Private versus public schooling in India


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THERE has of late been a lively debate about the relative effectiveness of private and public schools in India. The new Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 has also generated fresh interest in this issue, given its major provision that the state will pay private schools to provide ‘education of equitable quality’ to children from the ‘weaker sections’. The act requires all private schools to allocate 25 per cent of their places to publicly-paid children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But what is the evidence on the efficacy and relative costs of private and public schools? There are several empirical studies assessing the relative effectiveness of public and private schools in India, based on data from different states published between 1996 and 2010. Specifically, these studies are based on data from Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; two of the studies use national data sets (the NCAER survey 2005-06 and the ASER survey 2005-2007). In order to assess whether private schools produce the same or higher student achievement than public schools, all these studies take into account the home background of students, since part of the reason for the achievement advantage of private school students typically found in raw test-score data is that they often come from better-off or more educated homes.

Despite the different methods used and the heterogeneity of private schools across different parts of India, the results of the various studies are roughly similar. They find that after statistically ‘controlling’ for their more privileged home background, while the achievement-advantage of private school pupils vis-a-vis government school pupils falls (compared with their raw advantage), nevertheless, a residual advantage remains. However, the extent of this ‘net’ private school advantage varies between studies, and within studies, by subject or by state. For example, in one study on UP, private school students demonstrated a residual achievement advantage over public school students in maths, but not in language.

A well-recognized problem in this literature is that private and public school students may differ in ways that are unobserved/immeasurable, and cannot therefore be easily adjusted for in a statistical study. For example, private schoolers may generally come from families where the home educational environment is richer, or where parents are more educationally motivated/engaged. If there are such unobserved differences, then the estimated private school advantage from standard methods is likely to be an overestimate.


Two recent papers, one by Sonalde Desai, Amaresh Dubey, Reeve Vanneman and Rukmini Banerji (University of Maryland College Park, JNU and Pratham) using NCAER data, and the second by Rob French and Geeta Kingdon (Institute of Education, University of London) using ASER learning data, attempt to address this concern. They compare the difference in achievement levels of children from the same household who attend private and public schools, after adjusting for the children’s grade and gender. Using this method, these studies can control for all (observed and unobserved) factors that are shared among children within the household, such as home educational environment/parents’ educational motivation, etc. While it can still be the case that parents treat one child differently from another within the same household, this ‘family fixed effects’ method provides a more robust way of establishing the causal private school ‘effect’ than other, more standard approaches.

Finally, Kingdon and French also construct a village level panel (time-series) data. Since the ASER survey is conducted in about 15,000 villages every year and many of the same villages are sampled every year, there is data on the same sample of villages over time. They found that in the three years between 2005 and 2007, an (over time) increase in the proportion of the village children attending private school was associated with an increase in average student achievement in the village. These findings lend support to the results from more standard regression methods.


Consequently, there is a great deal of consistency in the evidence across the Indian studies. And the private quality advantage is not surprising. It is consistent with the observed higher teacher effort in private schools, as measured by lower teacher absence rates. For example, in the 2007-08 School TELLS Survey for rural UP and Bihar, government school regular teachers’ absence rate was 23-25 per cent while private school teachers’ absence rate was 13-17 per cent, even though the former’s pay was about 12 times as high as the latters (Rs 12,000 pm in government schools and about Rs 1,000 pm in private schools).

Similarly, even when they were in school, self-reported time of government school teachers on teaching task was lower. They reported spending on average 74 per cent of their typical school hours in teaching children, while private school teachers report on the same question was 90 per cent. Lower effort, in turn, is consistent with public school teachers rarely facing accountability pressures, such as a credible threat of dismissal if they shirk duties.

However, it may be that many private schools set their quality level to be only modestly higher than the local government schools in order to attract fee-paying students. But parents are still prepared to pay fees, since even a modest achievement advantage (of say 0.20 standard deviations) gets the child ahead of others later in life. This may explain why country education systems that have more private schooling (e.g. Chile) don’t necessarily appear to perform dramatically better than countries that have a higher incidence of public schooling.


