Season 3     EPISODE 6
April 6, 2022

Schools in India: Public vs private

Aditya Natraj, CEO of Piramal Foundation, and Parth Shah, founder-president of the Centre for Civil Society, discuss the pros and cons of government schools and private schools, and why both are crucial for a well-functioning education system.

24 min read

Edited transcript of the episode:


Smarinita: A recently released report by the Central Square Foundation and the Omidyar Network states that nearly half of the country’s student population is enrolled in private schools. This can perhaps be attributed to the popular public perception that private schools in India provide a higher quality of education as compared to government schools. But the reality is different. According to the ASER Education Report in 2018, 35 percent of private school students in grade five in rural India could not read a basic grade two–level paragraph.

What we also know is that both categories of schooling systemsgovernment and privatehave been severely affected by the pandemic, and face challenges at multiple levels.

In addition to the two years of learning losses that they have to make up for, there are also infrastructure and capacity issues as large numbers of students shift from private to government schools, driven by their parents’ worsening financial conditions.

But what needs to happen to ensure that those at the heart of all of this—the children—don’t suffer more than they already have? How do we strengthen both systems to ensure quality of education for their future?

Talking about the pros and cons of our schooling systems, the pandemic’s impact on both, and much more are our two guests today—Aditya Natraj and Parth Shah.

Aditya is the CEO of Piramal Foundation. Before taking on this role, he founded and led Kaivalya Education Foundation, which works entirely with the government schooling system. The organisation’s, and Aditya’s, inherent belief is that leadership in government schoolsessentially principals and teacherscan be drivers of change in education. Aditya used to work at Pratham and KPMG before he set up Kaivalya.

Our second guest, Parth, is the founder-president of the Centre for Civil Society, an independent public policy think tank. Before starting the organisation, Parth taught economics at the University of Michigan. His research and advocacy work focus on the themes of economic freedom, choice and competition in education, and good governance. He has been a vocal advocate of affordable private schools and the role they play in providing quality education to our children.


Smarinita: Welcome, Parth, and welcome, Aditya, to this episode of On the Contrary. Both of you are proponents of both government schools and affordable private schools, right? Could you speak a little bit on why you think each of these approaches that you favour is important in our country’s education landscape. Aditya, maybe you could start.

Aditya: Schooling is not just a utilitarian goal for the sake of the child. I think I’d like to zoom out and look at schooling as a larger democracy-building project. We are a very young democracy. Just 76 years ago, we were 550 princely states. We did not have the concept of India. My grandparents didn’t know it, and my great-grandparents didn’t even hear about it. We’ve not had the concept of a democracy. Public education is one of the key tools for building that concept. I don’t know whether you remember when you were in school, but I remember my diary used to have ‘unity in diversity’ and all these things, which are reinforced again and again, because I needed to believe and affiliate. I mean, I’m from Tamil Nadu; I need to affiliate with a person from Tripura, I need to affiliate with the person from Jammu and Kashmir, and I need to affiliate with a person from Jaisalmer, whose food, culture are substantially different from mine Public education helps in the process of creating that democracy, saying, “What are the common values by which we live? Why have we come together?”

For social justice reasons as well, making sure public education is accessible to everyone is extremely critical.

The second perspective is the social justice perspective. We are a country which has huge diversity in terms of caste. There have been not just Dalits and Bahujans, but also particularly vulnerable tribal groups. And there is a sort of ranking in our society. And if the vision of the Constitution is social justice…I love Ambedkar’s statement in his constitutional assembly, when he puts out the Constitution and says that tomorrow we are going to open into a new world, where politically we will be democratic. Everyone will have one vote. But socially we will still be different. Because a woman is not as powerful as the man, the lower caste is not as powerful as the upper caste, the minorities will not be as powerful as the majority, and that’s the equality that our preamble aspires to. So for social justice reasons as well, making sure public education is accessible to everyone is extremely critical. So I think we really need to build democracy, we need to build social justice, we need to build the idea of India, and the public education system is very, very critical at this stage in the country’s growth and development.


Smarinita: Thanks, Aditya. Parth, can you speak a bit about the role that private schools have? Aditya spoke very nicely about the role of public education in nation building and where we are as a country today, but is there a role for private schools as well?

