The Indian Economy Blog

March 9, 2007

The Unknown Education Revolution in India

Filed under: Business,Education,Human Capital,Regulatory reforms — Naveen @ 5:35 am

This is an op-ed piece of mine that appeared in the March 8th issue of Mint.

Unknown Education Revolution
There is a silent and telling revolt against the poor performance of government schools

Naveen Mandava

Walking around the hot summer streets of Sangam Vihar—Delhi’s largest slum colony sprawled over 150 acres and home to 4 lakh people—in 2005, Aditi Bhargava noticed that almost every street had a school.

These schools were often just holes in the wall or a room with a few benches populated by eager children. They were not government funded or subsidized, nor did they have world-class facilities.

These were low-budget schools, where poor parents paid small amounts extracted from their meagre wages in the hope that their children would get a good education, a promise too rarely delivered at the “free” government schools. View photographs at The photo-state of schools in an urban slum in Delhi.

Aditi’s discovery piqued my interest in this phenomenon. I realized that Sangam Vihar was not a path-breaking exception but part of a mainstream, silent and telling revolt against the poor performance of government schools.

Independent research[1] continues to report strides both in the quality and quantity across all private schools in urban and rural areas. Most people in urban areas and at least 28% of the rural population already have access to private schools. [2]

The surprise is not in the absolute number of schools, but their proliferation rate. Nearly 50% of the rural private schools accounted for in the study [3] conducted by Harvard economists Michael Kremer and Karthik Muralidharan were established after 2000, and nearly 40% of private school enrolment is in these schools.

This massive expansion of private primary schooling across India is a harbinger of the Unknown Indian Education Revolution. The survey found that more than 80% of government-school teachers send their own children to a private school. [4] When government teachers don’t trust government schools with their own children, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

So what is fuelling this extraordinary surge and what is the quality of education being imparted? The key to understanding this surge lies in the low entry barriers.

Schools need a “recognition” status so that they can issue valid “transfer certificates” to students leaving the school. But what the recognition status primarily ensures is that teachers are paid according to relatively high government salary scales.

In reality, a primary school doesn’t strictly need “recognition” from the state to start business. Also, rural schools don’t read too much into the transfer certificate. So the rural market for primary education is comparatively unregulated vis-à-vis to secondary education. This is similar to the software industry in India. The government’s light regulation of the sector helped it become an engine of growth.

It is not just the rural rich who are moving to private schools. Studies have found that a large mass of parents are shifting because of the low quality of government education, and concern for their children’s future.

Regulatory gaps and dissatisfaction with government schools are the key factors driving the demand for private schooling. There is already evidence of such a surge in Punjab [5], Haryana [6], Uttar Pradesh [7], Andhra Pradesh [8], West Bengal, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Delhi. In seven districts of Punjab, 86% of the private schools are unrecognized. [9]

A majority of these private unrecognized schools are operating outside the scope of policymakers’ radars. It is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Officials think of it as a fringe phenomenon. Consequently, these schools do not make it into any of the education statistics compiled by education departments.

Private schools benefit from being “unrecognized” because they save on labour costs. Teacher costs are the largest expense in the schooling sector. State governments easily spend 90% of their total budget on teachers. In contrast, private-school teachers are paid one-fifth to one-tenth of government salary levels and have more flexibility to innovate and improve learning outcomes. [10]

Studies carried out in India all share the common conclusion that private-school students outperform their government-school counterparts. For example, in a 2005 Delhi study [11], James Tooley found that children in low-budget unrecognized private schools did 246% better than government school children on a standardized English test, with around 80% higher average marks in mathematics and Hindi.

There are important lessons here for education policymakers in India. Education entrepreneurs need to be encouraged by removing rules that hinder the establishment and operation of schools in the primary, secondary and higher secondary areas of education. Competing schools will create choices for parents, improving access and quality for all. The government can then focus its limited education budget on the neediest sections of society.

Inadequate education in India is not only a funding problem but also a result of over-regulation of the school market. The burgeoning market of low-budget private schools has enormous potential to do public good.

Naveen Mandava is a doctoral fellow in Public Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in the US. The school is part of the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization.

