In 2020-’21, the year the Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns hit India, enrollment in government schools increased by 3% from 13.1 crore in 2019-20 to 13.5 crore in 2020-’21, and enrollment in private schools dropped by over 30 lakh from 9.82 crore in 2019-’20 to 9.51 crore in 2020-’21, show the latest government data.

Overall, school enrollment dropped by 0.03% from 26.45 crore in 2019-’20 to 26.44 crore in 2020-’21.

This is because of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, which severely impacted incomes, especially of those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, retrenchment of teachers, especially in low-fee private schools that were unable to operate during the pandemic and the inability of private schools to provide digital access for education, experts say.

This drop in private school enrollment is a change from the pre-Covid-19 trend in enrollment. Over five years to 2019-’20, enrollment in government schools had declined by 1.5 crore, and 1 crore more students enrolled in private schools, according to data from the government’s Unified District Information System for Education.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the Union education secretary for her comments on the falling enrolment in private schools and the increasing enrolment in government schools. The story will be updated when we receive a response.

Shift across states

This shift in enrollment is present across states. Among the 18 large states, government school enrolment grew the most in Andhra Pradesh (14%), and private school enrolment reduced the most (-13%). Private school enrolment dropped 8% in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh and 7% in Gujarat and Haryana.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the Andhra Pradesh education secretary as well as the state’s Commissioner of School education on the reasons for the change in enrollment, and whether there are plans to increase funding and support to the public education system in the state. We will update the story when we receive a response.

There were some exceptions to the trend. In Odisha, government school enrolment dropped by 5%, with a corresponding 9% increase in private school enrolment. In West Bengal, while enrolment went up in both government and private schools, the increase was steeper in private schools.

Overall school enrolment declined slightly in both private as well as government schools in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand.

Unaffordable private schools

The economic slowdown due to the pandemic severely impacted the livelihoods of households, especially of those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This meant that many households could not afford private schools, despite the majority of private schools in India being low-cost.

“While there are no national studies explaining this shift from private to government schools,” anecdotal evidence suggests that with the “loss of family income among households, affordability of private sector fees has been difficult”, said Kiran Bhatty, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, and previously the national coordinator for the Right To Education Act at the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

During 2017-’18, average household expenditure per student in private-unaided schools was six times higher than that in government schools, show calculations based on the latest estimates from the National Sample Survey.

A study conducted across five states during 2020 found that nearly half of the surveyed parents sending their children to private schools spent 20% of their income on school fees and 39% of the parents reported a hike in school fees. Many parents were pressured to make school fee payments and were charged fees for uniforms despite schools being closed during the pandemic.

Private schools could not provide for the extra digital support needed by some students as they shifted to online and digital platforms, Bhatty explained. The other reason for lower private school enrolment is the retrenchment of teachers, especially in low-fee private schools, because schools were unable to pay teachers, leading to a further attrition of students, Bhatty said.

In addition, “the government’s outreach programme with a wide range of means to get educational material to children, attracted students back to government schools”.

At a time of financial stress, like the one induced by Covid-19, free elementary education in government schools, along with the availability of services such as mid-day-meals and free uniforms led to a shift of children from private to government schools, specifically in rural areas, found the ASER 2021 report.

Pre-primary enrollment

Pre-primary enrollment dropped in both government and private schools, data show, with a higher decline in private schools (-24%) than in government schools (-11%).

The decline in private school enrolment was mostly restricted to primary and pre-primary levels, and there was hardly any decline in private school enrolment at the upper-primary, secondary and higher secondary levels. In contrast, government school enrolment increased at a much higher rate at secondary and higher secondary levels.

The rate of increase in government enrolment was higher in rural areas (3.2%) than in urban areas (2.4%). On the other hand, the rate of decline in private school enrolment was higher in urban areas than in rural areas. This might be due to many families, especially casual labourers and those self-employed, migrating to rural areas from urban areas and thereby, opting for government schools for their children to cut costs.

Higher funding needed

During the decade before the pandemic, more private schools were being set up as compared to government schools, and there was an increasing preference among parents to enrol their children in private schools. Some of the reasons behind this preference for private schools included a perception of better quality education in private schools and the use of English as a medium of instruction, which is often linked to higher family status in society.

Moreover, issues related to both financial and human resources have impacted the functioning of government schools over the years. As against the target of public expenditure on education to a minimum level of 6% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, India (Union government funding as well as state funding) allocated only 3% of GDP in the budget estimates for the financial year 2021-’22, as per the Economic Survey, 2021-’22.

The data on the growing enrolment in public schools because of the socio-economic crisis induced by the pandemic, show the importance of the public education system in providing a social protection system to ensure children’s right to education.

With a higher number of children coming into the government education system, public schools would need more financial as well as human resources. More students would also mean a higher allocation for schemes or services that are linked to students, such as for the provision of uniforms, mid-day-meals, textbooks and other student-specific state government schemes.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the Union education secretary for her comments on whether there is a plan to increase funding and support to the public education system given the higher enrollment. The story will be updated when we receive a response.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.