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Report: Over 50% children in 16 states go to private schools

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About 70% children in urban centres and a quarter from rural households attend private schools. Over 50% students in 16 Indian states are enrolled in private schools, making their reform equally important. These are the findings from a new report titled State of the Sector Report on Private Schools in India.

What is the report about?

Central Square Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works towards ensuring quality school education, and Omidyar Network India, an investment firm focussed on social impact, released this report jointly. It highlights the need to improve learning outcomes in private schools which educate nearly half of India’s school-going children.
The report is a comprehensive analysis of existing research and evidence on the sector. It suggests reforms to streamline the operations of private schools with a focus on improving student learning. It aims to be a ready reckoner for policymakers, academicians, researchers, philanthropists and educationists amongst other stakeholders associated with the sector.

Why are more kids enrolled in private schools?

The increased enrollment can be attributed to the rising demand of aspirational parents. A large number of parents — about 70% — pay less than Rs. 1000 per month as school fees. The report finds that 73% of parents with children in private schools believe these schools provide a better learning environment. However, student performance is only marginally better than government schools after adjusting for disadvantages in student backgrounds. About 35% of rural private school students in Grade 5 are unable to read a basic Grade 2-level paragraph.
The report finds that parents lack the means to make informed decisions while choosing schools based on learning performance. Board Examinations, among the only few reliable and standardised metrics to assess learning, are held in the last few years of schooling making it difficult for parents to judge the quality of schools during the early years of education. Moreover, nearly 60% of the private schools across India do not go up to a Board Examination grade.
Highlighting the fact that private schooling is not popular among the elite alone, Ashish Dhawan, the Founder-Chairman of CSF, emphasised that many families from underprivileged households send their children to private schools as well. “Today the private school sector in India is the third-largest school system in the world. These numbers are mainly made up of parents from low- and middle-income backgrounds who believe their children will have better learning outcomes in private schools. It’s critical now to institute a system that will give parents assessment-based information based on key stage examinations at Grades 3, 5, and 8, as the NEP suggests.”
Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog, released the report at a digital event and spoke of its importance in drawing attention to the sector: “With 12 crore students enrolled in private schools, we have to pay attention to how the sector runs. We need reforms that make it easier for the sector to improve learning levels of children. Quality education has been this government’s priority and NITI Aayog is drafting a model regulatory act in consultation with all stakeholders. We will see fruitful results if we work together to bring about better learning opportunities for India’s children.”
And speaking about the creating a demand for quality education, Roopa Kudva, Managing Director, Omidyar Network India, said, “We need to empower parents to make informed decisions based on learning quality when choosing a school. In the absence of meaningful information on how schools perform on learning, parents tend to give weightage to tangible parameters like school infrastructure or English as the medium of instruction. Philanthropy capital can play a vital role in setting the ground in three main areas: greater awareness building, increased transparency from the schools themselves and improving the quality of engagement between parents and the schools.”

Under-regulation of learning outcomes

In the absence of a standard metric to measure learning outcomes, it may be hard for parents to judge how much their children are learning in school in absolute terms, or how good their school actually is in comparison to other schools in their neighbourhood that charge similar fees. Grade 10 and 12 board exam pass percentages, sometimes used as a school learning marker, do not cover 60% of India’s private schools which end at Grades 5 or 8. Subsequently, parents tend to choose schools based on proxies for learning like “English medium” or the “School Infrastructure”.
The information gap also means that schools are less likely to invest in learning-focused, invisible improvements like teacher training and quality, and more likely to spend on things that are observable by parents but may not lead to much improvement in learning, like computer labs, or marketing that proclaims English medium instruction.

Over-regulation of inputs

The second barrier is the over-regulation of inputs and a lack of policy focus on learning. Input-focused regulations prescribing playgrounds, computer labs, teacher salaries, etc., tend to be contextually unfit for under-resourced low-fee schools which make day-to-day operations difficult for them. Extensive licensing requirements deter quality providers from entering the sector and limits competition.
For instance, opening a private school in Delhi calls for 125 documents, and applications move through at least 155 steps within the Directorate of Education. The non-profit nature of the education sector also discourages high-quality providers from entering or scaling up. These regulations have a direct impact on the capacity of private schools to deliver high-quality education.
The report also dives into the five-pillar sectoral reforms that account for the above-mentioned challenges and can help improve learning outcomes:
1. Create a universal learning indicator to help parents compare learning performance across schools and make informed decisions
2. Develop a pragmatic accreditation framework that factors in constraints of low fee schools and state capacity to implement while focussing on learning outcomes and child safety
3. Establish an independent regulatory agency for the private school sector
4. Review non-profit mandate and existing fee regulations to attract investment and enable easy access to credit for schools
5. Strengthen RTE Section 12(1)(c) which mandates 25% reservations for underprivileged children to ensure more robust targeting and fee reimbursements
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