The debate over whether private schools provide better quality primary education compared with government schools is heating up in India. The latest ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), an annual survey of learning facilitated by NGO Pratham, indicates that at the all-India level, private school enrolment increased from 16.3% in 2005 to around 22.6% in 2008—a rise of around 40%. In 2009, private school enrolment has marginally dropped to 21.8% in rural India. There is considerable variation across states. On the one end of the spectrum are states such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Kerala where private school enrolment is as high as 40%, and on the other are Bihar and West Bengal with private school enrolment closer to 5%. However, what is clear is that whether enrolment in private schools is high or low, it has been increasing over time.
Photo: Rajkumar / Mint
What has led to this shift towards private schools in rural areas? The standard answer and the common perception is that private schools provide better quality education. ASER 2009 data provides the opportunity to analyse if there are significant learning differences between children in private schools compared with government schools.
In 2009, in classes I-V, the percentage of children in government schools who could read at least at the class I level was 43.6%. The corresponding figure in private schools was 52.2%—a whopping 8.6 percentage points advantage. However, this is an uncontrolled difference in learning outcomes—one that is obtained in a simple cross-tabulation of learning outcomes against the type of school. It does not take into account that many different things affect a child’s learning level.
Analysis was done to disentangle the effect of other factors from that of private schools on learning outcomes of children. Two learning outcomes for children in primary school (classes I-V) are considered: ability to read at least a class I-level text in the regional language and also ability to read at least simple words in English.
Once we control for characteristics other than the type of school, the learning differential between government and private schools falls drastically from 8.6 percentage points to 2.9 percentage points— from 20% to a measly 5%. This means that two-thirds of the learning differential between government and private schools can be attributed to factors other than the type of school. So at least in the case of reading in the local language private schools perform no better (or worse) than government schools.
In the case of English, the starting differential is greater and the narrowing a little less. The percentage of children in classes I-V who can read simple words (or more) in English is 26.5% compared with 44.2% in private schools—an advantage of 17.7 percentage points, or 67%. Once we control for other factors, this differential falls to 10.8 percentage points, or 41%. Hence, around 40% of the observed differential in English learning levels between government and private schools can be attributed to other factors.
A similar analysis was done for states, and there is considerable variation here. In the case of reading in the local language, in many cases most of the learning differentials disappear once other factors are controlled for—Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. For Madhya Pradesh, the difference is actually reversed— once other factors are controlled for, government schools perform better than private schools. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where government schools had higher learning levels to start with, the gap widens once other factors are taken into account.
In the case of English, in most states, the starting differentials are greater and the narrowing of the differentials smaller as was the case for all of India. However, there are still states such as Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh where two-thirds of the learning difference is attributable to factors other than private schooling.
This analysis is based on the provisional ASER 2009 data for rural India. While the debate over private and government schools heats up and opinions and perceptions accumulate, India is also seeing more empirical evidence being gathered. Not only is more and better data needed for “controls”, but “children’s learning” also needs to be measured much more comprehensively. Currently, ASER is one of the few nationally representative data sets that are available to explore the question on hand. So as we look more closely at families and schools, the more we understand what else is important in children’s lives, the closer we will get to the “real” determinants of children’s learning. Until then, the real verdict has to wait.
Still, while we wait, we have much to think about. Does the evidence that is available raise critical questions? Questions that are important for the family and for the country: does the evidence that is available support parental decisions to move children to private schools? How much should be the “bang” for the “buck” for the expenditure that poor families incur to send their children to the private schools that are currently available? Does the evidence justify the Right to Education provision of the government funding children to move from government schools to private schools? As policymakers sit down to translate the law into action, they need to think hard about the basis on which they are making these key decisions for the next many generations and millions of Indian children.
Wilima Wadhwa is director, ASER Centre. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org