A private answer to the literacy problem

Updated: Nov 13 2005, 05:30am hrs
Private schools are for those rich enough to afford them, government schools are for the poor. This has been the conventional wisdom, and even policy formulation has taken this into account, looking at public education as the way to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals 2005, which include universal primary education.

Earlier books and reports on the subject have also indicated that private schools for the poor may actually be doing yeoman service in making education accessible for all. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen had had said in India: Development and Participation (2002) that 30% of all 6-14 year olds in rural India would be enrolled in private schools.

A new study conducted in various countries in Asia and Africa China, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria besides India - indicates that these conclusions are not warranted. As part of the study, conducted between April 2003 and June 2005, Private Schools Serving the Poor: A Study from Delhi, India, James Tooley and Pauline Dixon of the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, studied a slum locality of north Delhi, Shahdara, one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the city.

They researched about 3,500 students in the area in a wide ranging array of subjects and issues to arrive at their results. They found 71 government schools in the area, 19 private aided schools, 102 private recognised schools and 72 private unrecognised schools a total of 265 schools.

The project looked at issues like relative achievements of public and private schools, while accounting for background variables, level of resourcing available, and satisfaction levels among students and teachers.

The report finds that while there are concerns about the quality of education provided by the private schools, especially the unrecognised ones, there is a parallel concern about the low quality of public education. The study found that the number of private unrecognised schools exceeded that of the government schools in the area, and the all private schools had higher achievement among the students tested. Children in unrecognised private schools achieved 72% higher marks on the average in mathematics, 83% higher marks in Hindi and 246% higher marks in English than government school students.

And this when the average salary of government school teachers was more than seven times higher than those in unrecognised private schools. Pupils and the staff of private schools too expressed far greater satisfaction in terms of work, school inputs, condition of school buildings, provision of facilities like drinking water, toilets, desks, chairs, blackboards, extra curricular activities and other aspects. They were also more satisfied in terms of their salaries, social standing in society, holidays, working environment, school infrastructure, management and leadership issues.

When researchers walked in unannounced into classrooms, there was significantly higher percentage of teaching going on in unrecognised private schools than in government schools - 69% to 38%. The study gives a break up for each of these, reinforcing the conclusion that private schools, recognised and even unrecognised, are far more efficient in imparting overall education. Unsuspected results also emerged. For example, private, unrecognised schools offer more free subsidised seats to poor children.

Most private unrecognised schools recognised that their infrastructure and facilities could improve. Education for the poor is a dream that has existed since Independence for India, and the general impression has been that public education would meet the challenge.

There needs to be a greater recognition that the private schools could well provide the answer to making primary education open to all. So rather than seeing private unrecognised schools as a problem, with greater support, in resources and organisation, these schools could be an asset and a cause for celebration in the long run.

The Centre for Civil Society will be releasing the study in India.