Students are fighting to stay in the education arms race

Aman Sethi, A Mariyam Alavi
Saumya Khandelwal

For Naziya Naz, the first three months of Class 12 were devoted to a complicated transaction involving her school's most valuable commodity: textbooks.

It was a trade that required coordination across three different classes.

"Textbooks are very expensive," Naziya explained on her first day of school. "I can't buy my Class 12 books until I sell my old Class 11 books."

But when term began in April, the students coming up to Class 11 were still waiting on their Class 10 results, so weren't yet sure which textbooks they needed to buy. Students graduating from Class 12, in the meantime, were still giving their board exams.

All of which meant that Sangam Vihar, the working class neighbourhood where Naziya studies at the pahadi-wallah school in C block, had a surplus of Class 11 books and an acute shortage of Class 12 texts.

"I think I will have them soon," she said. "My father is a very kind man who will never deny me books."

As the textbook market eased over the summer vacations, Naziya found a few deals. But three months later, when schools reopened in July, she was still short of a full set.

"There have been some problems," Naziya said with quiet dignity. "For now, these books are enough. I will buy the rest as I need them."

India's supposedly free education system comes at a high price as families must invest in private tuitions and expensive study materials.

India's supposedly free education system comes at a high price as families must invest in private tuitions and expensive study materials.

Education arms race

In theory, India has a progressive public education system designed to mitigate social inequalities. Government schools are free or charge low fees, and the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) publishes affordable textbooks.

In practice, mismanagement over three decades eroded the public school system. There is now a yawning chasm between those who can afford to pay for a parallel system of private schools, tutors, and expensive textbooks and those, like Naziya, who cannot.

After school, India's 259 million students confront a shortage of quality public universities. This pushes many of them to seek the slenderest of edges to outscore their peers, triggering a veritable arms race of specialised private tuitions and exorbitant study materials produced by private publishers.

The result?

This year, the minimum score required to gain admission to the economics programme of any of the city's best colleges stood at a startling 98.5%.

Naziya's struggle to buy a full set of school textbooks does not position her well in this fearsome competition.

Why don't Sangam Vihar's children have a full set of textbooks? Watch Naziya's story to find out.

Forty percent of Indian families with school-going children earn less than Rs 75,000 a year even while it costs nearly Rs 10,000 a year to educate a child in a supposedly 'free' urban government school, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation. Half of this expenditure goes to private tuitions and textbooks. According to a 2015 report by the Nielsen Company, a global marketing research firm, the private textbook industry in India is growing 20% annually. It is on track to be worth Rs 542 billion by 2020.

Private publishers are helped by a long-standing consensus that NCERT textbooks — particularly for middle school and senior school — are poorly written.

In 1993, the Yashpal Committee, which was constituted by the ministry of human resource development to study the quality of NCERT textbooks, reported to Parliament that poor textbooks were pushing the brightest kids out of the education system.

A significant fraction of children who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension

- Yashpal Committee on textbooks 1993

Nearly 25 years later, incomprehensible writing is still easy to find in government textbooks. The NCERT's class 11 physics textbook, for instance, describes the relation in physics between the concepts of 'work' (W) and 'energy' (E) in the following way:

"The WE theorem holds in all inertial frames. It can also be extended to noninertial frames provided we include the pseudoforces in the calculation of the net force acting on the body under consideration."

Government schools are supposed to stick to the NCERT texts. "In our school, the prescribed books are NCERT textbooks," said Sonu Nijhawan, Naziya's Principal. "But teachers realise that other books that explain certain concepts better, so they explain from those books."

Nijhawan said that even though these private textbooks are not required, "students themselves ask teachers what extra books to buy."

Yet repeated visits to Naziya's classes revealed that, with the exception of mathematics, her instructors routinely teach from private textbooks.

For 16-year-old Naziya and her family, buying the right textbook has become a matter of existential importance. Her bombing the Class 12 exam could derail the Naz family's best shot at financial stability after years of tumult.

"I need to become a chartered accountant," Naziya said one afternoon, "and earn a lot of money for my family."

Naziya wanted to become a doctor, but her family couldn't afford to send her for science tuitions. She is now studying commerce and hopes to become a chartered accountant.

Naziya wanted to become a doctor, but her family couldn't afford to send her for science tuitions. She is now studying commerce and hopes to become a chartered accountant.

Booking profits

Professors of education, teachers and private publishers are divided over why private textbooks have become so popular.

Those in the NCERT camp concede that the government books could be written better, but point out that NCERT books supposed to cover a broad school syllabus, while most private books are custom designed to crack the board exams.