Parth: My choice for emphasising the role for private schools is largely based on common sense, through experience of the fact that monopolies are bad. Whether the monopolies are in the government sector, in sarkar (rule), in bazaar (market), or in samaaj (society). So monopolies are generally bad for the people. I think it’s not a very novel idea. So I think in some sectors we want to have competition between the government, private sector, and civil society—samaaj. In a large number of areas, we are quite okay with competition between two private parties. So most of the goods or services we consume are usually the result of a competition between private parties. But there are certain public goods like education, I would say healthcare, and I would also put social support—what we normally call welfare—in that category, where you don’t really want to have a government monopoly. You want to create a system where there is a role particularly for samaaj and also bazaar to whatever extent possible. We have had an aided school system in India from the very beginning, and even the government recognised the fact that you need to promote different kinds of schools, different approaches to education, and different pedagogies. And, therefore, the aided school system was one way for the government to support the private sector and provide that alternative option. Actually, Kerala, which has been seen as a shining example of the education system in India, has the highest proportion of privately managed schools compared to any other state in India. Second is parental choice. I do believe that parents should have the right to choose what kind of education their children get. And that rights should not be controlled by the state by just providing one kind of schooling system in the country. I think the UN Charter of Human Rights, which some of you refer to often, has three clauses when it talks about the right to education. The first two are about it being free and compulsory. It should be free; it should be compulsory. The third clause, which unfortunately is hardly ever talked about, is the fact that the parents have a prior right to decide what kind of education should be given to their children. Even in the UN Charter we recognise the fact that parents would have a right to choose the education that children receive. I think third, about the Indian system, where we talk about the ‘affordable’ or ‘budget’ private schools—my take is that those are the schools which are largely community schools. These are not the schools that somebody from outside the community came and started and are running. Usually people living in the same slum, same neighbourhood thought that there was a demand for education that was somehow not being met, and this was an opportunity for them to provide education. Those three reasons, I think, tell me very clearly that we need to emphasise multiple systems of delivery of education.

And just to engage in dialogue with Aditya on this: what he talked about—the idea of India and social justice—people normally assume that that can happen only in government schools. Even private schools are equally capable, if not more, in promoting that kind of inclusiveness, that kind of solidarity, and social justice. So I think it’s just the assumption that’s largely being made that it can only happen in public schools, and there is not much research to support that assumption.


Smarinita: Thank you, Parth. Both of you touched upon important reasons about why you work with the systems that you do work with. I also know that both of you don’t operate at two extremes, right? Aditya, you don’t believe that the government schooling system is the only way to go. And Parth, similarly, you’re about people having choice. But could you speak a little bit on whether there are things that the government schooling system does better? And you’ve touched upon some of those, Aditya. And are there certain things that the private schooling ecosystem does better?

Parth: I think the way I think about the kind of education system we want is primarily based on the simple fact that each child is unique, and if you provide customised, personalised input to the child, then you will get a more equitable outcome at the end. The approach that we unfortunately have taken in India—which the Right to Education Act is a prime example of—is to standardise inputs. So if each child is unique and you provide standardised input, you get a very unequal outcome. The idea of equity, which is of course very important in education, and the way we are trying to achieve that equity, at least so far in our history, is largely by standardising inputs. So the thinking has been that “how can I provide equitable education to all children across such a diverse country like India?” “How could I have a school in Balangir which is as good as in Bangalore?” Therefore, the focus in achieving that equity is largely on building the same core type of schools. The building should be of this kind, the library must have this many books, the teacher must have this qualification, they must be paid this salary. So those are all the input infrastructure norms that we have developed. The Right to Education Act, of course, primarily focuses on that in order to achieve equitable outcomes. But if you really believe that each child is unique, then you need to provide differential input, which is suitable [for] and personalised to that child.

