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Government Order Raj in K-12 Education
Permission-slip culture appropriates over 100 days from Indian private schools every year
An edited version of this has been published in EducationWorld with additions, references, quotes, and language unsanctioned by the authors.
Private schools—underappreciated and overburdened
Every day, private schools in India navigate discretion, vilification, and excessive regulation; schools are constantly walking the thin line between compliance and running afoul of the education administration. For instance, more than 1,000 schools in Karnataka face criminal charges for reasons ranging from relocating without obtaining permission to adding new class sections without authorisation, to teaching English without the required approval. Though 30 years have passed since the sun set on licence control raj in the broader economy, it continues to haunt the education sector.
Nearly 12 crore students, that is, half of India’s school-going children, go to private schools (Central Square Foundation, 2020). Contrary to popular belief, most private schools overwhelmingly serve lower- and middle-income families in urban and semi-urban parts of India. In fact, 45% of students attending private schools in India pay less than Rs 500 a month as fees (Kingdon, 2020). Despite the yeoman’s service, they provide in fulfilling the right to education, private schools find themselves entangled in a battle for operational freedom and public appreciation.
The education policy of the country, however, seems to operate in a different reality; the union and states fixate on throttling private schools with burdensome regulations (Muralidharan & Kremer, 2006). Case in point, the Right to Education Act. It is widely accepted that the Act laid excessive emphasis on input-centric and stringent norms related to school infrastructure and the qualification and salaries of teachers (Centre for Civil Society, 2022). Schools require immense amounts of capital to comply with the norms laid down in Sections 18, 19, 21, and 25, and the Schedule of the Act.
RTE is supplemented by 145 state Acts and 101 corresponding Rules and regular executive instruction by the administration at the state level (Anand & Sudhakar, 2020). This regulatory set dictates private schools’ opening, closing, what to teach, how to teach, who to hire, how to hire, how much to charge in fees, and how to manage their day-to-day affairs.
The least examined among all of these regulations are the executive instructions issued by education departments. Orders, circulars, notifications, and guidelines are issued day-in-day-out by state education departments and education boards. An original study by the authors finds that between 2010 and 2021, schools in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had to comply with a new Government Order (GO) issued by the State Education Department every 2 months. The situation was even worse in Rajasthan, where between 2014 and 2021, private schools had to comply with a new GO every three weeks. For the sake of argument, if we took one private unaided school each in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Uttar Pradesh, in total, they likely spent upwards of 37,000 hours over a span of 10 years just complying with orders. In a year, an unaided school would have invested around 125 working days complying with government orders. That is almost half of one employee’s time in a year!
Compliance burden from Government Orders in K-12 education
GOs prescribe in great detail the what and not of school recognition, admission, pedagogy, infrastructure, and management of teachers. They are generously prescriptive about what the day-to-day operations of a school should be like and what should be taught in schools and how.
In Andhra Pradesh, every sixth GO imposes compliance requirements either related to assessments or to the hiring of teachers, reflecting the extent of regulatory involvement. One specific GO even mandates that existing private school teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Test, while government school teachers are exempted. Additionally, these orders compel schools to appoint part-time teachers for co-curricular subjects such as dance, music, drawing, computers, work experience, and yoga. In Uttar Pradesh, 12% of government orders exclusively regulate unaided schools. (Refer to Figure 2)
School infrastructure is another preponderant theme in GOs. Per our estimation, between 2020 and 2021, schools in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan had to comply with at least 30 infrastructure-related GOs. In Uttar Pradesh, a 2013 GO states that schools risk derecognition if required building repairs are not made in 6 months. The same order reads, “For a private school to be recognised as an English-medium school, the exterior of the school building must be painted white”. This is one of the 38 compliances from the 20-page GO. A GO in Rajasthan asks schools to install and upkeep kitchen gardens in preparation for monsoon. The same GO requires the schools to install barbed wires or fences around all trees on the premises. In addition to the cost of time spent in compliance, the actual equipment and wage costs of compliance likely make a big dent in a school’s ability to deliver on its promise of teaching children.