Other related and interesting studies are the following:

The regulation of private schools serving low income families in Hyderabad, India: An Austrian economic perspective
An overview of primary education in an unauthorised colony of Govindpuri, Delhi
Teacher absence in India: A snapshot


[1], [2], [3], [4], [10] : Public and private schools in rural India
[5], [9]: Elementary education in unrecognised schools in India: A study of Punjab
[6]: A study of unrecognised schools in Haryana
[7]: Private and public schooling: The Indian experience
[8]: Private schools for the poor: A case study from India
[11]: Private schools serving the poor: A study from Delhi, India


  1. Distrust in the Private Sector is deeply ingrained in the Indian Bureaucratic system.

    However. time and again the Private sector has proven that it can deliver and that too efficiently. The Telecom revolution is the best example. I would also like to point out the efficiently of Courier system that has mostly replaced the postal service and the Airline industry which is developing as we speak. The Private Sector also provides employment for the bulk of the population and not the government.

    The Indian consumer cannot and should not be taken for granted. It demands quality and is willing to pay for the same.
    The Government must realize its job is to promote and regulate. Due to its nature and manner of function it is a very poor deliverer of goods and services. It must realize the potential of the Private sector and has to encourage it beyond the normal lip service it does.

    Comment by Tushar — March 9, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  2. Private school teachers also benefit from having students whose parents are involved in their education, arguably the most import ingredient in a child’s education.

    Simply citing how much better students from private schools do on tests than students educated in public schools is like comparing apples to oranges.

    Surely there is a better, more scientific method to compare the performance of public and private schools.

    Comment by alphie — March 9, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  3. Alphie, one answer might be that school quality itself might be contributing to parental involvement. But let me pursue your true question further.

    What you are talking about is selection bias. That a difference in the motivation of parents may be contributing to the learning outcomes. That would imply we are looking for a randomised experiment in India to compare the two. I dont think there are any. But let me look up and I will let you know. In any case, I would be participating in such an experiment soon and I personally am interested in the learning outcome controlling for selection bias.

    Another way to think about it is to compare two samples of parents/ kids. One, who applied for government school and got through them. Two, those who applied for government school but couldnt get through because of capacity constraints of the school. One can assume both parents had similar motivation of sending their children to a government school. Now we look at the learning outcomes. That would be considering apples to nearly-apples.

    Anecdotally speaking, quite a few kids in urban slums and rural areas are often the ones who applied for a government school but did not get through because of capacity constraints or went to a private school for the only reason like english medium langauge or distance factor. Going by that and the evidence collected so far, I understand that if a parent puts his child in a private school instead of a government school, learning outcomes improve. Of course, if further research proves otherwise we revise our policy prescriptions.

    Comment by Naveen Mandava — March 9, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  4. Don’t forget that the money factor comes into play. Parents and children who don’t pay a single cent for their children’s education tend to value it less.

    Make them(the parents and students) pay for it though, and the students suddenly start to pay more attention.

    Singapore, where I teach, is an interesting case in point. Students in government/state schools sleep in class, don’t hand in homework etc. But put the same students in expensive private tuition centers where they have to pay for every single minute of the tutor’s time, or give them private tutors and they suddenly become paragons of industry.

    Comment by The Wobbly Guy — March 10, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  5. I know for a fact in Bangalore, a lot of disillusioned Government school teachers and principals are taking initiative to contact private indusrialists to provide them with chairs and tables and computers. It’s good that some level of responsibility is being generated at that level. The families in my locality send their maids children to school, and all demand to be sent to private schools. However, the day the system of educational vounchers are introduced, will be a great day. Until then, we can hope emergence of civil society makes a change.
    I was also considering a sort of movement where all families be encouraged and send their maids childrens to schools. Especially the girl child.

    Comment by Anusha — March 11, 2007 @ 8:49 am

  6. even though such unregulated educational cafes cater to selfish motives of their founders, we’d prefer to ignore them for the benefits they accrue to the economically lower strata of the society.

    Comment by tejbir — March 11, 2007 @ 4:46 pm

  7. Oye :)

    Can you link to the study itself? (the Harvard one, and any others you’ve referred to?)

    It’s too easy to play around with statistics otherwise.

    But good article! I wasn’t aware of this at all…

    Comment by Perakath — March 11, 2007 @ 9:02 pm

  8. Perakath, I have provided the links. Good that you are skeptical of statistics, keep it up!

    Comment by Naveen Mandava — March 12, 2007 @ 12:35 am

  9. The Goal of all this “help” from Western organisations is to keep Indian down. Do you know what the RAND corporation is? It is an American military think tank! Even before Haliberton there was the RAND Corporation. Do you really think those American scoundrels want Indian children to be even as educated as their fat lazy children?

    There are many ways that Western Organisations are working to ensure that India remains underdeveloped.

    Take Global Warming for example.

    Global Warming is just a lie invented by the developed Western counties out of fear of counties like India rising to economic prominence. It is the lie that the western countries have created to keep India underdeveloped.

    See the truth yourself. Warn fellow Indians of what is really going on!

