The tragedy of being ‘Public’- Can the Education system prevail over its ‘well-wishers’


We call it the public education system- 200 million children, 5 million teachers, 1 million schools* and an administrative workforce that will run  into hundres of thousands. Bulk of India’s children continue to depend on govenrment schools and support institutions for their education. Over the years, right from the time when the English tired hard to screw it to the present day, the Indian education system has been questioned, quashed, ridiculed etc etc.

If we look at where we, as a country, have reached there are reasons to believe something in the education system has clicked and continues to prod it along. A doze of optimism will tell us that the situation is not irremediable. From where we are right now, things can always get better.

The fact that we have a problematic ‘public’ education system means we have to look for ‘public’ solutions or rather public’s solutions. This is where the tragedy begins. Look, who is interested in getting the system back on track? The government, may be because it is constitutionally mandated to do so; Civil society, may be because it is the custodian of whatever is ‘right’ and trusts that it can be done; Parents and children, may be because they don’t have an alternative. Corporates, because they see an opportunity here, to make a mark; CSRs, because they have the resources to make a difference and there are others who might want to get the system on track for varied reasons. Henceforth, i will use the word ‘well-wishers’ for these actors. 

Why is this a tragedy??

The word tragedy was memorably used in the development world in the year 1968 when Garrett Hardin first published the ‘Tragedy of Commons’. The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource (Wikipedia).

In trying to improve the education system, each attempt is being made ‘independently’ and ‘rationally’ and by consulting certain slef-interests. The usual process of improvement starts with problematizing the situation and then coming up with perfect answers. These answers could be exclusive or inclusive, conventional or weird, doable or just try-able. For some well-wishers a ‘just try-able’ or pilot-able solution is the best solution because it is a convenient way to stake a claim in the systemic reform club. For others, like parents and children, the problem is such an overwhelming and stark reality that answers are hazy and difficult to pursue. Whoever the stakeholder might be, it is worth remembering that understanding anatomy of ‘improvement’ is important if one wants to make a definitive impact on the system. Without really understanding what constitutes the system and how each part can be made to work together any attempt at change will be futile. It can be dangerous too, because misled and random actions can cripple the system that they are supposed to improve. As an example take the case of a district or state education office. It is a very promising idea to engage ‘experts’ in improving the practices and prospects of these offices but doing so by taking over their work and hijacking decision making should not be passed off as reform. For those engaged in it, it might be just another wonderful idea but the consequences of such ideas are born by the system. And mostly, these ideas are shortlived and task based. If writing a textbook is a priority, let it be written by someone who sits in his/her home or office and submits a draft within a month. Meanwhile, the state office just waits to hear from the ‘expert helpers’.

Another tragedy with the Public system is that some parts of the system might be ardent supporters of such change. It is not difficult to see why this is so- outsourcing has done wonders and it tends to deliver quick and easy results.  The pitfalls of mass offloading of work are feebly documented and analysed. So, the best way to resurrect a limping system is to to carry it on a vehicle, rather than strengthening its connections and coordination.

It is important to pin down accountability, especially in the case of such partnerships because finishing a few tasks and declaring ‘significant’ changes is the easy thing to do. What is difficult, and most needed, is to leave a memory with the system that can regenerate ideas and replenish the gaps. If the promise is to transform the public education system it cannot stop at mere replacement. First step is to understand the difference between the two- transform or replace, and then to understand a simple fact- you can transform only if it is alive and if it is alive, it can change itself.

When everything else shall be laid to rest, there will remain a set of children who will walk to a government school each morning in the hope that one day they will achieve what they desire. Everyone else, almost everyone, would have moved on because there is always a new cause waiting for support, a new ‘program’, a new set of deliverables.   

* For exact numbers please see DISE- www.dise.in

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