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A ‘suitable education’: private schools in India

By Jane Hofmeyr

“Mrs Johnston, the English teacher in my private school, taught us ‘suitable phrases’ and was strict, especially about the use of English, but was so nice when she took us on picnics,” said our guide in Mumbai.

His comment illustrates the fact that in India, it is possible for almost anyone to afford to send their children to private schools, and in the case of most, to the tens of thousands of budget private schools charging fees of Rs1 000 per month (some ZAR 160 per month or ZAR 2 000 per year) and less. It also points to the influence of the British Raj during which the British model of schooling became ingrained in Indian society.

Not surprisingly, in addition to the masses of low-fee private schools catering for the poor, there are high-fee elite schools modelled on British public schools, such as the famous Doon School in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, which former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi attended. In fact, even the lowest-fee private schools often advertise themselves as ‘public schools’.

An Indian National Independent Schools Alliance

My insights into private schools for the poor in India resulted from visiting some and my experience of working with the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in New Delhi in 2011 and 2012 to assist it with the establishment of an organisation to protect and promote the interests of low-fee private schools. From an initial workshop, which I facilitated for interested people and groups from budget private schools, the CCS established an embryonic National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA). My task was to help them refine the constitution and objectives of the organisation and the services it could realistically offer. Although I discovered from Dr Parth Shah, the CEO of CCS, that the World Bank had advised it to look at ISASA as a model, I advised that our National Alliance of Independent School Associations (NAISA) was a more appropriate one.

As it turned out, NISA is in fact a hybrid – a mix of an alliance of associations, as well as a service provider for budget private schools belonging to the associations, and its constitution has borrowed from both NAISA and ISASA. CCS, as NISA’s secretariat, will undertake advocacy and policy analysis for it and facilitate the provision of a limited number of quality improvement services by other NGOs or companies with the relevant expertise.

The private school sector This sector in India consists of a variety of schools, those which receive a government grant-in-aid but are privately run (some 5%); those which are recognised and are circumscribed by government rules and regulations, and unrecognised schools. According to India’s District Information System for Education,1 in 2011 24% of schools were private, which translated into 57 million pupils in private schools from grades 1–8 and 130 million pupils in government schools.

However, as is the case in South Africa, the official figures for the size of the private school sector are an undercount, mainly because the majority of private schools for the poor are unregistered/unrecognised.2 Small unrecognised low-fee private schools typically do not go beyond Grade 8 because there are public board examinations for pupils in grades 10 and 12 and there is a need to register the pupils for those examinations and their teachers have to be professionally trained. In South Africa independent schools also have to be registered as examination centres and their teachers have to be registered with the South African Council for Educators.

The true size of the private school sector in India is illustrated by Professor James Tooley, one of the international experts on private schools for the poor, and his colleague, Pauline Dixon, in a study that found that 65% of schoolchildren in Hyderabad’s slums attend unregistered and registered private schools.3

Parents questioned by researchers of the India Human Development Survey 20054 gave as the main reasons for sending their children to private schools:

(1) government schools are not good around here; the teachers are often absent and don’t work hard even when present

(2) we want our children to learn English and the private schools are English medium or teach English earlier than the government schools.

When I was travelling in different areas of India I discovered that all the drivers and guides who took me around had their children in private schools. The CCS told me that taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers, domestic maids and street sweepers could usually afford to send their children to low-fee private schools depending on the fee level. However, construction workers and daily wage workers would typically have to send their children to government schools.

Policy framework of private schools

The Right to Education (RTE) Act requires all private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children from “socially and economically backward sections of the society” (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan). It also prohibits all unrecognised schools from practising, and makes provisions for no donation or capitation fees and no interview of the child or parent for admission.5

This has been fiercely resisted by the high-fee private schools in India but they lost the case in the Supreme Court. It also presents huge problems for low-fee schools because all the children they already have in their schools are disadvantaged and if they have to depend on state subsidies for 25% of their intake instead of fees, and the subsidies are delayed, cut or not paid, their existence is under threat. Does this sound familiar?

Visiting private schools

On my travels I visited Cochin (now Kochi) in the state of Kerala which has one of the highest levels of education in India, with a literacy rate of 93%.6 I discovered from Parth, who had conducted research on this issue, that it was because of the introduction of faith-based private schools by early traders and colonial powers, including the Greeks and Romans, Jewish merchants and Portuguese, Dutch and British companies when Cochin had been the centre of the spice trade in India. I found it easy to identify the Catholic and Protestant schools from their names, typically those of saints, but the strong influence of elaborate Hindu architecture meant that I had to look hard to find the statues and symbols of Christianity amongst the buildings.

The early Indian rulers of Kerala were farsighted in promoting education and even today Kerala is known as the most innovative state that always tries out new ideas first. (Interestingly, I have observed that many of the teachers from India in independent schools here are from Kerala.)

Around New Delhi, I visited both high-fee and low-fee private schools. The high-fee school for diplomats’ children with extensive grounds, buildings and facilities and most impressive women as heads, from inception, has reserved 25% of its places for disadvantaged children for which it obtains a state subsidy. However, the subsidy is inadequate, has hardly increased over years and is far lower than the true cost of educating a pupil in that school. This resonates with subsidised schools in South Africa.

The low-fee schools were fascinating. They were in old houses off dusty streets filled with people, cows, dogs, motor bikes, auto-rickshaws and cars and festooned with TV aerials and electric and telephone wires hanging from every conceivable structure. The schools were clean and had brightly coloured walls covered with murals, charts, posters and children’s work. They have no playground at all and so at break the children ate their lunch in the classrooms and then let off steam in the group exercises they had to do to the beating of a drum and cymbals in the wide passage typical of old houses. Typically the pupils in these schools still perform better than those in government schools.7

We must consider barriers to quality education

My Indian experiences reinforced my opinion that we have so much to learn from and share with other developing countries. Increasingly here and in the developing world the focus will be on private schools for the poor that can provide sound education for unserved or underserved children. A key issue here is that of the many new players in the sector setting up chains of for-profit schools (Curro, Meridian) or non-profit schools (Spark, African Schools of Excellence, Nova), only the Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Educational Institute Trust schools (in which the Government Employees Pension Fund and Old Mutual have invested)8 currently charge fees below R10 000, and yet fees lower than this are essential if more of the poor are able to access independent schools.

Why is this? What are the barriers to entry, survival and expansion? Both government and the private sector need to consider this question and how they can make it possible for low-fee private schools to extend quality schooling to even poorer communities.


1. District Information Service for Education (DISE) 2011-12: ‘Elementary Education in India. Progress towards UEE: Flash Statistics.’ New Delhi: National University of Educational Planning and Administration. Available at: 07/Flash%20Statistics%202006-07.pdf.

2. Kingdon, G. Gandhi (2007) ‘The progress of school education in India.’ In: Global Poverty Research Group Working Paper No. 071. London: London School of Economics. Available at:

3. Tooley, J. and Dixon, P. (2005) Private Education is Good for the Poor: A Study of Private Schools Serving the Poor in Low-income Countries. Washington: Cato Institute. Available at: study-private-schools-serving-poor-lowincome-countries.

4. Desai, S, Dubey, A, Vanneman, R. and Banerji, R. (2008) ‘Private schooling in India: A new educational landscape.’ Prepared for presentation at the Brookings-NCAER India Policy Forum 2008, New Delhi. Available at: 2.pdf.

5. See, for example, _Education_Act.

6. See, for example, 7. Tooley, J. and Dixon, P. (2005) op. cit. 8. See, for example, investment-set-aside-for-quality-education.

Category: Winter 2013

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