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Rise of private schooling in India

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The Rise of Private Schooling in India
The Right to Education Act, 2010 imbibes the principle of free and universal education for all
children between the ages of 6 and 14 years in India. The Act was a long time coming and by
inking it into the Indian Constitution, the Government solidified its commitment towards
ensuring universality of education, uplifting education to the status of a fundamental right. In
the spirit of tackling education and nutrition at the ground level, the Government also
launched the Mid Day Meal Scheme in 2001, wherein all government schools from all over
the country are required to feed their primary level children a meal of a minimum of 300 kilocalories and 8-12 grams of protein for a minimum of 200 days in a year. The scheme creates
incentive for parents, especially from the lower rungs of the society to enrol their children in
schools and to keep them there, ensuring that they do not drop out of schools.
It is increasingly becoming evident that the schemes and programmes of the government with
regard to primary education are geared more towards ensuring universal education than
towards focussing on the quality and content of the education imparted. The government's
drive for attaining quantity at the cost of ignoring quality, the poor performance of
government schools on tests and exams, the dismal infrastructure of many government
schools, especially those located in rural areas and the infamous indifference and absenteeism
of government school teachers has prompted an entire crop of private schools to mushroom
all over the country. Private schools refer not only to elite schools functioning in towns and
cities, but also to low cost private schools, that have in recent times attracted a significant
number of primary level enrolments, even in rural areas. The widespread notion that private
institutes provide a better education to children has turned people's tastes and preferences in
favour of these institutes, and the lack of competitive challenge posed by public schools has
only fuelled their growth. As more and more parents demand education for their children and
as more and more parents grow unhappy with the state of government education, the
government is faced with mounting pressure for funding private education institutes rather
than providing education itself. The government has been called upon to launch either a
voucher based education system wherein it shall fund the endeavour of parents to send their
children to a private school of their choice or a public private partnership system of
schooling.
The much touted argument of the efficiency of private school systems has some weight, at
least when it comes to cost efficiency. Private schools, especially the low cost private schools
that have proliferated all over the country to cater to the demand of middle and lower middle
income families operate at a much smaller cost than government schools. If we leave out the
elite, global and international private schools of the metropolitan and highly urbanized
centres, it is noticed that private school teachers earn a much lower income than those of
public schools. Private school teachers are much less qualified than public school teachers but
are willing to work at much lower salaries and are more engaged and accountable. Given the
lack of permanence of job and the opportunity cost in term of having to find a job elsewhere,
private school teachers are more likely to be actively engaged in teaching and are inclined to
take fewer leaves of absence. Moreover the significantly low pay of private school teachers
allows the school management to hire multiple teachers resulting in better teacher-pupil ratios
and lower instances of multi-grade teaching by the same teacher. Thus one can argue that
private schools, even if they have the same learning outcomes as public schools, are more
cost effective and exhibit a more engaged and involved effort from the teacher's side.
The Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) published annually is a survey of rural
households in India conducted by the non-governmental organization Pratham. The ASER
Report for 2014 shows that while only 18.7% of primary school students in rural India were
enrolled with private institutions in 2006, this figure has risen to 30.8% now. For states like
Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, rural enrolment in private primary schools has
almost doubled, while for a state like Uttar Pradesh where already 30.3% rural students were
enrolled in private institutes in 2006, this figure has increased to 50%. The data also shows
that there are several states where share of private sector in primary education has crossed the
mark of 50%. Corresponding figures for urban areas are not available, but it can be claimed
that given the sharp rural-urban divide in the standard of living, and given the fact share of
primarily level school children attending private schools would be much higher.
Learning outcomes in terms of performance on tests and exams for private schools are known
to be at least as good as those for government schools. An argument advanced in academic
circles, that seeks to justify the better learning outcomes precipitated by the private sector is
that private schools receive applications from a very selective pool of students. These
applicants are, more often than not, children with better socio-economic backgrounds,
children with educated parents or parents who make the conscious choice of sending their
children to private schools because they have pre-conceived notions, and rightly so, about the
quality of education imparted in public schools and children who already hold advanced
learning abilities. It is also argued that students of private schools generally have a year or
two on the children from public schools because they often hold an extra year or two worth of
classes in the form of upper and lower kindergarten. Despite such objections on the efficacy
of private schools, these schools are deemed to be more efficient on account of teaching
children a diversified range of subjects and also for exhibiting better English learning
outcomes, a highly desirable consequences in the eyes of several parents.
The superiority, even if a mere marginal superiority of private schools over government
schools prompts one to ask the question whether government schools should be shut down in
their favour.
It can be argued that people do not inherently like private schools more than government
schools but are led to prefer them only because of the quality of education, indifference of
teachers and the state of infrastructure in government schools. Thus private and public
schools are not substitutable but are increasingly considered so because of the deplorable
state of quality and even quantity of education imparted. It cannot be that only for-profit
school providers and corporate entrepreneurs know the secret of raising education standards
of marginalized kids in poor countries and that public provision of education is part of the
problem rather than being a solution. The greater efficiency of the private sector should not
be taken as an excuse for the public sector to completely pull out of the education sector and
hand the reigns of educational progress of the country over to the private sector. Education is
a public good and delivering educational outcomes is the responsibility of the government.
By passing the Right to Education Act, the government has already acknowledged its role as
the provider of education to its children. In fact, India has made great headway towards
expanding primary enrolment, it remains however lacking in quality and equity.
There are other reasons why the government should not pull back it's hand from governing
education in the country. India is still a developing country. It is inconsequential how low
cost private schools are, it has to be remembered that there is a section of the poor who
cannot afford them. Moreover, the very low cost of the private schools is precipitated not
from low fees for students but instead from the incredibly low salaries paid to teachers.
Private service providers by their very nature are profit oriented and not only would one
expect them to keep the fees high while cutting back on the salaries of its staff, but also one
would not expect them to open shop in far off areas. It is the onus of the government to
extend the reach of education into the remotest hinterlands of the country which are hard to
reach or where demand is not high enough to warrant the building of private schools. It is the
government's job to ensure that education and opportunity reaches each and every child
within the territory. Gender discrimination and caste based discriminations also hamper
access for many children in India, and these are issues that can be treated only by the
government.
As regards learning outcomes and test performance of students, as noted above, there is quite
some evidence suggesting that the public private divide in learning outcomes is because of
the already existing socio-economic divide between children accessing the two different
types of institutions. Also even if private schools are more efficient than public schools, it is
still to be noted that the learning outcomes for the country as a whole are abysmally low.
Various international level studies and programmes have assessed the learning outcomes of
Indian students at the primary and secondary level against their global counterparts and the
performance of Indian students has been ranked markedly below average, and stubbornly so.
It is then the state's duty to raise the standard and actually improve the quality of education. It
is widely acknowledged that the medium of teaching in government schools is Hindi or the
regional language and that learning outcomes are greater if English is taught as a separate
subject and if teaching of other subjects is done in the child's native language, getting
engrained later at home.
Therefore, a top down funding approach where the government distances itself from being a
provider and assumes the role of mere facilitator is not the way of resolving the learning
crisis in the country. The recent scheme which makes it mandatory for private schools to
reserve 25% of their seats for children from economically weaker sections is a step forward
towards increasing equality in access to private schools and towards allowing parents to
exercise their right to choice, but it cannot be treated as a substitute for public investments
made towards building and fortifying government schools.
Not only access but quality access to education and equality of opportunity is the key to
inclusive growth that has the potential to break the snares of poverty and inequality that trap
much of India's population. While the private sector sprouts schools to fill the demand-supply
gap in Indian education, India is not ready for the retreat of government intervention from the
education sector.
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