Private school systems do more of that. There is a lot more pressure on the system to deliver a little more on that front and respond a little more to parental demand, which may or may not be the right thing all the time. We know that the parents can also be misguided about what they demand from the schools. But generally, over a period of time, my sense is that if you want to build a system for a long term, then you need to allow parents to play that role. And maybe we need to educate them. Maybe the role for samaaj and sarkar is to educate parents about what makes good education and what’s good for the children. Now, I can easily justify [why] other people should play that role, but I would not want to bypass parents just based on the assumption that they [may be] illiterate or first-generation learners, and, therefore, what do they know about schools? What do they know about education? Therefore, leave it all to the experts.

Aditya: I don’t disagree that equity is the final goal. I think that’s the beauty of what both Parth and I are saying. The question is, how do you reach that social equity? I think the reality is that when you go into private schools…I agree that the low-budget private schools, which are just set up as mom-and-pop shops, are okay. But as soon as you go one level above that, the reality is that that private school is more likely not to admit a child with special needs or learning disabilities. I went to a government school in Delhi, which was a very high-performing government school. And I interviewed the principal of the school. I asked him, “How are you performing so well?” He was performing better than private schools, and this is about 12–15 years ago. He said, “Hum wahi karte hain jo private schools karte hain.” (We do the same thing that private schools do.) So I said, “What do you do?” He said, “In grade eight, we wean out 10­–15 percent of the children. In grade nine, we wean out another 10–15 percent of the children and tell their parents to put them in some other school. So then, by grade 10, we have 100 percent pass rather than 70 percent pass. If private schools are allowed to do this, why can’t I do it?”

Government schools are really good at inclusion. Because as a mandate, we have no choice.

So if the rules of the game are that I have to take the weakest, I have to take the poorest, I have to take the first-generation learner, and you can select and you can take the best, you’re then competing with IIT versus an inclusion-based engineering college. And these are two different models. So I think government schools are really good at inclusion. Because as a mandate, we have no choice. If you’re with special needs, we have to include you. If you’re an orphan, we have to include you. If you can’t afford to pay the fees, we still have to include you. And I think that’s the opportunity that we have if you really want inclusion. I come from the corporate sector. I’m all for private incentives for this delivery, but I’m not able to see how to create the incentives in [a manner] that inclusion is also served. And I think that’s what government schools are really good at.


Smarinita: Yes, government schools do inclusion far better, while Parth, like you said, private schools are better structured and incentivised to respond to each student’s uniqueness. So, what is it according to you, Parth, that makes parents choose one system over the other, beyond just the economics?

Parth: In terms of why parents prefer private schools, there are, of course, many reasons. Often, one of the primary reasons people cite is the English medium. Parents see that as a ticket to a better future for their children. I also assume that that’s what most people talk about and it’s what parents usually say when you ask them. My views began to change sometime in the mid 2000s…2005 onwards, when we began to do a voucher pilot. So we ran a voucher pilot program in Delhi. It was a small pilot program, but it allowed me to interact with parents over a longer period of time. It was a three-year pilot program, so I was interacting with the same group of parents over a three-year period. So you build some kind of rapport, you get to know them a little better, and they get to trust you. You visit their home, so you see what’s going on there. And as I began to engage a little more, I realised that what I assume as the reason for their preference is really last on their list. The things they actually talk about, which animates them, is, for example, something that we trivialise. The fact that schools check nails is an important thing for parents. The fact that the school checks the [child’s] uniform—whether it’s washed or not and whether the shoes are polished or not—is important for the parents. They see this as the way to instil discipline and hygiene, which unfortunately they are not able to do given the places they live in. And so they see a school adding extra value to the kid’s life and their future. For example, the schools actually close their gate. If you’re more than 10 minutes late, the gate is closed. The homework is given and is checked. Now, how well it is checked…one can dispute all of those things. But the parents can see that the homework notebook that the child brought back is being written over by the teacher. Whatever he or she has written over there may be valuable or may not be valuable, but they see that is happening. The teachers are engaged on a daily basis. So, I think those are the factors that really animate parents in choosing those schools. And you can now contrast each one of them in terms of what the perception is of what generally happens in government schools. You can understand why parents are willing to sacrifice. If parents are earning 20,000 rupees, one-third of that monthly income is spent on education. This is everything, not just school fees, [but also] the tuition classes and all of those things that parents do. And so it’s not an easy choice for parents to send even one child out of three or four to a private school. It’s a huge sacrifice.


