Private ‘academy’ for boys, sarkari school for girls

Heena Kausar
Burhaan Kinu

Naziya Naaz, 17, like many of her fellow students in class 12 at the Government Girls' Senior Secondary School, can't turn on a computer or speak much English. The broken English she does know came not from school but a two-month-long free training programme at a private institute.

Naziya's 14-year-old brother, Salman Raza, does not have these problems. He can speak decent English and feels at ease using a computer. Salman, unlike Naziya, goes to a private school.

Reena Jha, 17, one of Naziya's classmates, faces the same situation. Her youngest brother, Shivam Jha, 11, also goes to a private school.

Reena's been the butt of jokes as a result. "Till a few years ago, I used to take a mat to school, as we did not have chairs to sit on," said Reena. "He used to tease me by saying, 'Tum bora leke school jati ho' (you take a mat to school)."

Shivam never had to take a mat to KSK Academy, where classrooms have fans, boards, projectors, and the right number of desks and chairs.

In Delhi, it's typical for families to send their girls to government schools they think are dysfunctional while sending their boys to private schools they think prepare the way for success. In the last four years, Delhi government schools have been 52% female and 48% male, while private schools citywide have been 60% male and 40% female.

At the pahadi school, as Naziya and Reena's school is known locally, the student body is 64% female. Yet according to census data, Naziya and Reena's neighbourhood, Sangam Viharm, is only 46% female.

Interviews with families in Sangam Vihar and experts in the Indian education system showed that all sorts of difficult financial circumstances usually lead to the same conclusion: gender discrimination in schooling.

Much like many families in Delhi that favour sons over daughters, Naziya goes to a government school, her younger brother goes to a private school.

"Private schools are English-medium and give better education," said Lalita Devi, Reena's mother. "That is why I send my son to the private school. His school has teachers for all subjects and facilities such as computer labs."

But then why does Reena go to a government school?

"It was due to financial constraints that I had to send her to a government school," Devi said. "If I had the money, I would have sent her to a private school too."

It's the same for Naziya, whose parents say giving her a quality education would be unaffordable even while they send their son to a private school.

"Due to financial constraints, I sent my daughters to a government school," said Aasma, Naziya's mother. "But my son is younger and by the time I had to send him to a school, my financial situation was a little better, so I put him in a private school."

Naziya, however, subscribes to another explanation. "Of course it is because of gender-based discrimination," she said. "Parents think that a girl will go to a different family after marriage but the son will remain with them, so they prefer to educate him better."

Reena helps her brother get ready for his relatively expensive private school.

An extra burden

Naziya is certainly correct about Reena's mother.

"I love my daughter and I want the best for her. But this is how the society works," said Devi. "When my daughter is married, I cannot depend on her, but my son will be answerable to me and will have to take care of me."

Devi said that she needs to save for Reena's wedding, and spending on private education would be an extra burden.

What about marriage expenses for their son? "I have no tension about him. He is a boy," Devi said.

Devi's plans for her children's future fit conveniently with her conception of what would be best for them now.

"My son is too young right now and very naughty," she said. "I don't know what will become of him. But my daughter is really bright and I know she can do well even if her school doesn't have as many facilities."

Asked about her mother's views, Reena was reminded about past encounters with sexism. She recalled how her elder sister, who is married, had to struggle with her in-laws to get permission to come visit them when her father had a brain haemorrhage.

"This needs to change, but as of now it is the reality of our society," Reena said.

Poonam Batra, who teaches at department of education in Delhi University and has written extensively on social psychology and gender, said that the disproportionate number of girls at government schools and boys at private schools reflect a broader sort of inequality.

"When education requires investment, girls bear the brunt, as they are not meant to be of any economic value to the family later," said Batra. "It is a layered discrimination, and the same thing can be seen when it comes to providing nutrition and health facilities to kids."

A computer lab at the pahadi school in Sangam Vihar.

10,000 students, 10 computers

Most of the schools in Sangam Vihar are low-cost private schools. They sometimes have as many as 50 students in a class and employ untrained teachers, but most local private schools have what a parent in the locality is looking for: English-medium classes, computer instruction, and a building with toilets, a playground, enough classrooms to fit all the students, and windows in good repair.

Only 75 out of the 1,009 Delhi government schools, on the other hand, have English as their first medium of instruction, according to government data from the 2015-16 school year. At the pahadi school, there are only 10 computers for over 10,000 students.

Ompal Singh, the principal of Shivam's school, said parents send their kids to private schools expecting they'll get a better education.

"Our school is English-medium, and we have computers, health facilities and smart classes where we use projectors to teach," said Singh. "So anyone with a little money prefers to send their child to a private school. But it is true that we have fewer girls than boys. We have a 60:40 ratio of boys to girls."

Birendra Singh, the principal of Jagriti Public School, where Salman goes, said there are more boys than girls in his school and that, every year, at least 100 girls leave for a government school because their families cannot afford Jagriti.

"There are two reasons for this," Singh said. "First is that people don't have much money here, and second is the mindset. This locality has mostly poor people, so in most cases they can afford to send only one child to a private school and it is always the boy that is picked for it."

Cultural biases are the primary cause, but there are other reasons too. Most government schools, in an effort to accommodate a large number of students, are divided into a morning shift for girls and a night shift for boys. Many parents, however, are reluctant to send their boys to schools from which they won't return until late in the evening.

Devi, Aasma, and multiple teachers and other parents all say that students in the evening shift are mischievous and don't focus on studies. "The senior boys in this area only know how to make a mess," said Devi. "They influence the younger kids and get them to do wrong things. I don't want my son to get into any trouble."

Naziya says she loves her brother, but admits there are days when she wishes she had a private school education as well.

Lagging behind

For Reena, a private education could have made life easier, but she has no regrets. "I don't think about what would have happened if I had been sent to a private school. I want to study to become something and help my father." Reena's hoping to become a company secretary, but may find that her education is a hindrance. Three people in different stages of work in the industry said that knowledge of English is crucial to getting good jobs.

Naziya loves her brother, but there are times when she cannot help but get angry at him. For years, she didn't have basic classroom amenities or enough teachers; she even lamented the dearth of homework. Though she feels her school is providing her a decent education now that she is in class 12, Naziya fears she will always lag behind Salman and lack basic skills.

Aasma said that, during family conversations, her son can answer questions quickly, while her daughter sometimes struggles. In these moments, she said, she wishes Naziya had gone to a private school. Yet Aasma still cannot imagine what, given her circumstances, she might have done differently.