Since 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) has been tracking schooling status and learning levels of a representative sample of children in each rural district in the country. One of the most distinct trends from this nine-year stretch of annual data is the increase in private school enrolment.
In 2005, the rural all India figure of children (age 6-14) enrolled in private schools was 18.7%. By 2013, this has risen to 29%. Clear geographic patterns are also visible. Private school enrolment is high in the north. All states from Jammu and Kashmir to Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, private school enrolment today ranges from 30% to 50%.
In the Northeast too, apart from Tripura, private school enrolment is high and growing. A decade ago half of all children in Kerala went to private schools, now it is seven out of 10. In all other states where private school enrolment was low a decade ago, a clear increase is visible. Where private school enrolment is low, private tuition is high, even in early grades. For example, in 2013, close to 70% of children attended paid tuition in Class 1 in rural West Bengal.
Putting together the private school enrolment figures and the data on tuition, it seems like close to half of all children in elementary schools in rural India get some form of private inputs into their schooling process.
Interestingly, while the debate on private schooling is polarised between euphoria and despair, the reality on the ground is actually much more mixed. Evidence points to two facts. The fraction of children in private schools who attend paid tuition classes is substantially higher than that of similar aged children in government schools — implying that parents of private school going children do not depend on private schools alone.
Studies using ASER data as well as other independent studies show that controlling for family background, parental education, additional expenditures on schooling and other factors much of the difference in learning outcomes between children going to private schools and government schools goes away.
So, how does one interpret all this data? Three immediate points come to mind. First, it is crucial to remember that regardless of school type, across the board, basic learning outcomes are very unsatisfactory. In 2013, even in a relatively high-performing state like Himachal Pradesh where 34% children attend private schools, there are still 25% children in Class 5 in private schools who could not read basic Class 2 level text. The comparable figure in government schools is 35%.
So even in private schools in one of India’s best performing states, a significant proportion of children after five years of schooling did not know the basics. This is a hard fact. What this points to — is the urgent need to take a serious re-look at how teaching and learning is organised, supported and delivered in private schools as well.
Second, parents seem to assume that ‘more is better’. With rising ambitions and aspirations, parents want more schooling (more years, early enrolment into formal schools) and more inputs (private enrolment, paid tuition) in the hope that it will lead to better outcomes. While the results from private schools may be marginally better, parental hopes and investments are certainly not being realised either in terms of learning outcomes or in terms of future livelihoods.
Third, in many ways, government is like parents. Although government priorities are now changing, for years the assumption has been that more teachers, more teacher training, more qualifications, more infrastructure, more entitlements will lead to better eventual outcomes. While this approach may have brought universal schooling it has not led to learning for all.
What is obvious though is that people in India are making strategic choices. Choices are based on available resources and information and on calculations about the potential and future of each child. Parents use interesting ‘blended’ strategies combining public provision of schooling with private inputs for enhancement.
Whether government or private, education providers need to have a deep rethink about what is needed for a changing India. At the household level or at the country level we spend substantial proportion of scarce resources on our children’s education. Our top priority should be to clearly define what we want our children to learn by what stage and then organise the allocation, provision and regulation of the education system in line with what delivers the best outcomes for all.
Large-scale models of effective delivery needed to be guided by evidence on ‘what works’. If the law of the land is to be truly followed, then education and learning need to be guaranteed in all schools — whether private or government. Otherwise, the implications for both equity and growth will be severe.
Rukmini Banerji works with Pratham and leads the Aser effort
The views expressed by the author are personal