Smarinita: Aditya, the perception of private schools being better than government schools. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Aditya: Sure. I think there’s definitely a perception problem in government versus private. ASER data has shown that, adjusting for socio-economic differences, private and public are actually delivering at the same levels. Unfortunately, that’s not the perception in the market. The reality is that if you are from the second quartile in the country and going to a private school, and I’m from the fourth quartile and going to a public school…and then you’re comparing and you’re telling me that you’re better, but your parent is actually the one who’s educating you…so, I think there’s a perception difference.

Two is, any district in the country runs about 2000 schools. Two thousand schools, half a million children; you will be serving midday meals half a million times. Even at a Six Sigma level, there will be a possibility that one of those meals is infected in one of six days of the week. But that will be blown out of proportion by the media, [saying] “government does not work”. On the other hand, the private schools give ads in the local media, saying “My child got 98 percent, 97.6 percent, and 97.2 percent”. And governments don’t give ads in the paper. So systematically there is a belief that the government does not work and that private works. On the other hand, IIT works; IIT is completely government. IIM works; IIM is completely government. There, in fact, if you set up a private institution, by the time you catch up with IIM’s reputation or IIT’s reputation, it’s going to take you many, many years.

So, something has happened because of which perceptions in the school sector are such that we believe that government schools don’t work. Parth, let me tell you a live example. A teacher whom I worked with…the principal of a school…now, this teacher works on this child from grade one to three, and she starts performing. As soon as she starts performing, the parents say, “Humein nahin laga ke yeh ladki padh sakti hai (We didn’t think this girl would be able to study). She seems quite smart, let’s put her in the private school.” And so they move the girl to the private school, and the principal came out crying. Two years later, the child was not performing enough because she’s not used to this heavily disciplined environment. She needs love, she needs care, she needs a sense of joy. Whereas that was an over-regimented, army-type school. The child was not performing, and the parents had to bring her back to this school. I’m giving this example to say that different children need different types of things. The reality is, in rural areas, there are a bunch of schools that are extremely regimented, and the discipline they require is detrimental to children’s growth. So, while cleaning of nails I’m extremely comfortable with, the more homework you give, you’re perceived as a better school; the more you scold my child, you’re perceived as a better school. These are perceptions unfortunately, and I have to stall governments from giving into consumer needs. Education is not a customer-focused business alone. If your child asked for something, you don’t serve it immediately. Because education is the process by which you help the child self-regulate. You can’t prevent it, you can’t allow it, you have to have that constant negotiation. And I think if school systems become too consumer-centric, saying, “I will listen to the parent and the parent will listen to the child,” you will create a society which is quite dysfunctional as opposed to [one that is] able to regulate itself. Therefore, I think we will be careful about listening to parental choice.

Government schools, let’s admit it, in India at least, are not as innovative as they need to be. They are standardising inputs.

But at the same time, let me be very clear, if all schools were government schools, I would be the first one to stand up and protest, because we need innovation and we need choice. Therefore, it’s about balance. So, I’d be the biggest protestor if that was the case, because I can’t stand any system where there is only one big brother who’s going to decide what’s happening. I completely agree with the argument on monopolies and lack of innovation. Government schools, let’s admit it, in India at least, are not as innovative as they need to be. They are standardising inputs. And, hopefully, we can learn how to do something differently from private schools. And at the same time, I think private schools can learn from us how to be more inclusive and not compete with 98.7 percent marks versus 98.6 percent marks, and therefore distort what education actually means, which is a much more comprehensive [concept]. Lower income communities also need to explore sports. A higher income community needs to explore arts or sports. The reduction into a simplistic metric of academics, which I think is being pushed, because how else will you differentiate yourself? You got 98 percent, I got 97 percent—I must be a better school than you; I want customers more than you. And that’s where it starts distorting it. That’s where I think the boundaries of the private school and the negative aspects of the system start showing up. Until then, I think it’s a damn good system.

Parth: I am equally proud of the fact that we have great IITs and IIMs, even though they may be run by the government. I hope the government is able to do a similar thing with school education as it has done in higher education. So, there is no doubt in my mind, and I think Aditya will also agree that we are both in favour of both systems, as long as they do well by the children. That’s ultimately what our concern is.

