The last decade has seen the mass exit of millions of children from government schools in India, as well as low learning outcomes at the primary level. Private schools now enrol an estimated 35% of students in primary schools in the country. However, despite an increase in the year-on-year government expenditure per student, and regular hikes in private school fees, overall learning outcomes have not improved.

The pressure on governments to perform, and on parents to pay, have fuelled a fierce debate, with governments enacting more regulation over private schools, and parents protesting against fee hikes across India’s major cities.

At the centre of the debate is the rising cost of education and low learning outcomes. But this debate does not entail robust questioning of what exactly raises education outcomes effectively. A scientific approach can drive this debate, not by measuring costs, but by measuring the cost-effectiveness of inputs with rigorous impact evaluation.

Randomised evaluations scientifically measure the impact of a programme by dividing a sample of a population randomly into two groups, where, at the start, the characteristics of both groups are the same on average. The only aspect that differs is that one group receives the programme, while the other does not. Researchers track the individuals and after some time outcomes are measured. The differences between the two groups – the impact – can be attributed solely to the programme.

A collection of randomised evaluations completed in India over the last 15 years have measured the impact of various aspects on children’s education outcomes. The findings of these scientific studies show that such outcomes may not depend so much on whether governments or private managements run a school, or on hard inputs like books, computers and materials, but on appropriately designed soft inputs such as innovation in methods and practices of teaching.

Mass exit from government schools

Across India, between 2010-’11 and 2015-’16, the mass exit from government schools to private schools has been estimated at 1.75 crore new students in private schools and 1.3 crore fewer students enrolled in government schools through analysis of government District Information System for Education data. A 2011-’12 survey by the National Council for Applied Economic Research estimated that 35% of children at the primary level were enrolled in private schools. The exit from government schools has been at a high cost to parents, with annual private school fees in metros more than doubling over 10 years as estimated by a survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India in 2015.

The migration from government to private schools is an underestimate as many children enrolled in government schools (where they will take exams from) also attend unrecognised private schools where they receive teaching. These schools remain unregistered as they cannot meet government conditions (including a playground and qualified teachers paid the salaries of government teachers), and are run on a low budget. The District Information System for Education flash statistics show over 21,000 unrecognised schools across India in 2013-’14. This large number further underlines parents’ low perceptions of the government schools they have exited.

(Photo credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters).

Costs of private tuition

The annual cost of private schools to parents is a large portion of their income. However, this is less than half the picture as the unregulated business of private tuition has expanded for students attending both government and private schools. A 2014 survey by the National Sample Survey Office estimated that 7.1 crore students – one-quarter of all students in India – were taking private tuitions. A 2013 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India in metro cities found the growth in private tuitions had doubled over six years, with both rich and poor parents paying for these extra classes.

Low learning outcomes

Across India, annual reports such as the Annual Status of Education Report by the non-governmental organisation Pratham, and government surveys like Gunotsav, repeatedly show that children in several private and government schools are not learning the basics of language and maths even after four years of schooling.

The National Council for Applied Economic Research’s 2011-’12 survey reported a dropout rate of 40% of those who complete Class 5 but do not reach Class 9, with a further 40% of these dropping out before completing Class 9. The migration to private schools has worried governments – closing down government schools is an annual exercise after children exit. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation closed 25% of schools from 2009-’10 to 2016-’17. The failure of the government education system, combined with financial pressures on parents, seem to have made private schools the enemy for the government and parents, and a target for more regulation and protest.

No regulation of tuition centres

Governments across India, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, have enacted regulatory laws to control private school fees. Gujarat became the first to enact a double regulatory mechanism in April when it capped private school fees and set up Fee Regulatory Committees. Perversely, none of India’s states have a regulatory act for private tuition centres, many of whom charge more than Gujarat’s cap of Rs 15,000 to Rs 27,000 per year. In Gujarat, the double regulation for private schools may mean a double benefit for private tuition centres – who now face an influx of teachers to hire whom private schools can no longer afford, and parents with unspent funds who want to boost their children’s exam preparation.

Scientific studies provide answers

A scientific lens on the debate tells us that neither the failure of government schools nor the massive expansion of private education may be the driver for the rise in parents opting for private education. Findings of randomised evaluations completed over the last 15 years question the direction of government and parents spending on traditional hard inputs, and offer approaches found effective that focus on the cognitive development of children, and building their non-cognitive skills.

Private management not a silver bullet

A 2015 study involving randomised evaluation in rural Andhra Pradesh found that private schools were more cost-efficient than government schools, but were not more effective at improving learning outcomes in core subjects of maths and Telugu. The four-year study found that teachers of private schools spent more of their time actively teaching and in control of the class. Private schools were found to get more done with less resources. The annual cost per student in government schools was over three times that of the private schools. The study indicated that better management can achieve more of the same with fewer resources, but does not necessarily lead to improved learning outcomes.

Teach at the pace of children

A 2016 study on multiple randomised evaluations of the Teaching at the Right Level model – a pedagogical approach that involves evaluating children and then grouping them according to learning level rather than age or grade – in Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh found that Pratham’s approach of teaching children at their level of learning significantly improved learning outcomes. The pedagogy innovation addresses the constraint teachers typically face – of classrooms with students with a large range of learning levels, and first-generation learners without support at home to learn basics. These studies, over the years, tested variations in the implementation model to inform how to best embed the innovation in methods and practices of teaching in a large government system. The studies found that teachers need more than materials and a manual to sustain a change in how they teach, and they need to have an administration structure to maintain regular school visits to support teachers to adopt and regularly use a new pedagogy.

When computers introduced better methods and practices of teaching, studies found positive results on learning outcomes. A 2016 study evaluated Mindspark, a computer-aided learning programme for students in Classes 6 to Class 9 in New Delhi. The Mindspark programme adjusts questions and instructions for the student based on how well they perform in the previous question. The approach of customising instruction to the level of the child, and adapting to the individual learning pace of a child was found to raise learning outcomes, especially among students who had the lowest learning levels.

A child in a Maharashtra school works on his laptop provided as part of the One Laptop Per Child non-profit organisation's India pilot study in 2008. (Pal Pillai/AFP).

Benefits of building non-cognitive skills

Research has found aspirations and resilience are powerful non-cognitive skills for children’s long-term success. A 2012 study evaluated the impact of information and assistance for jobs for females across 3,200 households in villages in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This light intervention – a half-day career fair held once a year for three years and an offer to help with job placement – led to an increase in female education, and to delays in marriage and childbearing. Another study in rural Bangladesh, evaluated the impact of a six-month long adolescent empowerment program for over 15,000 girls, and found that after 4.5 years the education outcomes had improved, with more females staying in school at the age of 20. The programme, Kishoree Kontha, involved girls meeting regularly in groups of up to 20, to build their social competencies in influencing decisions for their education, marriage and childbirth.

The findings of these scientific evaluation studies tell us that governments and parents should think about better investments in appropriate methods and practices of teaching for children’s cognitive development, as well as building non-cognitive skills to raise children’s long-term education outcomes. Further testing how to best embed effective approaches in India’s large government education system should inform efforts to replace ineffective current practices with those that will give India’s children an education that actually works for them.

Gautam Patel is a senior policy manager, J-PAL South Asia.