Are affordable private schools really affordable?

Shantanu Gupta

Pratham’s ASER report of 2008 notes: “Among all 6-14 year olds, the proportion of children attending private schools has increased from 16.4 per cent in 2005 to 22.5 per cent in 2008. This increase in private school enrollment represents a 37.2 per cent increase over the baseline of 2005. This increase is particularly striking in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.”

Many organizations are spreading the word and advocating that low-fee private schools or affordable private schools are the solution to the dismal state of primary education in India. But are affordable private schools (APS) really a solution in the terms of quality and affordability of education?

Hail Adam Smith! The market economy is moving from cosmetics and cars to primary education and health. To tap the huge potential in the primary education market in India, many private investors are flocking to India with their money and pumping it into very safe and sound middle income and low-middle income private schools in India. To glorify their investment they are using the term “Affordable private schools (APS)”. In a country, where 80 per cent of the population lives below the $2/day poverty line, it is sheer mockery to call schools charging fees of Rs. 400 to Rs 800 per month “Affordable Schools”. Affordable for whom?

But if investors are happy in investing their money and the recipients are making money from this available credit, why am I so sour? What bothers me is the race, amongst investors and private schools, to embrace the “social investor” or “social entrepreneur” tag, which is artificially escalating the APS sector and further marginalizing access to “quality education” among the poor in India and taking India further away from the common schooling system.

Poor quality English medium private schools are mushrooming everywhere and luring poor illiterate parents. Whether and what children learn in such schools is a question. All parents who understand the significance of education are enthralled by the appearance put on by such schools, so government schools are left with only those children whose parents consider the school to be nothing more than a day care center, while they are out earning their daily wages.

In addition we also have some persuasive Western writers selling the APS concept to patriotic Indians in the name of Mahatma Gandhi. They say even ‘your’ Gandhiji vouched for the Indian village school system, where students used to pay fees to the teachers. I want to refresh the memories of these writers that in the absence of a robust tax collection system, that was the alternative at that time. But currently, poor parents are paying twice for their children’s education; the tax and the fees to private schools.

Even today, more than 80 per cent of the children in India, study in government primary schools. Recently, in a meeting of a District Education Department on the Right to Education (RTE), I found that not one official present was sending his child to a government school. When no one, including government officials, has any focus on government schools; when there is no one to awake sleeping teachers in government schools; when we are so shy to work with the government to channelize tax payers’ money to good use; when we are calling schools charging Rs 400 to 800 “affordable” schools; are we really serious about lifting the level of education in India?

The author works with Naandi Foundation, Hyderabad. He can be reached at shantanu@naandi.org.

*Views expressed here are the personal views of the author.