Most parents are actually unable to even judge the quality of the academic performance of the school, but they’re able to judge whether the schoolteacher is engaged every day or not.

Now, with regard to perception and reality, you have to ask what is being measured by the ASER survey, or for that matter, any other research that looks at learning outcomes. That’s what they are trying to quantify to judge which school performs better. What they measure is purely the academic part, which is what can be measured. And, on that basis, they are looking at the difference between the two kinds of schools. What I talked about earlier, what parents really want, and why they choose private schools. Academics is actually not as important. And most parents are actually unable to even judge the quality of the academic performance of the school, but they’re able to judge whether the schoolteacher is engaged every day or not. So, all the other things that matter to parents are not even measured in any of this research, which is my beef with many of the researchers. You are measuring what’s easy to measure—the three Rs, basically. That’s what we are measuring. And so I think it’s important to understand that the difference in perception and reality is based on our assumption of what is measurable, which is different from how parents are making choices.


Smarinita: Both of you have said that parents have their own criteria and preferences for deciding what’s a good school and what isn’t. But the pandemic has changed some of that, right? And a lot of it has been due to economic reasons—basically parents not being able to send their kids to private schools because their own jobs and livelihoods were badly affected during this time.

Can both of you speak…maybe Aditya, we can start with you, saying what this transition has done both for the system as well as the children. As in, what have been some of the challenges that this has thrown up with kids moving into the government system?

Aditya: The pandemic has just messed up this whole situation like there’s no tomorrow. We pride ourselves on [the fact that] in the districts in which we work, the number of private schools comes down and the enrolment in government schools goes up because governments start performing. It’s not just perception management; you have to start performing. We can show you graphs, which show government enrolments going down for the last seven to 10 years, which then plateaued for one or two years and then started going up again. But I want to win based on performance; I don’t want to win because of economic reasons, which is what is currently happening.

The current reason that children are re-enrolling in government schools is not my performance—it is because parents have lost their jobs and therefore can’t afford to continue to send children to private schools. So I’m welcoming them, but I want to acknowledge that that’s the reason it’s happening. It’s not because of my performance. The sudden blip of about 1.5–2 percent that we’re getting in India at the moment is purely because of economic reasons. And this is going to cause a mess at multiple levels. It’s going to cause a mess for teachers, for parents, and for planners.

As an educational planner sitting at the state level, I’m wondering whether this is going to be consistent or whether this 2 percent of parents are going to go back to private schools. So, I can’t quickly up my capacity to handle 2 percent more children. It’s really, really difficult. If I’m in the government of UP and I have to plan for 2 percent more children, I’m talking about 1,00,000 more teachers. Do you think they are going to be available overnight? Do you think budgets are going to be available overnight? No chance. It’s not going to happen. So, I think planners are in a bit of a mess. And suppose I create that capacity and then tomorrow the children go back to private schools because I’m not able to deliver or parents are not able to manage performance…I’m suddenly stuck with a dead investment. And then everyone will come and shout at me that my teachers don’t have enough student–teacher ratios. So, I think planners are in a mess.

Teachers are in a mess, because planners are not hiring additional teachers. The additional 2 percent of children are joining the schools. And 2 percent is the average. When you go inside individual communities, you realise that that percentage can be as high as 25, or no difference as well. So, teachers are in a mess because suddenly there are more children in the class. Most importantly, those children were probably in an English medium till grade four. Suddenly they’ve come to me in grade six without having gone for two years to any school, and I am teaching Hindi medium. So how am I even supposed to manage this? You’re used to seeing a textbook in English, but now I’m going to give a textbook in Hindi. Your friends are different. Eighty percent of your friends are still in the private school, 20 percent have come here. They are wondering whether this is temporary. There is stress at home.

Schooling is unfortunately a social value item in India.

