Walking around the hot summer streets of Sangam Vihar—Delhi’s largest slum colony sprawled over 150 acres and home to 4 lakh people—in 2005, Aditi Bhargava noticed that almost every street had a school.
These schools were often just holes in the wall or a room with a few benches populated by eager children. They were not government funded or subsidized, nor did they have world-class facilities.
These were low-budget schools, where poor parents paid small amounts extracted from their meagre wages in the hope that their children would get a good education, a promise too rarely delivered at the “free” government schools.
Aditi’s discovery piqued my interest in this phenomenon. I realized that Sangam Vihar was not a path-breaking exception but part of a mainstream, silent and telling revolt against the poor performance of government schools.
Independent research continues to report strides both in the quality and quantity across all private schools in urban and rural areas. Most people in urban areas and at least 28% of the rural population already have access to private schools.
The surprise is not in the absolute number of schools, but their proliferation rate. Nearly 50% of the rural private schools accounted for in the study conducted by Harvard economists Michael Kremer and Karthik Muralidharan were established after 2000, and nearly 40% of private school enrolment is in these schools.
This massive expansion of private primary schooling across India is a harbinger of the Unknown Indian Education Revolution. The survey found that more than 80% of government-school teachers send their own children to a private school. When government teachers don’t trust government schools with their own children, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
So what is fuelling this extraordinary surge and what is the quality of education being imparted? The key to understanding this surge lies in the low entry barriers.
Schools need a “recognition” status so that they can issue valid “transfer certificates” to students leaving the school. But what the recognition status primarily ensures is that teachers are paid according to relatively high government salary scales.
In reality, a primary school doesn’t strictly need “recognition” from the state to start business. Also, rural schools don’t read too much into the transfer certificate. So the rural market for primary education is comparatively unregulated vis-à-vis to secondary education. This is similar to the software industry in India. The government’s light regulation of the sector helped it become an engine of growth.
It is not just the rural rich who are moving to private schools. Studies have found that a large mass of parents are shifting because of the low quality of government education, and concern for their children’s future.
Regulatory gaps and dissatisfaction with government schools are the key factors driving the demand for private schooling. There is already evidence of such a surge in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Delhi. In seven districts of Punjab, 86% of the private schools are unrecognized.
A majority of these private unrecognized schools are operating outside the scope of policymakers’ radars. It is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Officials think of it as a fringe phenomenon. Consequently, these schools do not make it into any of the education statistics compiled by education departments.
Private schools benefit from being “unrecognized” because they save on labour costs. Teacher costs are the largest expense in the schooling sector. State governments easily spend 90% of their total budget on teachers. In contrast, private-school teachers are paid one-fifth to one-tenth of government salary levels and have more flexibility to innovate and improve learning outcomes.
Studies carried out in India all share the common conclusion that private-school students outperform their government-school counterparts. For example, in a 2005 Delhi study, James Tooley found that children in low-budget unrecognized private schools did 246% better than government school children on a standardized English test, with around 80% higher average marks in mathematics and Hindi.
There are important lessons here for education policymakers in India. Education entrepreneurs need to be encouraged by removing rules that hinder the establishment and operation of schools in the primary, secondary and higher secondary areas of education. Competing schools will create choices for parents, improving access and quality for all. The government can then focus its limited education budget on the neediest sections of society.
Inadequate education in India is not only a funding problem but also a result of over-regulation of the school market. The burgeoning market of low-budget private schools has enormous potential to do public good.
Naveen Mandava is a doctoral fellow in Public Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in the US. The school is part of the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org