What is behind the Private School Revolution in India?

Budget private schools are chosen by parents for many reasons. A key one is the state of government schools.

This is the second in a series of three articles discussing the phenomenon of low-cost private schooling in India. The first article tracing the Rise of Budget Private Schools in India can be found here.

In his 2013 book The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning, global education expert Lant Pritchett captures the awful treatment that parents from economically and socially weaker sections of society often face from government school teachers and administrators. He relates an interaction that he witnessed from a village meeting he attended in Uttar Pradesh in 2006 as part of a research study, where the father of a boy who was unable to read points the finger at the school principal for his son’s difficulties:

“You have betrayed us. I have worked like a brute my whole life because, without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told us that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different than mine. For five years I have kept him from the fields and sent him to your school. Only now I find out that he is thirteen years old and doesn’t know anything. His life won’t be different. He will labor like a brute, just like me.”

To this, the principal responded: “It is not our fault. We do what we can with your children. But you are right, you are brutes and donkeys. The children of donkeys are also donkeys. We cannot be expected to teach your children. They come from your homes stupid and you cannot expect that they will come home from school anything other than stupid.”

Pritchett uses this example to bring to life his theory that schooling ain’t learning – that simply putting children into schools does not ensure that they are getting an education. He points to the need for stakeholders to be responsive to student needs and for institutions to be flexible to understand and address the learning gaps that children face. Government schools in India are notorious for this lackadaisical attitude, but are budget private schools (BPS) any better?

Why do parents choose BPS over free government schools?

In the example above, the principals attitude is remarkable, particularly when considering the position of government school teachers in UP. A 2013 analysis by Dreze and Sen shows that teacher salaries in the state are over 6 times India’s GDP and over 15 times the state’s per capita income. Kingdon (2017) finds that while government schools teachers in India are paid between 4-8 times higher than teachers China, students in China achieve far better learning outcomes in comparison. A 2012 study by the OECD ranked Chinese students second best, whereas Indian students were second from last out of the 74 participating nations. Although there is limited evidence on private school teacher salaries, data suggests that BPS pay their teachers significantly less in comparison. For example, Antony & Chaudhury (2014) find that private school teachers in rural Punjab are paid Rs 1,925 per month on average, which is only 3.2% of government school teacher’s salary in the same location (Ramachandran, 2015). Despite this, the quality of teaching and learning outcomes in BPS are at least on par, if not better than in government schools.

The National Sample Survey (2014) indicated that three-quarters of parents who send their children to private schools chose private schools because they perceived a better environment of learning (55 percent) or were dissatisfied with the quality of education at government schools (20 percent). The popularly assumed reason for choosing private schools, that they provide ‘English medium’ instruction, was chosen by only a sixth of parents (17 per cent). This is consistent with global trends, as captured by a study conducted by leading experts and funded by the British development agency DFID, which concludes that, “perceived quality of education is a priority for users when choosing between schools, and that private schools are often perceived to be of higher quality than government ones”. (Day Ashley et al. 2014)

Should we trust parent’s choice of BPS to provide quality education to children?

The largest and most reliable source of evidence examining parental choice in India comes from a 5-year school choice experiment in pre-bifurcation Andhra Pradesh, which provided vouchers to students attending government schools so that they could attend low-cost private schools. These children were tested in Telugu, Mathematics, English and other subjects, and the same tests were conducted with government schools students to provide a comparison. Reviewing the evidence from this experiment, Muralidharan and Sundararaman (2015) conclude that, “it is not obvious that private schools represent a better value for the marginal parent who is paying for private schools over a free public school.” They further note that, “parents were not able to easily determine the effectiveness of schools at improving learning outcomes.”

Critiquing the results of this analysis, Tooley (2017) points to a fundamental flaw in the research design of the study. He points to the differential use of English and Telugu for testing children in Mathematics and other non-language subjects, and claims that while private schools typically claim to be ‘English Medium’, in fact they often teach in the local language for ease of communication. As part of the study, however, students were tested in the ‘official’ language of the school. This put students of private schools at a clear disadvantage when compared to government school students, as they were tested in English instead of Telugu.