So that’s coming into the parents’ side of things. Schooling is Schooling is unfortunately a social value item in India.a social value item in India. If you wonder why so many people do college and don’t take jobs, especially women, it is because unfortunately BA Pass has social value. It is not the utilitarian economic value; it is not even the value to the individual. There is value in society to say, “Meri beti graduate hai” (My daughter is a graduate). But you don’t expect her to work. I wanted to be a graduate, and I don’t want her to work. Both are true, unfortunately. In the same way, schooling, in private versus public, has social value. So, if I’m a middle-to upper-caste [person] and my child has gone back to the government school, it is probably more demeaning than me having lost my job. I will mumble about it under my breath in the next family get-together. So, I think there is a churn in society as a result of all this. And I’m not even talking about the two years of learning loss—whether it’s private or government, everyone has lost enormously. In the last two years, our schools have been open for only ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth for less than 100 days. Grade one to five has been practically closed across the country. So I don’t think either Parth or I are going to survive this impact. I hope we’re all able to get together to solve this.

Parth: I fully agree with Aditya that the pandemic has created problems for both systems. I agree that the government system will find it very difficult to deal with the influx of students, which they are going to face just because of the fact that parents have become poorer. I think I have two points there. One is about economics. I think people will assume the economics are working in favour of private schools and against government schools. Actually, it’s precisely economics which is keeping the government schools alive. Look at what government schools are offering. There’s of course no tuition fee. On top of that, there are free textbooks and uniforms. And, in many cases, they’re even offering cash to students who have a particular attendance. Government schools are surviving because all of these things are given for free. Now imagine what would happen if none of these things are given for free. Even if there was no tuition fee, but there was nothing else given for free. On top of that, look at the teachers. The salaries of teachers in government schools are far higher than what per capita income in India would justify.

The economics is working largely in favour of government schools.

And there’s research done by the UN itself on the average government schoolteacher salary vis-à-vis the per capita income of countries across the world. For example, the ratio in France is 1.2. Meaning the average teacher actually earns 1.2 times more than the average person in the country per capita income. Do you want to guess what the ratio is for India? It’s 13. Thirteen times more than the per capita income; this is the highest in the world. Even the so-called capitalist countries don’t offer that. So the economics is working largely in favour of government schools. Private schools cost one-tenth, and some people argue one-twentieth, of the cost of the same learning achievement in government schools. I think we also have to think about the economics of it, because what are we paying to get the outcomes that we do get?

In terms of the pandemic, I fully agree that both systems are going to face a problem. I actually worry more about the kids who are going to be forced to go to government schools from private schools. Because just imagine a kid in grade six who now has to go to a government school after only going to a private school so far. Now, most private schools are English medium, which is one reason why they are chosen. But now when I go to a government school, classrooms follow only the local language, whichever language that may be of that particular state or district. Textbooks are in the local language, my exams will be in the local language. Now, I worry a lot about those kids, and there could be millions of them if even 2–3 percent of the population move to government schools. And what would happen to those kids? I think that’s a really serious tragedy waiting to happen. Unfortunately, there is not really much thought given to how to deal with that.

During the pandemic, we provided support to small factories—MSMEs. So a two-room factory got financial support, loan, waiver on the loan, or postponement of the payment of loan. They got financial support to survive the pandemic. A four-room school—budget private school—got no support, none at all, from society at large or from the government itself. All the support largely went to the government schools. The nonprofits that work in the education sector, most of them work to help the government school students and teachers—to train them how to get online and so on. Nobody has supported private schools or their teachers. How do they get online? So I think my fear is that the way people are thinking about the impact of the pandemic is not taking into account what’s really most important, which is the future of the millions of kids who are going to migrate from private schools to government schools.


Smarinita: Both of you have spoken about the fears you have. But I want both of you to end on this: what is the hope you have? What do you hope for in the education system of our country?

Aditya: I’m an eternal optimist, and delusional maybe. I don’t believe that the glass is half full; I believe the glass is 99 percent full most of the time. You know, we’re only a 75-year-old democracy. The fact that we managed to pull this country together and it didn’t splinter and didn’t become chaos, I think is a shock. Three hundred years from now, they’ll wonder, “How did that happen? It’s not even possible.” So, I think we’ve pulled the country together. And if I just look at when I joined the sector 20 years ago…In 2002, there was a probe report, which said there were 87 million children out of school in India. So a huge number— that’s more than the population of Germany. Today, they’re about 13 million. I’m not condoning 13 million as a number, but in 20 years to have brought that many children, and actually our base is much larger. On a much smaller base, we had 87 million out of school. Parents know the only way out is education and more education. So one, I think at a societal level, the perceptions about education being our ticket out of poverty is very embedded.

