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Rural schools in India – private or government?

One of the key inputs required for the Indian economy to continue its growth path is a revamp of its education system so as to make its ample manpower more employable.

I have long held the view that the quality of education that the government provides in India through its municipal schools is significantly inferior to that provided by the private schools. I felt the government should simply give “education coupons” for students to go to schools of their choice (most, I felt, will prefer private schools), instead of running schools, which it is anyway, doing very badly.

My view stands challenged by the findings of a recent report on education by Pratham, an NGO that works in the area of children’s education. Since 2005, the organization has published the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the largest annual survey of rural children done in India, every year. In 2009, ASER covered children in 575 districts, over 16,000 villages and 300,000 households.

The report on the state of school education in rural India is a treasure of insights that have deep policy implications. One of them is a comparison of the quality of education between the government and private schools. Enrollment in private schools is as high as 40% in states like Haryana, Punjab, UP and Kerala and as low as 5% in Bihar and West Bengal. However, in all states, enrollment in private schools has been increasing over time.

The survey found that the level of learning in private schools was higher than that in government schools, but not significantly so. For example, 43.6% of students in government schools in classes 1-5 could read, as compared to 52.2% in private schools. However, this does not reflect the performance of the school alone, as many of the private school students belong to richer households and have other advantages such as access to private tuition, better educated mothers, etc. According to the report, after “controlling” these differences, the learning differential between the two types of schools falls from 8.6% to 2.9%. This differential varies across states, but is in alignment with the overall conclusion that private schools are not really performing very much better than government schools.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates education for all children. Since the government lacks funds to provide quality schools for all the children, yes, it should encourage private schools. But merely moving children from government to private schools will not have the desired effect. The policy makers also need to think about how to regulate the rural private schools in a way that will really provide a superior level of learning to children. And that is no mean task.

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