24/12/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 16/11/2017 6:20 PM IST

Desegregating Primary Education: Resetting The Scales Of Inequality?

Kerala, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia
Felix Hug via Getty Images
Kerala, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Inequalities at birth contribute to unequal adult outcomes, often through selective exclusion from human capital markets and unequal labour market participation. Socio-economic segregation in the education sector is only reinforcing this cycle of inequality -- childhood deprivation travelling well into adulthood and often on to subsequent generations. The Right to Education Act (2009) attempts to change this narrative of early childhood socialisation through a selective balancing of the scales. Section 12(1)(c) of the Act mandates reservation of 25% seats in private unaided schools for economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups.

Although desegregation does not guarantee equality either in terms of individual opportunity or welfare, they are close sociological relatives. To that extent, the RTE is well-intentioned. Desegregation efforts in other parts of the world have reported positive results: significant improvements in achievement gaps, longevity, adult earnings and greater social cohesion.

Even if affordability constraints seem to be lifted for a few "lucky" poor students in private schools, quality constraints stay put for government schools.

However, the alignment of policy intention, implementation and achievement is not formulaic and needs to be evaluated carefully and comprehensively. There is half-heartedness to the effect that desegregation is limited to private schools alone. Advantaged sections do not find government schools to be appropriate avenues and face a shortage of preferable substitutes. In this light, criticism of disproportionate burden on the private sector and shifting the onus of public provision of education must be taken seriously.

Given the systematic failure of government schools, parents face a quality-restricted choice set of private schools despite the excess supply of low-quality government schools. Even if affordability constraints seem to be lifted for a few "lucky" poor students in private schools, quality constraints stay put for government schools. Thus, desegregation of private education needs to be complemented by an overhaul of the government school system to increase school choice for advantaged students as well. Along with the RTE, this will be a key policy measure to include public schools in the portfolio of available options to advantaged students.

Even so, policy measures alone will not succeed in delimiting the currently stratified provision of quality education and the associated inequality in access. Several deeply ingrained cultural divides are enshrined in our societal fabric. High-fee private schools are meant for advantaged sections, while government schools ought to look after disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, these stereotypes still dictate creation of new services, delivery methods as well as innovation and design. As long as the demand for socially differentiated services will persist, disadvantaged students will have incomplete access in private schools despite policy recommendations.

Sustainable implementation of long-term educational reforms to improve provision in both sectors is needed. These must begin now and at school entry levels. Else, if the scales are unbalanced from the start, incrementally equal weights will only yield a tilted result in the end.

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