Yes to a government college, but no to government schools

NSSO report shows that private schools are preferred over government schools due to better quality education


Photo: HT
Photo: HT

New Delhi: While presenting the budget for Delhi last month, finance minister Manish Sisodia announced an expenditure of Rs.102 crore on training of teachers and principals in the new fiscal year. This was just Rs.9.4 crore last year. Sisodia said his aim was to bring government schools to world class standards in Delhi. While one would have to wait and see whether these goals are realized, improving learning outcomes and perception of government schools seems to be a national problem.

A recent National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report shows that a majority of students studying in private schools do so to make sure that they get better quality education. The survey was conducted between January and June 2014.

The problem of quality in government educational institutions seems to be more acute at the school level. Consider this: among 100 people who prefer private schools in rural India, more than 92 do it for three reasons. One, better learning environment in private schools; two, English being the medium of instruction in private schools; three, quality of education being unsatisfactory in government schools. The figure is above 70% in both rural and urban areas up to higher secondary level, with the exception of higher secondary level in rural areas, where it is 64%. For graduate and above and diploma level, the tables turn. Majority turns to private educational providers because of lack of supply—the reasons being absence of a government institution in the vicinity, or inability to get admission into one.

The perception about private schools being superior seems to be rooted in experience. As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014, learning outcomes in private schools in rural areas have been consistently better than government schools, with the gap widening in most cases. For example, the percentage point gap between children studying in standard five in private and government schools who could do division was 10.3 in 2010. This increased to 18.6 in 2014. The situation is similar for other learning indicators as well.

Experts say that at junior levels, it is the parents who choose private schools for their children as they believe private schools can offer better all-round education. Parth Shah, president at the Centre for Civil Society, said one mother wanted her young child to study in a private school because the teachers there regularly checked the nails and the uniform of the children.

“Punctuality, hygiene and discipline—these are the three soft skills parents look at while getting their children admitted in elementary school,” he said.

Besides that, it is of course the lure of the English language. In a lot of government schools, children are taught in their regional languages and parents know that even a little knowledge of English can go a long way for their child in the future, Shah said.

Then again, private schools are known to have higher attendance levels of teachers and are known to be less discriminatory. “A lot of the teachers in rural areas in government schools are money-lenders. So naturally, attendance levels are affected as priorities are split,” he added. Shah also underlines the importance of measuring learning outcomes regularly to improve accountability of teachers in government educational institutions.

Not to mention the higher social statement that a private school makes. “If I am high status, I must send (my child) to private school,” said Anurag Behar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation.

The preference for government institutions in higher education seems to be coming from the dominance of public sector in this field.

According to Shah, it has only been over the last decade or so that private players have begun to enter into the education space in a big way. “There are many institutes in the private space, but naturally, they are not yet able to compete with a Presidency College or a Xaviers or an Indian Institute of Technology,” he said.

At the same time, with teachers being paid well at higher levels in government colleges, quality of education is considered to be better in comparison with their private counterparts. Attracting teachers of similar qualifications or teaching experience would make it a lot costlier for a private college.

There is one caveat to this analysis. The difference between learning outcomes of government and private schools might also be influenced by factors outside the school. The 2014 ASER report states that accounting for all other factors, a smaller proportion of the gap is attributable to private schools themselves.

“It is a well-established fact that household and other characteristics of private school children are very different from those of government schoolchildren. Since learning levels depend not only on the characteristics of a child’s school but also on their own characteristics and those of their household, attribution of all the observed differences in learning levels to differences in schools is incorrect,” the report stated.

In fact, one can go a step further. Economic research on public goods shows that the elite opting out of public provisioning of such goods negatively impacts the quality of supply. This is because they are the best suited to exercise political pressure and maintain accountability. Thus, in a society where the rich confine themselves to private schools, it would take more than money to improve the quality of education in government schools.