This sort of embarrassed silence is common across India. One can encounter it often in a room in a school, almost anywhere in India. The room has a group of 20 to 50 sitting on the floor, almost all rural government school teachers. This is a meeting of a voluntary learning group of teachers. They usually meet after school hours or on Sundays. They discuss academic issues, read out papers and try to solve each other’s pedagogical challenges. These are capable and committed teachers.
If you want hope, go to any of these meetings. Hope, that given support and enabling conditions, things will improve in public education. Hope, that there will always be people who will try to do the right thing, whatever the odds.
In every such meeting that I participate in, at some point I ask them: “So where do you send your children, a private school or government school?” The buzz dies away, embarrassed silence engulfs the room.
With sheepish smiles and mutual cajoling, the facts come out. The majority send their children to private schools. The discussion is not intended to stop there, we move on to discuss why they have made this choice.
The reasons that I have heard are exactly the same—across all such groups—everywhere in the country. The first reason is English. Private schools teach English from very early grades, often the first grade. They want their children to learn English. However vague or clear the articulation, it comes down to the fact that in their view English is the language of social mobility.
Children of DAV public school. Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
The second is social status. A child going to a private school is seemingly a very visible marker of the family’s (presumed) higher social status. It involves a complex set of factors, including that their children will have the “right kind” of schoolmates, and “wearing ties and shoes is very good”.
Rarely do any other reasons come up. I have never heard any such group say that they make this choice because education and learning are better in private schools. Let me remind you that this group has a better understanding of what good education is than most others, certainly in their communities.
My experience is not unique; it’s shared by many who interact with such groups. Let’s take quick a look at the reasons for choosing private schools, beyond such groups of teachers, a look at an average rural and semi-urban group.
This is a preview of a part of an ongoing research study that for the past four years in rural Andhra Pradesh. The study reaffirms English and social status as key reasons for choosing private schools. It brings out some other reasons as well. The school gives homework, the owner makes sure that the teacher is there and that the school makes the students “behave properly”.
The enrolment in private schools has been going up rapidly and sharply across India. According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report, over the past six years private school enrolment in rural India has gone up by 25%. In government schools, enrolment numbers have remained virtually stagnant. While there are distinct regional variations, this is the clear national trend. Despite some efforts to understand this phenomenon, including what I have described above, we don’t understand its reasons adequately. This requires a lot more research.
We need this understanding because the reasons have (or should have) implications for policymaking in our education system—both on the government and the private side. There would also be implications, more broadly, for society.
At the same time, we should not draw superficial or non-existent implications. For example, we should not get lulled in to believing, and actively advocating that private schools are in any way a solution to the problem of quality of education in this country. The reality is probably that learning levels and quality of education are equally bad in private schools.
The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which places us on learning levels at number 73 in a list of 74 nations, just above Kyrgyzstan, concludes that there is no difference in learning levels across private and government schools. The study that I refer to above concludes that learning is better for children who stayed back at government schools, versus those who were moved to private schools, using financial support on offer as a part of the research design.
Research that controls for socio-economic factors, for private schools “choosing” (i.e. good) students, etc., have usually come to the conclusion that there is little or no real difference between learning levels across private and government schools. These studies have also pointed out that we need to do a lot more nuanced research to understand what the real determinants of children’s learning are.
Mint suggested last week that we should not stifle but “embrace private schools”. I agree, we should not stifle private schools, but there is absolutely no reason to embrace them. Education in our country is in the same pathetic state, across private and government schools. What we need to embrace is fundamental and sustained improvement of the entire system.
Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability issues for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
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