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Counterpoint: in response to ‘Can privatisation help?’ December 24, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Sundaram, Manu , trackback

Manu Sundaram

The article titled ‘Can privatisation help?’ reviews the challenges in implementing the Right to Education Bill. In doing so, the authors weigh up the role of private education providers in meeting our goal of universalizing education, and in conclusion, provide two major findings: a) “The cost of private schooling limits the accessibility and has negative implications for the breadth and depth of school accessibility across socio-economic groups”; and b) “A well equipped and functioning government school sector will encourage a quality private school sector.”

While the discussion on the Right to Education Bill is timely and welcomed, educationists and policymakers must take note of the misdirected conclusions, arising from wrongful interpretation and omission of research, in this article. In fact, recent research has unearthed strong evidence directly contradicting the hypotheses suggested in the abovementioned article.

Private Schools Serving the Poor

Studies in Hyderabad and New Delhi (as well in Ghana and China) by Prof James Tooley (University of Newcastle) have revealed much about the education choices of poor parents. Many poor parents have abandoned government schooling in favour of low fee (budget) private schools. In choosing the most suitable private school for their children, poor parents have shown increased involvement and engagement with their children’s education. The process of school selection is taken seriously by the poor parents who gather substantial information on the schools’ academic performances, classroom activity, schools’ infrastructure, English teaching and fee structures before making the decision. By exercising their choice in selecting the school, parents are able to hold private schools accountable for their children’s education. Also, poor parents have the option to withdraw their ward if they are unhappy with the education provided at school. This yardstick of accountability is distinct by its absence from government run schools.

Research by the Centre for Civil Society has revealed that the Delhi Government, on average, spends Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 per child per annum in the government-run schools. While most poor parents who send their children to low fee private schools – that are mushrooming in urban slum neighbourhoods across the capital – spend around Rs 6000 per annum. By providing education that is of better quality than the free-of-charge government schooling, the private sector has found a way to reach out to the most vulnerable. By deriding private schools as mere ‘status symbols’, the authors completely disregard the invaluable and unmatchable service they provide for the most disadvantaged children in our cities.

Competition and Quality Education

The authors contend that a well equipped and functioning government schooling system will improve the quality of the private school.  In fact, this conclusion is faulty on two accounts. Firstly, it is the lack of a functioning government schooling system that has given rise to a thriving private schooling system. Research studies by World Bank in 2005 by Prof Michael Kremer (Harvard University), on the basis of unannounced visits to 3700 government primary schools across 20 Indian states, revealed that 25% of government teachers were absent on average. In nearly half the government classrooms visited, the study reported that there was no teaching activity. In fact, the PROBE study, cited by the authors, reveals that between 1996 and 2006 there has been no change in teaching activity in government schools despite the vast increase in resources towards Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. Also, Prof James Tooley’s research has confirmed strong correlation between substandard government schooling and the rise in private schools in the area.

Secondly, it is competition among private schools that ultimately influences the quality of education and keeps the cost of providing education low. Private schools are directly accountable to the parents of their students and have an inherent motivation to offer quality education in order to survive. The education provided needs to be not only better than the government school, but better than every other private school in the neighbourhood. Thus, competition for providing more and better educational services among the private sector is a far greater factor influencing quality than competition with the local government school, as claimed by the article. Furthermore, government schools are forced to raise their quality and adapt to the changing demands. This is evident from the fact that some State and Local Governments, like Tamil Nadu, have started offering English medium in Primary Schools.

Public Private Partnerships in Education: The way forward

The Union Government and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) have woken up to the silent revolution of private schools in educating the weaker sections of society. The Right to Education Bill (Section 12) mandates private unaided schools to reserve 25% of seats in Class 1 for children from socio-economically disadvantaged families – a truly far-sighted provision, in an otherwise stale and overdue legislation, that will fundamentally revolutionize the schooling offered to the disadvantaged children.  

The need of the hour is a multi-dimensional approach that will leverage the superior educational services provided by the private sector by implementing the 25 per cent in a wholehearted and transparent manner. In addition, the Central and State Governments must increase the scholarship programs which will expand the access for underprivileged groups and enable them to attend private schools. Furthermore, using Public Private Partnership initiatives, the Governments must join hands with established and quality education providers from the private sector to revive failing government schools. Only such efforts that include and involve the best practices from the private sector will provide solutions to remove the inequalities between private and government schooling that exist today.


