Given how successive ASER reports show that learning levels are poorer in government schools than in private schools, the rising private school enrolment, especially in budget private schools in rural areas, has been thought of as a boon. This, it has been argued, gave parents with limited budgets a choice, and would lead to better learning outcomes. Nearly 12 crore school-students in India are enrolled in private schools—using district-level data compiled by the Union government, Geeta Gandhi Kingdon (former research fellow at University of Oxford) had estimated that, between 2010-11 and 2015-16, private school enrolments had grown by 1.7 crore while that of government schools had fallen by 1.3 crore. However, a recently released report by the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and the Omidyar Network (ON) has some findings that queer the pitch.
The demand from parents left disappointed by public-funded schools, but unable to afford the large fees charged by top-notch private schools—the Right to Education’s EWS quota helped, but only a very small number—has led to mushrooming of budget private schools in both urban and rural areas. The CSF-ON report finds that 70% of the private school students in India pay a monthly fee of <Rs 1,000, and 45.5% pay <Rs 500. The learning levels at these schools, though an improvement over those at government schools, are far from the desired level—as per CSF-ON, 35% of Grade V students in rural private schools can’t read a paragraph from a Grade II level text, and nearly 60% of them can’t do basic division, compared with almost 56% of the students in Grade V in government schools not being able to read a Grade II level text (ASER 2018).
The CSF-ON report highlights the fact that the absence of regulation of learning outcomes contributes significantly to this. This is exacerbated by the fact that 60% of private schools don’t have board-level grades. Against the backdrop of budget private schools channelising the bulk of their resources for compliance with heavily-regulated entry into the space (land, infrastructure, etc, requirements), operations and administration (salaries, etc), learning outcomes suffer. Left with precious little to invest, these schools invest heavily on marketable overheads aimed at wooing parents, such as computer labs, and on advertising, etc, instead of directing the resources towards hiring of high-quality teachers, continued training of teachers and other such measures that can help improve learning levels of students.
The report pitches for developing universal learning indicators—say, 98% of the students must be able to execute grade-appropriate academic task—and educating parents about these to guide their decisions. Beyond this, a more pragmatic view on accreditation is needed—one that factors in the limitations of low-fees schools and the obstacles they face, with the focus being on child safety and learning outcomes rather than salary-floors, land, playground, etc. Another way to build in more choice for parents is to have minimal regulation of fees, etc, and give them targeted spending coupons for school education of their wards. Without the right outlook, budget private education will still not be able to help a large chunk of students improve their lot.