Contrasting realities in primary schooling

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:49 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2016 02:22 am IST - Chennai

Government schools cater better to students of different economic backgrounds.

Government schools cater better to students of different economic backgrounds.

India is witnessing a steady upward trend in the proportion of students in primary education choosing private schools over public schools. According to the tenth Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 30.8 per cent of rural enrolments in the 6-14 age cohort were in private schools in 2014, marking an increase of 22 per cent over eight years.

India’s government schools played a remarkable role in raising the gross enrolment ratio from 81.6 per cent of children in the 6-14 age group in 2000 to a whopping 96 per cent or higher since 2008.

To achieve this, government schools focused on tackling the input-scarcity problem through a massive, supply-side push aimed at creating a sufficiently dense school network covering urban and rural areas. Through this, children would be provided with classrooms, uniforms, textbooks and other teaching materials, and of course a larger contingent of teachers.

While this approach helped get more children into school by lowering the cost of primary education, substantive learning for children at all stages of cognitive development seemed to fall by the wayside owing to outmoded pedagogies.


For example, the ASER notes that in 2014 the proportion of Class 3, Class 5 and Class 8 students who could read a Class 2 textbook was respectively 23.6, 48.1 and 74.6 per cent.

Further, nearly 20 per cent more students in Class 5 in private schools were able to read a Class 2 textbook than their government school counterparts. Evidence suggests that between 2008 and 2014 the gap in reading between these two cohorts seemed to be growing.

It is no simple matter to improve the quality of learning regardless of public or private sector.

As Rukmini Banerji of education non-profit Pratham notes, “By the end of Class 2 a student should be able to read a simple story, do simple addition and subtraction, and count to 100.”

Ideally the fundamental interaction between teaching and learning needs to change if there is to be substantive improvement.

For example, teachers could recognise that children reach cognitive milestones along different pathways and at different speeds and thus “teaching at the right level” is preferable to textbook-driven learning.

In many cases even by Class 8 there is no clear articulation of what the child should be able to do, she said, urging that a first step should be for educators to eschew rigid curricula.

Government schools in numerous states, led by Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, have done exactly this, through the nearly-universalised the deployment of Activity-Based Learning (ABL), a pedagogy that teaches each child at the right level, rather than teaching the average learner, and it uses a broader cognitive approach than learning by rote.

An emerging risk factor in the private sector is that while schools have proliferated across the country and are attracting aspirational Indian parents in droves, teaching quality is highly variable, and poor in some cases. Most of them pay their teachers considerably less than what government schools do, yet charge higher fees and offer numerous trappings of a more elite system – stylish uniforms, a school bus, and better school infrastructure.

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