1. Jack Tool - February 15, 2010

Tooley et al have two main sources of information on which they judge ‘school
quality’. Firstly based on parent’s reasons for choosing school Government or Private
school. Here they downplay the attraction of English medium offered by the private
schools and instead choose to interpret parents preference for (English medium)
private schools as evidence of assessment of their (superior) quality. The second is a
survey of a long list of metrics and proxies of quality. On this list, items relating to
basic health and hygiene, safety and comfort and the presence of teacher activity are
important as indicative of quality. But extensive data is also gathered, tabulated and
analysed, relating to various infrastructural aspects, including the presence of fans,
tape recorders and TVs. It is based on this comparison that they conclude that the
PUU are better, or at least as good as government schools. “[T]his selection borders
on the absurd, particularly when taken with other possible indicators which are
omitted. …they choose these trivial indicators over other proxies such as teacher
training qualifications or time tabled activities! They have also chosen to completely
ignore the inclusion of the midday meal in the government schools, a facility not
available in the PUR and PUU1
” (Sarangapani and Winch, forthcoming).

Jain and Dholakia claim that this same study “…showed that children in such schools
in Hyderabad scored almost one sigma higher than the average test score of children
in government schools”(p42). In fact there is no such claim reported2
. It is quite
possible that Tooley et al may have actually conducted assessments of children in
government and comparable private budget schools and finally chose not to report or
discuss these findings as, in fact, children in the private-budget schools are not likely
to perform better at any but the most routinised, rote memory based tasks. In a recent
e-group debate comparing private and government educational institutions, the
founder of a well established private testing agency in India, who have been
extensively researching children’s performance in government and private schools
“… I did find that any lead that private schools show in their learning
outcomes over government schools can be completely explained away by… :
(1) students’ socio-economic background (2) students’ initial levels, (3)
rote/procedural nature of learning tested. In other words if you control for
factor 1, look for improvements between say grade 3 and grade 7 (to nullify
any initial advantage) and the test is not rote/testing procedural knowledge
only, I do not believe private schools show any advantage over government
schools. If the private schools are English medium from an (early?) class, I
believe they will actually show reduced learning.”

In an earlier report based on a study in the same area, Tooley and Dixon had
described the curriculum of these budget private schools as ‘stultifying’. Parents too
were very willing to have periods in other subjects converted into extra English. The
practices of the teachers were completely geared towards rote memorization (Tooley
and Dixon, 2003). If anything these budget Private schools are likely to stress
children by compelling them to engage with extensive rote learning of
incomprehensible English ‘Question-Answers’; hardly something that one would associate with ‘quality education’. In comparison, a redeeming feature of centres
such as Gyan Shala is that they are in the mother-tongue/regional language. It is
surprising that Jain should choose to place the education offered by his private
institution in the same league as these private budget schools.

There are several other problems with the findings and interpretations of Tooley et
al’s study, including its failure to locate the experiences of its respondents who are
mostly muslim, within the context of the overall problems that this community has
faced vis a vis the state, especially in Andhra Pradesh (reported in the Sachar
Committee Report), and also well known problems of school education in Urdu
medium. Their general anti-government stand is also comes across as a prejudice.
Certainly there are a number of issues with government provided education, but the
solution that is on offer, it is far from obvious that vouchers to study in private-budget
schools constitutes a solution.

Contrary to what Jain and Dholakia, and Tooley claim, there is no credible evidence
yet, that the education offered by budget private schools is comparable, leave alone
viable or desirable. The desirability of the education on offer in private schools
should also be a matter of concern when we realize that in Tooley’s model the
commodity that is on offer in the market is ‘educational opportunity’ and not
education per se. This means that the onus on the private provider is only the
provision of education, and not the responsibility or task of ensuring that children
become educated. This is not a mere verbal quibble when one recalls that the ‘public’
character of the education good is not a mere aggregation of the private goods that
accrue, and further when one thinks about the possible experiences of children of the
poor and the poorest of the poor in such institutions (see Sarangapani and Winch,
forthcoming, for full arguments).

The concern regarding their viability is a serious one. At the pay that Tooley et al had
found in Hyderabad, ranging from Rs 1200- Rs 3000 per month in the private schools,
teachers are likely to have been quite desperate; there would have been a high turn
over and job frustration, leading to significant instability in these institutions. If they
continued in this situation, it could be for a host of wrong reasons, including the lure
of after-school tuitions and such alternative sources of income. This would hardly
make for a good primary school. With reference to Gyanshala, a study has noted the
extent of supervision that their low paid teachers require; their activities are regulated
with planning of what they will be doing each fifteen minutes! (Vachani and Smith,
2008). Clearly huge institutional effort are directed at micromanaging the teachers.
Not only does this seem to constitute a huge deskilling of the teacher, the same study
also pointed out that Gyanshala faces difficulty in recruiting suitable supervisors.
Neither of these scenarios of ‘schools/learning centres’ with such low paid teachers
looks viable—no matter how ‘feasible’ Jain and Dholakia find their teacher salaries to
be. Perhaps it is time to set the salaries of teachers at what is desirable, in view of the
specialized and intellectually significant work that is involved and work backwards to
what percentage of the GDP should be allocated to education!