School compliance-related mandates include input-centric activities like maintaining registers and returns, maintaining class strength and teacher-pupil ratio, and carrying out activities to obtain recognition and licensing. In carrying out these activities, each private unaided school in Rajasthan spent an average of 6,900 hours over 10 years, and half of this time was spent by school leaders; for Uttar Pradesh, this number was 4,800 hours.
Everyone but private schools got a leg-up after COVID-19
Private schools in India operate in the twilight zone, where they are a commercial entity run by non-profit trusts but are not afforded the privileges of either. They are treated differently than government schools; they are also treated differently than other private enterprises. The ‘othering’ of private schools at the hand of the State was cemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The onslaught of mandates through GOs worsened during this period. The Rajasthan State Education Department released a GO regulating private schools every week during 2020. One of these GOs sets up a 133-point guide for how schools should operate during the lockdown.
Private schools faced a chock full of problems during and in the aftermath of COVID-19—students migrated from private schools to government schools, governments imposed fee moratoriums on them, and at the same time, also froze any personnel adjustment. This trifecta of problems drove private schools, especially budget private schools, to the brink of collapse. The government made provisions for government schools and private entities to help them stay afloat during the pandemic. Expenditure on education as a percentage of the total expenditure of the Union Budget increased from 9.1% to 9.5% from 2020–21 to 2023–24. The government also extended aid to micro and small enterprises through the COVID Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme (ECLGS). Private schools were not thrown any of these lifelines.
Opportunity for reform
The current government at the Centre has committed to reducing the compliance burden for entrepreneurs. The Finance Minister announced that 39,000 compliances have been reduced while over 3,400 legal provisions have been decriminalised. It is a shame that private schools continue to be overlooked in this discourse.
Complying with regulations is time-consuming and distracting for schools. An hour here or an hour there in compliance may not seem relevant. The trouble is every hour diverted from teaching-learning activities is a disservice to our 120 million children. School leaders, for example, likely spent a quarter of their time complying with GOs, oftentimes received last minute on WhatsApp. A school leader is meant to set a course for academic achievement in a teaching institution. She must think about innovations in pedagogy, about teacher quality, about child socio-emotional development. Every bit of her attention taken away from this pursuit to absurd preoccupations such as fencing trees is a national tragedy. School leaders are not the only ones we worry about; teachers also have to play a role in school compliance. A teacher in Rajasthan likely loses more than a month of an academic year on compliance-related activities. This means that they have to complete their coursework in the remaining time, directly impacting the learning outcomes of students.
The uncertainty introduced by an overbearing and discretion-driven regulatory environment may be driving away investment in education. Not only does every regulatory mandate impose a direct regulatory cost on incumbents, but they also have an unseen opportunity cost; potential investors, school leaders, and teachers will just choose to invest their capital and time in other sectors.
Wherever we look, it seems like private schools have been dealt a bad hand. The private sector has to draw short breaths, living in a constant chokehold. Given the important role they serve in India’s education ecosystem and the learning loss the country is grappling with, perhaps it is time to reexamine school governance. The iron is hot and ready to strike with the new accreditation framework in the New Education Policy and the government gearing up to welcome private foreign universities in the higher education sector. We must rethink the licence control raj in education and bring in some ease of delivering education.
Anand, Bhuvana & Sudhakar, Tarini. Centre for Civil Society. (2020). Existing rule-sets governing K-12 Education in India.
Central Square Foundation. (2020). State of the Sector Report: Private Schools in India.
Centre for Civil Society. (2022). Anatomy of K-12 Governance in India: Evidence from States on Regulation of Private Schools.
Kingdon, Geeta Gandhi. The private schooling phenomenon in India: A review. The Journal of Development Studies 56, no. 10 (2020): 1795-1817.
Muralidharan, Karthik, & Michael Kremer. Public and private schools in rural India. Harvard University, Department of Economics, Cambridge, MA 9 (2006): 10-11.
Abhishree Choudhary, Bhavna Mundhra, and Prisha Saxena are researchers at Prosperiti. The summary of facts, papers, and datasets related to the analysis of government orders used in this article will be available shortly on our website and GitHub.