Private sector plays a key role in school education in India. 25% of all schools in India are private and account for 40% of the enrollment (FICCI). Schools run by local entrepreneurs can be spotted even in small towns and villages across the country.
Learning levels in India are alarmingly low. No data on learning in these private schools is collected by government agencies. Only 48% of students in class V can read a class 2 level text according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014, a national rural survey of children between the age of 3 and 16 years. Only 41% of students in class V could correctly locate information in a passage according to the National Achievement Survey conducted by NCERT in 2014 across a sample of government schools in India. The debate on the reasons behind such low learning levels continues. What is notable though is the lack of government data on learning levels of students in private schools across the country.
For elementary private schools (till grade 8), central or state governments do not have a systematic mechanism to understand the learning levels of students enrolled in private schools. The National Achievement Survey which measures learning of students in grade 3/5/8/10 only covers a sample of government schools and not private. States like Madhya Pradesh that conduct a statewide learning assessment in elementary schools (Pratibha Parv) only cover government schools. ASER which is widely accepted as a source for understanding learning levels only covers rural students (regardless of the nature of the school) and is conducted at home. Another source of school information is DISE (District Information Systems on Education), a yearly survey where all schools provide self-reported data. The DISE collects comprehensive data on various inputs present in school (boundary, toilets, drinking water, furniture) but contains very limited information on learning (number of students passing Grade 5-8 and number of students obtaining more than 60% in Grade 5-8).
All registered private schools are also governed by respective state education acts which may contain different provisions for monitoring of schools performance. Due to limited institutional capacity, monitoring quality varies. In Delhi, 5000 schools are meant to be inspected by less than 100 officers of the Education Directorate and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (DSE Act and Rules). As a result, there is no real government oversight on private schools and the learning provided to the students in these schools. The gamut of rules and regulations on private schools focus very rarely on learning and mostly on inputs. Education research across the world has shown how these inputs alone have very little impact on student outcomes (Muralidharan 2012).
Growth in private sector schooling is evidence of parents voting with their feet. For a better future parents are giving up free government education and paying tuition fees in private schools. School choice should always rest with the parents. The responsibility of the government as a regulator of school education is to collect data on the main purpose behind the existence of these schools – student learning. Without such comparable data, there is no evidence that private schools provide better learning to students. This learning data can be the first step in establishing accountability based monitoring mechanism that is currently non-existent in school education in India. Under the Right to Education, 25% of the seats in private unaided schools must be reserved for children from economically weaker section. The intention was to achieve equity in education and equal opportunity. Failing to measure learning in private schools means the government is not doing enough to at least gather information about quality of learning. And without quality control, how can we be assured that we are doing the best to educate our children?
While not completely analogous, the government is making an investment in private schools (to the extent of the fees paid for students from economically weaker sections) but seems to not care about the return on investment (student learning).
So where should the government begin? The education sector in India is governed by both state and central regulations, with school registration mostly governed by respective state education acts. While it is easy to say, collecting data on learning across states and schools is a mammoth task. Gunotsav, an annual examination conducted in Gujarat by the state government has recently decided to also include private schools in its ambit. States should at least begin with collecting learning data in certain grades in a sample of schools across the state.
Government agencies are within their regulatory powers to measure learning in private schools. But in a sector that is already plagued with excessive regulations and rules, this move might be seen by the private school entrepreneurs as yet another way to curtail their operating independence. Recent moves by several state governments (Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh) to regulate fees charged had private schools up in arms. Another real barrier in collecting such information would be the limited institutional capacity of the state machinery.
India has seen a tremendous increase in the private sector participation in primary schooling. This growth is part-fuelled by the demand for private education in the low-income communities, a group which traditionally was a part of the public school system. Yet these trends have been not met with a concomitant increase in the willingness and capacity of the government to effectively regulate this sector. Recent efforts to monitor private schools have all dealt with inputs to the schooling process and not with learning outcomes. Establishing effective accountability is imperative. But the government must realise that the indicators on which accountability is established are also important.