Private Schooling in India

The NYTimes reports on “an educational revolution” in India where the government schools are so bad that private schooling is exploding among the very poorest of the poor. Already over 17 percent of all kindergarten, primary and secondary schools are in the private sector and in the big cities the proportion is much higher. Jean Dreze, an economist who helped write a national assessment predicts “within 10 to 15 years, government schools will be almost wiped out.”

A description of a public and private school next door to one another explains why a farmer earning $22 a month will spend nearly a fifth of his income ($4) sending his child to a private school.

In the government school, only two of the three teachers assigned for 273 students were present on a recent day. Around 50 children sat on the floor in a gloomy classroom, while 40 more sat on the grass outside, as their classroom had been under repair since August. One teacher did paperwork, while the other floated between the two groups, not actually teaching either.

At the private school next door, where the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 25, a group of smartly uniformed children stood outside counting loudly in English under their teacher’s watchful eye. They then marched in orderly single file into a classroom with blackboard and benches.

The children next door wrestled, and watched.

Amartya Sen complains that “no developed” country educates itself using private schools. Yet, the private schools of India have much in common with the private schools of nineteenth century England, Wales and America. Contrary to common belief, attendance and literacy rates in England and Wales, for example, were 90 percent or above before any major state involvment in schools. James Mill (father of John Stuart) illustrated the parallel with modern India when he wrote in 1813, “We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school. (Quoted in E.G. West’s classic Education and the State).

Furthermore, India is not alone in relying on private schools in the wake of the failure of government. Private schools are even more common in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and elsewhere.

For more see James Tooley’s chapter, from which I have drawn, in The Voluntary City (I am one of the editors.)


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