Education is critical to India, and the government has failed in its mandate to provide quality schooling. Low-cost private schools have tried to fill that breach. This is the first in a series of three essays discussing that phenomenon.
Education is critical to India’s continued economic and social development. Recent decades have seen steady progress toward making primary schooling accessible to all children, which has now been achieved. Primary education was made a fundamental right through the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009, which requires all children aged 6-14 to attend school. Learning outcomes, however, are poor across both government and private schools. A 2012 study by the OECD ranked India second from last out of the 74 participating nations. The Annual Status of Education Report (2014) that 48 percent of class five students could read a class two level text, and that merely 50 percent could perform subtraction.
Government expenditure on education has not kept pace with the growing aspirations of parents. A 2014 study by Dongre & Kapur estimated that expenditure on elementary education was only 2.5 percent of India’s GDP, with 0.7 percent of this coming from private expenditure. This is reflected in the rise of private schools across the country, particularly the emergence of low-fee or ‘budget’ private schools (BPS). A 2017 study by Kingdon estimates that private schools cater to 49 percent of urban and 21 percent of rural primary school going children. She finds that in states such as Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, UP and Odisha, between 70 to 85 percent of children studying in private schools pay fees less than Rs 500 per month. It is encouraging to note that the RTE Act requires 25% of students at all private schools to be from ‘economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups’, paid for by the government.
A Story in Numbers
Recent years have seen a shift from government to private schools. An analysis of DISE data from Kingdon (2017) shows that in the four year period 2010-11 to 2014-15, enrolment in government schools fell by 11.1 million students, whereas total enrolment in private schools rose by 16 million students. In UP, for example, private school enrolment rose by nearly 7 million students and government school enrolment fell by 2.6 million students.
This decline in students attending government schools has resulted in the growth of ‘small’ and ‘tiny’ government schools with a maximum enrolment of 50 and 20 students respectively. It has further led to closure or integration of many of these poorly-attended schools, with the governments of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh recently closing down nearly 24,000 schools.
An analysis of responses to the primary education section of the National Sample Survey (2014) by Joshi & Kumar (2017) provides an insight into the profile of families who send their children to private schools, and their reasons for doing so. 77 percent of rural children attend government schools, whereas 60 percent of urban children attend private schools. The monthly household expenditure of families with children attending private schools (Rs 9500) is significantly higher than families with children attending government schools (Rs 6000), suggesting that affordability is a concern for parents.
Further, 20 percent of private school families were computer literate, whereas this number was only 4 percent for government school families. More than half the parents (55 percent) indicated that they chose private schools because they perceived a better environment of learning. Other important reasons included dissatisfaction with quality of education at government schools (20 percent) and the availability of English medium instruction at private schools (17 per cent).
Defining Budget Private Schools
Private schools can be broadly categorised into two types – aided and unaided schools. Kingdon (2017) notes that, “despite sharing the word private in their names, private unaided and private aided schools differ fundamentally in their modes of operation, with private aided schools comprehensively lacking autonomy.” She points to legislation in the 1970s which led to nationalisation of aided schools, with teacher salaries at these schools henceforth paid for by the government directly into teacher’s bank accounts. The teachers are paid at the same rate as government schools teachers and their recruitment and appointment is managed by a government-appointed commission. Kingdon (2017) defines private unaided schools as “autonomous fee charging schools run by private managements which recruit/appoint their own teachers and pay them salary scales determined by themselves.”
As per DISE data, the most common tuition fee amount paid by parents to private unaided schools in urban India was Rs 500 per month and in rural India Rs 275 per month, with an all India average of Rs 5000 per annum. There is a significant degree of variation between states, however, with parents in rural Punjab (Rs 692) spending six times more than parents in rural UP (Rs 117), and parents in urban Delhi (1800) paying seven times more than parents in urban UP (Rs 250). According to Kingdon (2017), this variation appears to indicate that “the worse the government school quality in a state, the greater the perceived need by even the poorer families to demand private schooling of any description, leading to the higher supply of a lot of even ‘low-fee’ budget private schools.”
The tuition fee paid by students is used to identify whether it is a ‘budget’ school. This can be determined in two ways. Srivastava (2013) defines BPS as “those schools that can be afforded by daily wage labourers, one of the lowest paid worker groups, who are paid the minimum daily wage as announced annually by the Ministry of Rural Development.” Kingdon (2017) finds that annual fees in private schools nationally is around 10 percent of the the annual minimum wage of daily wage labourers, and in some states such as UP this figure is only 3.8 percent. A second way to define BPS is by comparing tuition fee at private schools with the state’s per pupil expenditure (PPE) in government schools. Across India, almost 80 percent of children attending private schools pay fees which are below the government schools’ PPE. In some states including Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Gujarat, this number is more than 90 percent of schools. Taking a national average, private schools charge only 47 per cent of government school PPE. Both of these definitions indicate that BPS are accessible to a significant number of poor parents, especially in urban areas where private schools are more prevalent.
The Question of Recognition
While examining the legitimacy of unrecognised budget private schools, Ohara (2012) notes that the financial burden created by regulation prevents schools from obtaining recognition, leaving them exposed to the threat of closure. The Delhi-based NGO Social Jurist filed a PIL in 2006 calling these “unrecognised schools as ‘Sub-standard Teaching Shops’ that exploit children and teachers because they do not conform to requirements regarding teacher qualifications, teacher salaries and educational facilities and that the fees and other demands of unrecognised schools were ‘exorbitant’ given the poor facilities that were provided.” They also noted that children graduating from these schools are denied admission to the next class at a government school as they do not have a certificate from a recognised private school.
In response to these claims the Coordination Committee of Public Schools stated that “parents often cannot afford tuition at recognised private schools but desire their children to access high-quality education within their limited resources. Therefore, parents are happy and willing to send their children to these schools, regardless of official recognition.” Although the Supreme Court order found unrecognised schools to be legitimate under the existing framework at the time, this was before the RTE Act was passed, and government representatives expressed a desire for better regulation to address the issue of recognition of private schools.
According to Section 8 (g) of the RTE Act, government schools are not required to obtain a certificate of recognition and are not subject to penalties for non-compliance. Only 6.4% of schools are compliant with RTE norms. Private schools, on the other hand, are subject to severe scrutiny under these recognition norms, with representatives particularly objecting to sections 18 and 19 of the act which stipulate that a ‘certificate of recognition’ is required for private schools to function. A 12-state study of public sources by the National Independent Schools Alliance (2016) showed that 9382 private schools had received an official threat to close down, 7898 had received notices to close and 3332 had closed down as a result of non-compliance with recognition norms. Unrecognised schools, however, continue to function and educate large numbers of students seeking the best education they can afford. They have gained legitimacy from parents and communities, and are fighting for their legal status.
This demonstrates that a black-and-white regulatory stance of recognising schools or closing them are not the only possibly solutions. Given the financial constraints faced by these schools, it is important for policy-makers and private school management to work together to adapt recognition criteria taking this into account. This would remove the threat of immediate closure faced by these schools, and instead push them to improving their standards and quality of education that they provide.