The biggest reason for the rapid growth of private publishing could be the rise of lucrative, and possibly illegal, "curriculum management programmes", in which private schools sign exclusive contracts with a single publishing house to provide textbooks for all classes, and quietly pocket a commission for every sale.

The practice is so commonplace that when S Chand and Company, a textbook publishing group, made an initial public offering in 2016, they flagged the practice as one of the possible risks to their business.

The Central Board of Secondary Education has held that selling private books on school premises violates board guidelines. Private schools are technically supposed to run as charitable trusts, rather than profit-making corporations.

The board has periodically sought to force all schools to use NCERT textbooks, but has ultimately conceded that private schools are free to choose their own books.

Private publishers, in the meantime, claim their books recognise the reality of the standard Indian classroom: jaded teachers and distracted children.

"NCERT books have less content, so teachers can finish the course very fast and tell their bosses, 'The syllabus is over,'" said the author of an iconic private textbook, who sought anonymity to speak freely. "When I wrote my book, the idea was that the student should never feel the need for a teacher's guidance."

"The NCERT textbooks can be very dry," said a science teacher in a government school. "They do not engage students in any meaningful manner. These reference books and 'guides' provide more examples, and help illustrate ideas better."

Private publishers, meanwhile, offer gifted public school teachers lucrative contracts to write independent textbooks. The NCERT workshops on improving the government texts often lose out on their participation as a result.

"The NCERT once asked me to help with their textbooks," admitted the private textbook author. "I spoke to my publisher, and we very politely had to tell the NCERT, 'Sorry, but we cannot help you.'"

Naziya's sister Sabiya is pursuing a chemistry degree from Indira Gandhi Open University. The teachers never show up to teach, she said, I had to teach myself the entire course.

Naziya's sister Sabiya is pursuing a chemistry degree from Indira Gandhi Open University. "The teachers never show up to teach," she said, "I had to teach myself the entire course."

Deferred dreams

Before Naziya decided she wanted to be a chartered account, her family's hopes rested on her elder sister, Sabiya, who was supposed to become a doctor.

Sabiya studied in the same school as Naziya. She did so well in Class 10 that she earned a place in the science programme of a Sarvodya Vidyalaya, a select set of government schools that are supposed to cater to the city's brightest students.

But studying medicine is expensive — tuition fees are higher, and the reference books are numerous and pricey — so her father, Mohammed Saluddin, left his job as a master tailor in a leather garment factory and bought an electric rickshaw in the hope of making more money.

"That year the Delhi high court banned e-rickshaws from the roads," Saluddin said. He went back to work at the leather garment factory. The rickshaw stood in the courtyard of the building where Saluddin, his wife, and his three children live in a single room on the terrace.

Sabiya studied as hard as she could, but she couldn't clear the pre-medical entrance tests. She is now pursuing a degree in chemistry at Indira Gandhi Open University. Her dream of becoming a doctor has ended.

The twin shocks of demonetisation and cow-vigilantism has made it hard for Naziya's father Saluddin to provide for his family. He initially worked in a leather garments factory, but now drives an e-rickshaw.

The twin shocks of demonetisation and cow-vigilantism has made it hard for Naziya's father Saluddin to provide for his family. He initially worked in a leather garments factory, but now drives an e-rickshaw.

In 2016, however, things were looking up: e-rickshaws were allowed to ply on inner-city roads, and Naziya aced her Class 10 exams. She said she would try to become a doctor, but this time the family had no appetite for risk.

Study Commerce, Saluddin said, figuring it offered a more direct path to employment. Plus, the textbooks and tuitions were cheaper.

The good fortune was interrupted in November 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised 86% of India's cash-currency in a bid to crack down on corruption. Sangam Vihar's informal economy collapsed. Cash-strapped residents started to prefer walking to taking e-rickshaws. Meanwhile, roving bands of Hindutva vigilantes disrupted leather supplies to the factories where Saluddin once worked.

As the family finances shrunk, Naziya's Maths tuitions and textbooks fell suddenly out of reach.

Naziya, Sabiya and Salman sat with their heads bowed as their father described his struggle. Their mother Asma busied herself with the stove propped up on wooden plank in one corner of the room.

"I just don't want my family to suffer anymore," said Saluddin. Then all of a sudden his eyes welled up with tears, and everyone in the room was crying: Saluddin and Asma, because they felt they had let down their children; Sabiya, because she hadn't become a doctor despite the money spent on her tuitions; her younger brother, Salman, because he was studying at an expensive private school.

Everyone except Naziya, who blinked back her tears. Her dream was still alive: get the textbooks, become a chartered accountant, and everything will be okay.