Peace High School—a private school in Hyderabad, with its dark classrooms, dirty staircase and small courtyard—is a far cry from Delhi Public School or Bombay Scottish. But what it lacks in infrastructure, it seems to more than make up in dedication to its students. As James Tooley, a UK professor of education policy, writes in his The Beautiful Tree (2009), it was started as a “peaceful oasis in the slums”—the one place in a desert of abject poverty where slum dwellers could promise their children more.
Schools such as Peace, with its monthly fees of Rs60-100, are the future of private education in India, not an International Baccalaureate programme that charges Rs1 lakh a month. An annual survey of learning called the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), brought out with education NGO Pratham this month, helps drive home this point: More than the rich, it’s the poor who realize the value of private schools. The percentage of children aged 6-14 in rural areas who are enrolling in private schools shows a general upward trend—from 16.3% in 2005 to 21.8% in 2009.
Policymakers know education reform must come through the supply side—opening up new schools. But the next question is: Should the government build more of its schools through programmes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), or should it allow the private sector to do so? To wit, who is better at educating young minds?
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
ASER doesn’t have a clear answer. Its director Wilima Wadhwa argued in a Mint op-ed last week that, once researchers control for certain factors such as the fact that those who attend private schools may be wealthier or their parents may be better educated, it’s hard to be sure that private schools are better.
It’s difficult to take this conclusion to heart. First, ASER data is only rural. Urban India, with more entrepreneurs opening schools, may have another story.
Second, even if government schools are at par with private ones, they achieve this at higher costs. In a Saturday The Times of India op-ed, Tooley notes that where SSA spends Rs1,700 a year per child, the likes of Peace High School cost Rs1,200.
Third, if government schools are better, why are poor people sacrificing a free lunch to spend a large chunk of their income? Are they too gullible to know that private schools aren’t better? Their primary complaint is that government teachers can’t be held accountable—so they’re voting with their feet. And in the hope of offering their children this oasis in an otherwise bleak future, they’re offering India a solid referendum on who is better at educating the youth.
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