The second reason for positivity is the fact that the government…I mean, 20 years ago, education was a directive principle of state policy. There was no right to education, there was no educational cess, there was no national curriculum framework, there was no National Education Policy the way there is today. All these are building blocks, which you might not see the gains of immediately. But to create the Right to Education was a movement for 15 years before it finally became a right. So now I have a right to education. There is an education provisioning. You, I, Parth, all of us pay for an educational cess, which goes in apart from the taxes that we pay. So, I think the financing, the policy, the infrastructure availability is all getting much, much better than we could ever have imagined.

I think the key that we also push for is decentralisation. I don’t know why states need to decide things. An individual district in India handles 800 to 2,500 schools. That’s a huge number. You don’t need anybody else to think about you because there’s enough standard deviation within that group. So how do you decentralise to districts? If you go further down from a district, at a block level, there are 100–250 schools. I would love for more power to be there at that level—at the block and the district level, and finally at the school and the teacher level. I think the power distribution between teacher, school, cluster, block, district, and state needs to be rebalanced, much more towards the teacher. And that is a journey for the next 30 years.

But when you speak to administrators, the main issue is that we are not able to perform. So, the perception is that the way to perform is to take power. Actually, the way to perform is to decentralise and hold people accountable. And I think that shift in India is going to take another five to seven years before we recognise that. In business, it took us 10–15 years before we recognised how to handle talent. We used to still imagine that by controlling and by barking you get better value. Now slowly in the private sector we’ve realised that doesn’t work. And we’re wondering why people are resigning. You have to create a sense of purpose, you have to delegate, you have to empower, and then hold accountable. Government systems need to learn those tools.


Smarinita: Parth, what gives you hope?

Parth: I’m also an optimist like Aditya. As you know, the work that we do either in policy or on the ground, you cannot continue to do that work year after year unless you’re optimistic. There’s just no way you can function. So, I think, we both are very optimistic at heart.

I have to say that my experience with the pandemic has really questioned what I thought was improving. So I see very anti-private sector, anti-parental choice mindset within the government, which obviously has existed in the bureaucracy for a long time for obvious reasons. But also, in the larger society, [this mindset has] become obvious in terms of what happened in the last few years and the support that private schools did not get. And here we are talking about high-fee private schools, we’re talking about no fee or very low-fee private schools. And so that has really made me a little less optimistic in terms of how the future can evolve. Now, yes, the NEP has made some right noises, and you can say that’s a really optimistic sign. It remains to be seen how far they will actually come through when the rubber meets the road, when this actually gets implemented. And so I’m a little less sanguine now in terms of what is going to emerge as a result of what we have experienced.


Smarinita: Thank you, Aditya and Parth. Clearly, both systems—government and private—have their pros and cons. While the former is inclusive in terms of admission of students and the delivery of education, it also relies on standardising inputs to cater to the scale it operates at. Private schools, on the other hand, attempt to offer what the market wants. They cater to parents’ demands for quality education with engaged teachers and disciplinary systems.

As is on our show, you both may come from differing schools of thought, but you do agree on one thing—choice. It can’t be all government, and it can’t be all private. We need to give parents the option to choose what best suits their children’s needs and what is best for their future. In this sense then, gaps in government and private systems need to be looked at, and perhaps with the pandemic having changed how schooling works completely, the entire education system needs a complete remodelling.

Thank you once again, Aditya and Parth, for being a part of this discussion today.

Read more

  1. Can we ensure all children return to schools?
  2. How reliable is India’s learning outcomes data?
  3. State of the sector report on private schools in India
  4. Without accountability, there’s no pressure to improve
  5. What standardised testing doesn’t tell us about learning
  6. What the National Education Policy means for India
  7. Why Indian children can’t read
  8. Education in India needs an overhaul
  9. Teacher shortage: A problem of distribution or scarcity?
  10. The billion dollar opportunity in affordable private schools
  11. Charting the rise of budget private schools
We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.