack of adequate funding is at the root of all the above three reasons. It’s the lack of adequate funding that led to 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.
We underestimate the extent of India’s achievement in taking schools to children and increasing enrolment. As Amarjeet Sinha notes
This is no mean achievement.
I had travelled in remote areas of Rajasthan, where the road isn’t fit for travel to vehicles except a sturdy forest jeep. They had no electricity, no water supply. They had to walk at least for 5–10 km to reach a nearest place where they can buy essentials. The road gets blocked in rainy season. Overall, these forest hamlets had literally nothing except for one thing — a school. There was a small school even in this remote location. It’s a symbol of exemplary success of India.
It is true that learning outcomes are poor and there’s a lot to be done on that front but we shouldn’t also underestimate what we have achieved.
In summary, the first four decades after independence was a disaster for primary education in India. The following two decades saw a rapid expansion in schools and enrolment, mainly to cover up the large gaps. Given the scale of these problems and inadequate funding, the infrastructure focus in past two decades is understandable.
PS: I have to yet carefully look at the data. But I suspect the post-1991 reforms that put constraints on India’s welfare spending might have a role in the funding crunch. This was precisely the time when the governments were waking up to correct mistakes of first four decades.