Even if private schools were no more effective than public schools in imparting learning, they would still be several times more cost-effective than public schools, simply because their salary costs are much lower. Private schools pay market-clearing wages, taking advantage of educated unemployment that exists in the country. The unemployment rate among those with a bachelor’s degree is 11 per cent nationally (based on National Sample Survey data, 2004-05). By contrast, public schools pay officially-set high salaries (or ‘minimum wages’) which are linked to central pay commission recommendations.

To take just one example, the recent adoption of the Sixth Pay Commission pay scales increased the starting salary of a government school regular teacher by 115 per cent in one go (starting salary is now Rs 18,000 per month) in UP. The estimated ratio of ‘government school regular teacher salary’ to ‘state per capita GDP’ in Uttar Pradesh is now 17:1, i.e. teachers are 17 times better paid than the average person in the state, a huge social distance between the teacher and the taught. This may explain why parents and communities cannot hold teachers to account: they are at such an economic disadvantage vis-a-vis the teacher that they would not have the confidence to expect the teacher to be answerable to them.

Clearly lack of accountability/answerability is the crux of the problem in government schools. But if it is recognized that the state of public education is poor because of poor accountability structures, then why can we not simply strengthen those structures? The problem is located in the political economy sphere. In their book, The Political Economy of Education in India: Teacher Politics in Uttar Pradesh (OUP, Delhi, 2003), Kingdon and Muzammil argue that political economy factors determine the wider school governance environment, which in turn determines whether/ how much accountability there will be within the public schooling system.

The book shows that there is a close nexus between teachers, teacher unions and teacher politicians. 12-23 per cent of the membership of the UP upper house and 6-11 per cent of the membership of the UP lower house has been made up of teachers in the past few decades, and most of the teacher MLCs and MLAs have close connections with teachers, usually being teacher union leaders themselves.

It suggests that teachers have a major role in influencing educational legislation and educational government orders, and so on. Teacher unions have successfully opposed various decentralizing reform measures over the past forty years – measures which would make teachers more accountable at the local level, and there are many examples of how teacher-politicians and union leaders subvert the proper application of the teacher accountability measures that do exist. It is a systemic problem. The argument is not that teachers are not good human beings; there are good and bad teachers in all systems.


This entrenched vested interest group is influential and with representatives within the corridors of power (as teacher MLAs and MLCs) and opposes reforms from within. This kind of opposition is likely to be the main reason why the only two decentralizing measures in the original 2005 draft of the RTE Bill (making teachers a school-based cadre; and giving school management committees the power to appoint teachers, distribute teacher salaries, deduct pay based on absences, and utilize grants for school maintenance) were taken out from the final 2009 act.


If political economy factors make it difficult to successfully introduce accountability-raising reform within the government schooling sector, what is to be done? The RTE Act 2009 already tacitly acknowledges the difficulty of reforming the government schooling sector, by instituting the biggest form of public-private partnership (PPP) in education in post-independence history of India. It requires all recognized private schools to provide 25 per cent of their seats to publicly paid children from the weaker sections. But PPPs in education are not a panacea – the devil is in the detail of how the PPP is set up.

The RTE Act has chosen to give the public resource directly to the private schools; an alternative would have been to give it directly to the families of the disadvantaged children in the form of a school voucher that entitles them to attend a school of their choice. This sets up potentially very different incentives for schools compared to a system where the school receives the funding directly from the government. Vouchers potentially empower the poor families by placing the resource at their disposal and this would possibly induce schools to be more accountable to parents. However, voucher schemes also face a number of problems that have not been thought through in the Indian context. It would thus be useful for the government to pilot-test different ways of giving the public resource to private schools in one small area, e.g. in some districts, before scaling up the programme nationally.