    This video will open your eyes to the “Great White Lie” of the 21st Century to keep the world’s underdeveloped nations permanently underdeveloped and permanently a source of cheap labour.

    Indians need to find out about this “Great White Lie” promoted by organisations such as the American Military Think Tank RAND Corporation. It is obvious that an American Military Think Tank has only one goal in mind when it comes to India and to the extent it is using its influence to promote the Great White Lie of why India can’t develop it needs to stop!

    Comment by Ajay — March 12, 2007 @ 2:47 pm

  10. oh boy… Ajay sounds like a real econ PhD student…

    Comment by venkat — March 13, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  11. I read in todays Straits times(Singapore), that in China private schooling is increasing at a great pace. It covers about 8% of the student in age 9 to 14. That still is half that of number of Indians going to private schools.But they are very optimistic that they will beat India soon.
    It’s quite disillsioning when you read the papers in South East Asian countries and how they harp on China’s achievements. Wish India would feature in once in a while for good reasons.

    Comment by Anusha — March 14, 2007 @ 8:54 am

  12. Anusha, China’s private schools (particularly in urban areas) are very poor in quality. The reason they are increasing at a great pace is because many children of migrant workers are not eligible to attend public schools. Also people who perform poorly in entrance exams and get placed to lower tier public schools may be forced to attend private schools to increase their chances of getting into college. There are required entrance exams for public middle schools, high schools and colleges; and placement is dependent on those scores. This makes the competition in public schools much higher than that of private schools.

    The best schools in China are all public. Chinese people in the Mainland trust public schools for K-12 education, much like Jewish Americans in the US.

    Wobbly Guy, Hong Kong and Singapore are poor examples. If you go visit a good public school in China, you will find no one sleeps in class. Just because the school is free doesn’t mean the students will work any less hard. Reputation of school and desire are the true motivations for working hard. The reason people sleep in Singapore’s public schools is because these people are of lower academic quality to begin with. In China, however, the most reputable schools are public, and so the incentive to work hard is just as strong as expensive private schools. Future dividend is the real incentive for working hard in school, not the current cost of education.

    Comment by J. Yin — March 15, 2007 @ 1:12 am

  13. It is good to hear of the proliferation of schools. Its high time the government get out of this school business and instead give vouchers to the poor and use its machinery for overseeing & enforcing quality in the schools. Government is good in regulating and not in running things, as we see from the poor quality of teachers we have in them. And the poor have to pay for private schools anyway and they are put in a tough situation of either not sending kids to good school or spending family fortunes on basic education.

    So, the government should partner with a few identified private organizations and start pilot projects in urban areas atleast for giving free vouchers for the poor to study in the designated schools and pay the private manangement the fees. This new budget cess of few thousand crores can pay the education of millions of urban poor who spend so much for their children’s education and last but not least, it can win some votes for the government too from the urban poor. Eventually, all those fat government budget can entirely be moved to private management and the government can just focus on standard enforement.

    For example, the only good thing Indian govt. does to higher education is running good examination systems like CAT, GATE & JEE and the rest is taken care by itself. So, if the government sticks to where it is good at, India can prosper to great heights.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — March 17, 2007 @ 12:29 pm

  14. India should restructure the education system. The education should standardised in whole India. The examination body should be centralised so equal potential of brain will comke out.

    Comment by Apnaavenue — March 29, 2007 @ 1:45 pm

  15. [...] Michelle Boule wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThis massive expansion of private primary schooling across India is a harbinger of the Unknown Indian Education Revolution. The survey found that more than 80% of government-school teachers send their own children to a private school. … [...]

    Pingback by online » The Unknown Education Revolution in India — April 1, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  16. Hi Naveen,

    This article is really good. Some of the comments made the discussion interesting. Prima facie, irrespective of the motivations behind, these private elementary schools for the poor seem to be doing good and have the potential to do contribute to a great degree. However, I’ve always felt that what’s done and already set-up by the governing agencies of the country can’t be ignored. Introduction private players in the market improves the quality of government owned companies too, as witnessed in various sectors. Therefore, there could be an improvement in government run schools too; what’s required perhaps is a different (innovative) approach. I wrote an article some time back on how quality of teaching/teachers can be improved in government-run schools. Would appreciate if you can go through that article.

    Thanks. Hope to keep reading your posts.

    Comment by Siddharth — April 20, 2007 @ 10:02 pm

  17. I think there is more motivation for a private school to provide a quality of education that is at a higher level than that obtained at a government school full of apathy and bureaucracy.

    Comment by private schools — June 15, 2007 @ 10:24 am

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