Due to the design of the study, half the private school students did attempt the tests in Telugu, and an analysis of their results only when compared to government school students shows a marked difference in learning outcomes between the two groups. In his assessment, Tooley finds that “children with vouchers in private schools (teaching in Telugu) outperformed those in public (government) schools in all subjects after four years of the voucher program. The combined results show a large, statistically significant difference in favour of private schools.”

Learning outcomes in BPS are marginally better than government schools

A nationwide study in 2013 compared government, budget, and high-fee paying private schools across 6 cities, and showed significant differences in learning outcomes across these categories. Sankar (2017) finds that overall, “government schools perform the lowest compared to high-fee paying private schools, while budget private schools are ahead of government schools.” Looking closely at the evidence, however, shows that students in high-fee paying schools perform far better than students in either BPS or government schools, with the learning gap increasing as they moved to higher classes. When comparing only government schools and BPS, however, the learning gap between these schools are either consistent (Mathematics) or even narrow slightly (Languages) as students move to higher classes.

This is consistent with results from the Annual Status of Education Report report (2014), which found that 48 percent of class five students could read a class two level text, and that merely 50 percent could perform subtraction. Sankar points the finger at the National Curriculum Framework (NCERT 2005) which continues a long tradition of rote learning or memorisation at the expense of developing higher order skills such as creativity or critical thinking. She notes that in the case of BPS, higher test scores are likely due to “factors such as increased teacher presence, lower pupil-teacher ratio, higher parental interest, self-reflection, sorting of economically advantaged kids into private schools” In fact, government schools may be catching up, with recent studies from several states including Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra showing improved performance as compared to BPS.

BPS must focus on improving student learning to stay relevant

Adhyayan foundation conducted a self-review of 143 BPS looking at practices in schools and comparing this to ‘what good looks like’. In the context of BPS in India, for example, ’good’ schools had a fixed schedule, started and ended the day on time, the school calendar was shared with students through their diaries, and students were regularly tested with results shared with parents. The review found that in most cases teachers did not receive adequate training, and that their needs are not focused on by schools leaders. The study also found that school leaders were often unaware of best practices in teaching and management, and did not recognise the link between  teacher training and increased learning outcomes of students.

Based on these findings, Anand (2017) suggests that “building a shared understanding of school quality across managements, administrators, parents, teachers and students is a precursor to sustained accountability of BPS.” Without incorporating these best practices and bringing stakeholders together, it is likely that teacher performance will not improve significantly, with student learning continuing to be poor.

With the quality of education slowly improving in government schools, it is important for BPS to prioritise learning outcomes to continue to play a significant role in educating India’s children. Sankar (2017) points to 4 key aspects which BPS need to address to ensure that this happens:

  1. Using learning assessments to better understand learning problems – instead of using tests only to look at “how much the students scored”, shift the focus to “what the students learnt” and “how well they learnt.” This information helps teachers to identify learning gaps and improve student learning on an individualised basis.
  2. Teach for understanding, not marks – In the current knowledge economy, where higher-order skills such as critical thinking and creativity are crucial to individual and collective growth, rote learning leaves students at a significant disadvantage. Sankar notes, “students’ ability to evolve as thinkers depends on their learning with understanding, and hence the objective of teaching has to be toward understanding and not marks.”
  3. Enhancing teacher’s skills through relevant training – A concern for BPS is that trained teachers are likely to demand higher pay or leave for better paying opportunities. Improving learning outcomes however, is closely tied to improved teaching, and it is therefore essential that BPS are able to “come up with innovative models of teacher recognition and compensation that will retain trained teachers.”
  4. Improving school leadership through data driven decision making – Ultimately, management plays a key role in utilising limited resources. Collecting data on students through targeted assessments allows schools to set targets and monitor improvement in a systematic manner.

*This is the second in a series of three articles discussing the phenomenon of low-cost private schooling in India. The first article tracing the Rise of Budget Private Schools in India can be found here.


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About the author

Srijan Bandyopadhyay

Srijan has worked in the education and public policy space, and has a strong commitment to liberal ideas. He has worked for over 5 years with Centre for Civil Society, and recently compiled the Report on Budget Private Schools in India, 2017 which documented research, policy, practice and global trends relevant to the low-cost private school sector in India. He is a student of political philosophy and political economy, and is interested in classical liberalism, the history of liberalism in India, and the application of liberal principles to contemporary Indian political thought.