Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Manipal Global Education said that the school he was in had children from all sections of society. There were children whose parents were school teachers, labourers, bus conductor, and businessmen. This allowed students to understand diversity and accept differences. "A school should reflect the diversity of the society. If a child goes to school where only a certain class of students come, they will grow up not knowing what kind of society India is," says Pai.
Pai was speaking at the launch of "State of the Sector Report: Private Schools in India" by non-profit Central Square Foundation and social impact investment firm Omidyar Network India. But that diversity is hardly present any more, despite the government's attempt to improve access through Right to Education (RTE) Act Section 12(1)(c), which mandates a 25% reservation in private schools for socio-economically disadvantaged students with the state reimbursing costs to schools.
The report finds that the implementation of this act has been spotty across states. Also, students who go to private schools through RTE would have enrolled in them even without RTE.
Data shows that 50 per cent of school children in India, a whopping 12 crore, go to private schools. And their enrolment has been increasing over the years making it the third largest system in the world. The enrolment in government schools has come down to 50% in the last 15 years from 74%.
"This shows parents are making a choice and sending their children to private schools despite the government creating the capacity and spending enormous money on school education," says Pai. The reason is that parents, from privileged as well as from underprivileged households, believe private schools provide better learning environment.
Data shows that 70% of the school students who enrol in private schools pay less than Rs 1,000 a month as school fees. It is the students from the low- and middle-income backgrounds who form the majority of the private school enrolments. But studies have shown that learning levels in the private school system have remained stagnant for a decade. The ASER 2018 report shows that 35% of rural private school students in grade 5 cannot read a basic grade 2 level paragraph.
One of the biggest concerns, the report highlights, is there is no standard mechanism to compare schools based on the quality of education. Due to its absence, schools are not made accountable for the learning they provide. Also, the parents cannot make informed decision. In absence of the right standards, they make these choices based on the facilities/infrastructure the school has, and if it is English medium.
Many look at the result of the Board examination but nearly 60% of the private schools across India do not go up to a Board Examination grade. It's difficult for parents to judge the quality of schools during the early years of education.
Speaking about creating a demand for quality education among parents, Roopa Kudva, Managing Director, Omidyar Network India, says, "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."
Ashish Dhawan, the Founder-Chairman of CSF, says, "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. They can use this information to compare school quality and pick the best school for their child."
There is a need to incentivise schools to invest in learning, invisible improvements like teacher training and quality. The schools are currently 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, suggests the report. "We need to bring reforms using access, equity and quality as guiding factors. More importantly, we need to shift the focus from monitoring of inputs to monitoring of outcomes," said Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog while releasing the report at the digital event.
Currently, the regulation focuses too much on inputs. 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 states.
The report suggests the need to help parents compare schools based on quality of education, an independent regulator for accreditation and assessment of private schools independent of department of education and opening up education to for-profit sector.