Lack of choice between government and private schooling in India

The Indian education system like its society is heavily stratified. While, the standard segments remain government schools and private schools  – with private schools further segmented into government aided or unaided, with the proliferation of unrecognized low cost private schooling there are more fuzzy lines creating differential access for varied socio-economic groups.

As per the ASER 2012 report,  at the All India level private school enrollment has been rising steadily since 2006. The demand for private schools comes from the perception that the governments schools do not deliver on providing an acceptable quality of education to children which would in future provide access to different pathways of opportunities. This perception is so engrained that a parent says “My child goes to a private school” with a sense of pride of being a good parent and making the right choices for his or her kids. Parents choose to send their children to even unrecognized private schools, often at a considerable financial sacrifice.

The all India enrollment data by ASER 2012 says that in the age group of (6-14 years) for both boys and girls put together the private enrollment is at 28.3%. But if we break it down to age groups and gender there is a clear pattern emerging. In the 7-10 age group 31.7% of boys are enrolled in private schools as compared to the 25.3% of girls in the same age group. In the 11-14 age group, 31.3% of boys are enrolled in private schools as compared to 24.8% of the girls. This indicates that with the increased trend of private enrollment, there is an over representation of girl children in the government schools. This is because with the rising costs of education, the parents are making a choice of sending the boys to a private school (perceived to be of better quality and providing higher opportunities) and the girls to a government school (perceived to be of lesser quality) to ease the cost pressure. Simply put, which child would you bet your money on – metric being ROI and the girl child being seen as  “paraya dhan” (someone else’s wealth – reference to girls having to be given away to another family in marriage) gets the raw deal.

When one compares learning levels, there is a steady decline across arithmetic and reading in government schools and the rate of decline (though persistent) is lower in private schools. This is not to say private schools are doing much better, but socio-economic-educational background of children’s families, parental aspirations and additional support for learning contribute majorly to their better performance. Yet, fact remains that the learning gap between government and private school children is widening. This widening gap may make the private schools look better, but in an absolute sense it is important to note that less than 40% of Std 5 children in private schools could solve a simple division sum in 2012.

While all this time we were talking about the low cost private schooling options, there exists also a middle level of private schooling in which have entry exams for admitting students, interviews for parents to see if they meet the unspoken criteria of social level of the school and the school fees around 2000-8000 rupees a month. There are also additional costs of school uniforms, trips, coaching classes or individual tuitions. At the top end of this spectrum is a small section of elite, global Indians whose children also go to private schools but with PTR closer to 15 instead of 30, swimming pool and horse riding facilities, international field trips, personal laptops for each student and teachers who are trained from across the world.

The clear sorting of schools on basis of social and economic class has led to distinct groups of students in each kind of school as opposed to a socially mixed institution. Also, for the elite it is not just a choice based on frustration with quality of government schools. There is an inherent ambition to be exclusive and maintain that level of social distance to ensure one’s place in the top of the pyramid of the hierarchy of classes.

When the Supreme Court ruling upheld the Right to Education Act which makes education free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14, and requires schools, including private ones that don’t receive any public funding, to set aside places for children from low-income families, there was an outcry from parents as well as private schools which felt burdened by having to share the responsibility of educating less privileged children alongside other privileged children.

It is very well to say that government needs to get its act together instead of passing the buck, this is just a small percentage which does not make any impact in the larger schemes of things, children from “those” backgrounds face a lot more psychological issues when put in middle and upper middle class schools and a child’s schooling needs to be aligned to his or her social needs.

The conversation on choice and quality is always seen synergistically but the minute you throw equity into the equation, quality comes in question. Why is that? Why is equity seen to detract from quality? Aren’t we just hiding under the cloak of “quality” to continue to remain insulated from social reality and exclusive?

The choice really isn’t a choice when it is known that certain schools are barely able to deliver what we would believe to be education.


  1. Manabi Majumdar, and Jos E Mooij, 2011: Education and Inequality In India: Classroom View 
  2. Pratham Foundation, 2012: Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) –
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