A new school education grading index devised by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, in consultation with Central think tank Niti Aayog, encourages states to allocate 20% of their budgets to education, and to source 1% of that from private sources.

First discussed at a ministry meeting in July, the Performance Grading Index is similar to the Niti Aayog’s 2016 effort, the State Education Quality Index – with a few significant differences. Both grade a state’s performance on the school education front out of a total of 1,000 points, scaled down to a grade of 10 or 100.

But the Performance Grading Index considers 70 parameters compared to the State Education Quality Index’s 44. The new index also gives less weightage to “learning outcomes”, which is gauged from how children perform in large-scale assessment tests such as the National Achievement Survey. And it introduces a new category – “infrastructure and facilities”, which, for instance, looks at whether schools have toilets, laboratories and libraries. An essential element in the Right to Education Act, 2009, the availability of basic infrastructure is missing in the State Education Quality Index.

Beyond stating the terms for the education schemes it funds, the Central government has little say in how states organise their school education systems.

The Performance Grading Index, according to the guidelines for its implementation, is intended to encourage states “to implement certain universally accepted governance reforms, identify areas for improvement, measure critical outcomes and check how they are performing vis-a-vis other States [and Union Territories], all of whom are working within the same conditions”. The guidelines are not yet a public document and were obtained by a social work student through the Right to Information Act, 2005.

A ministry official expressed the hope that “recognition for what they are doing” and a “separate kitty [of funds] as incentive for doing well in the Index” would nudge states to usher in education reforms. The “special kitty” is reportedly a separate fund the government plans to set up over and above existing funding mechanisms to help states with repair projects and other school improvements.

However, activists worry the new grading index will only make states more dependent on private funds and eventually result in a ranking system for states that can be misused.

Two indices

According to the Performance Grading Index guidelines, the ministry is already compiling data on 53 of the 70 parameters through existing instruments and platforms such as the Unified District Information System on Education, National Achievement Survey, monitoring systems for school education schemes and the mid-day meal programme.

However, several of the 17 new parameters will require new systems of data collection to be put in place. For this, the ministry has recommended using “digital mechanisms” – on the lines of the system used to track daily attendance at mid-day meals, for example.

Some of the 17 parameters address gaps in governance structures that are common to both indices. For example, both indices grade schools on the “percentage of academic positions filled” in state and district teacher-training institutions; on “average occupancy” of administrators such as district education officers, education secretaries and project directors over a three-year period; and on whether teachers are recruited and promoted “through a transparent online system” that advertises vacancies, lays down the criteria for selection, offers counselling services and puts out the results. Both indices also require states to declare the “average number of days” they take to release the Central and state shares of funds for shared schemes.

But the Performance Grading Index has a few fresh indicators too. It recognises that simply recording student enrolment is not enough for policy and intervention planning, and that performance in tests must be correlated with the attendance of both teachers and students. It also requires schools to declare the “average daily attendance” of both teachers and students in “an electronic attendance system”. This is yet to be established in many states.

The new index also places greater emphasis on governance and infrastructure than the State Education Quality Index. It assigns 150 points for infrastructure, which is altogether missing in the Niti Aayog-developed index.

“Equity outcomes” – gauged by comparing test results and transition rates of students from general and marginalised backgrounds – gets 230 points in the new index in place of 150 in the State Education Quality Index.

On the other hand, the new index assigns just 180 points to test-based “learning outcomes and quality” against the 360 points this parameter gets in the State Education Quality Index.

“Poor learning outcomes” represent the “failure of the whole system”, a senior ministry official said at the meeting in July. The idea is to bring “structural, systemic reforms” so the “system becomes healthy”, the official added.

‘Arbitrary’ indicators

But education activists have several reservations about the Performance Grading Index, starting with the concept of an index itself and the ranking of states by performance, which they believe will inevitably follow.

Ramakant Rai of the National Coalition for Education said the index might be “used for political mileage”.

According to Kiran Bhatty of the Centre for Policy Research, “ranking tends to be marred with controversy”. She said, “The indicators do not reflect the entire picture. A state may be doing badly, or well, for reasons not reflected in the indicators. As a result a state with a low grade may not be able to address its problem as it is not included in the grading system and thus remain stuck, whereas a state with a high grade my loose incentive to do better. Reducing the complex experience of delivering a social service to a number and rank is thus problematic.”

Rai said the Performance Grading Index has missed out on several important indicators, such as the falling number of girls in schools and non-scholastic aspects of education. He noted, for instance, that the index relies on data reported by schools on the number of out-of-school children who have been enrolled but makes no effort to cross-check reports of action taken against their employers. Schools similarly report dropout rates but this phenomenon is not defined the same way across states, Rai pointed out. “Some states may strike the name of a child [off their rolls] after seven consecutive absences, others may wait two months,” he said. Rai went on to say, “They are relying on the [District Information System for Education] for every type of school – government, government-aided and private – but that is not reliable. Unlike government schools that cannot lie about the number of teachers because salaries are disbursed on the basis of this data, private schools can always exaggerate. This data is verified only for a sample of 5% schools and to judge a state based on it is dangerous.”

‘Against the concept of public education’

But it is the parameter pertaining to funding that has troubled educationists the most. “If a State/UT spends 20% of its total budget on education, that state/UT will get a score of 10,” the index guidelines say. This may push states to increase the share of education in their budgets – which would be a positive step. According to a Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability report covering 10 states, the share of education in state budgets in 2015-2016 ranged from 10.8% in Karnataka to 17.7% in Bihar. For Delhi, the allocation to education was already 20% of its budget, the report added.

However, the index also encourages schools to raise “funds… through PPP, CSR, etc [public-private-partnerships, corporate social responsibility and others] as a percentage of state/UT budget on school education”. States that manage to raise 1% of their education budget from such arrangements get a maximum score of 10.

This parameter has Ramakant Rai as well as Ambarish Rai, convenor of the civil society group Right to Education Forum, wondering if the government is thinking of introducing a body like the Higher Education Finance Agency for schools as well. The agency, a non-banking finance company set up to raise funds from the private sector and give loans to public institutions of higher education for infrastructure expansion, was registered last year. Said Ambarish Rai, “The state can generate additional revenues if it likes but funds generated from the private sector should not be part of the budget – it is against the concept of public education.”

According to Kiran Bhatty, it would be “tricky” to think of private funding as a positive step. She explained, “Since there are as yet no regulatory mechanisms in place for private sector participation, giving a positive score for securing private funding can be tricky. The grading system does not take into account conditionalities, that private funding may come with. These could include changes in the management or administrative structure that violate the norms of public education.”