Why India's Poor Pay For Private Schools

The people of Naini were angry. The primary school in their impoverished Himalayan village had just two teachers for more than 110 children in the first through fifth grades. Their kids spent most of the time working on their own. With so many students per teacher, and each teacher working with five grade levels, one father of two boys, farmer Diwan Singh Rawat, asked: "How is the teacher going to teach?" Rawat, who supplements his agricultural income by running a small shop that sells biscuits, candies, and cigarettes, says: "Even if children go for six months to the government school, they don't learn anything."

So three years ago, Naini's leading citizens traveled by bus to the district headquarters, more than two hours' drive down a winding mountain road, to plead for an additional teacher. Nothing happened. Frustrated, discontented parents, along with the village pradhan, or headman, Jagat Singh Kani, 72, took matters into their own hands. They appealed to Umesh Chand Pandey, 26, a graduate of a second-rate provincial college, to teach their children. Although Pandey was one of only a handful of educated people for kilometers around, he had few prospects for employment. Parents said they would pay him themselves from their meager earnings. Pandey agreed, and Naini's Shishu Mandir, or Children's Temple, was born.

Today, the private primary school has four teachers and 60 students, whose parents pay monthly tuition of up to $1.60, plus book and uniform fees. Classes are held in a spartan community building, devoid of teaching aids except blackboards. Yet with more teachers and fewer students, the school is seen as an improvement. "The standard of reading is better than at the government school," says Rawat, whose boys attend. "Students are learning." Parents are pleased that children at Shishu Mandir learn the English alphabet in kindergarten; it's not taught till sixth grade at government schools. "If the kids go to the government school, they won't even learn the Hindi alphabet," sneers village chief Kani.

The story of Naini is not unusual in the northern Indian states. Government-run schools are in shambles, crippled by lack of resources and poor management. Although highly paid--at about $100 per month--teachers are burned out by heavy workloads and long commutes. So many villages are placing their hopes in tiny, new private schools. Although the teachers are often ill-trained and poorly paid--about one-quarter the salary of a public school teacher--they have fewer students and are more responsive. And while many barely speak English, they nonetheless offer a few lessons.

REMOTE. "Villagers want modern education. They want English, science, and math," says Anand Banula, 25, one of two teachers at a 40-student private school in Talaguar, a cluster of 35 slate-roofed farm houses 8 km from the nearest paved road. Cows are kept in the courtyards of this poor village, where the richest man in town has a government job as a bus conductor. Parents here want accountability, too--something they don't get from government teachers. Farmer Girish Arya, who lives in a hamlet near Talaguar, sends his daughter to the government school: He can't afford the 50 cents monthly tuition at the private school. But he wishes he could. "In the private school, people can put pressure on the teachers to be sure they work," the weather-beaten farmer says wistfully. "In the government school, even if the teacher doesn't teach half the time, we can't say anything."

While no precise figures are available on the number of private schools, a recent study estimates 36% of school children in dirt-poor Uttar Pradesh, India's biggest state, attend them. The Akhil Bharti Vidya Bharti, a Hindu organization, operates some 15,000 affiliated private schools with around 2 million students. A.K. Shiva Kumar, an economist from UNICEF, says the number of parents willing to pay tuition fees "completely disproves anyone who ever argued that these `ignorant rural folk' are not interested in education."

Yet many education experts feel there is a downside to the private schools. They fear such schools will exacerbate inequalities by providing better opportunities to youngsters who can afford to attend and consigning children from the poorest families to whatever the government offers.

Historically, Indian policymakers haven't put much importance on providing quality primary education for the rural masses. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister after independence in 1947, was concerned with building up institutions of higher learning for the elite, so India could churn out its own doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals. Upper-class Indians traditionally sent their children to exclusive private schools, many founded by the British during the Raj. Many Indians also questioned the wisdom of educating the children of farmers, artisans, and laborers, who were expected to follow their parents' trade. So India spends just 1.9% of gross domestic product on elementary education, about two-thirds what it would take to educate all its youngsters. As a result 40% or more of the population is illiterate. The average Indian spends just over two years in school--compared with five in China and more than nine in South Korea.

These days, most rural families don't have enough land to subdivide. Therefore, not all the kids can continue as farmers. Parents say a solid education that will help people secure jobs outside the village is critical. English is seen as crucial for upward mobility. "There is no work without English," says Shambu Dutt, a caretaker of historic temples in Jageshwar, 17 km from Naini.

SHARED BOOKS. Yet these rural private schools rarely meet parents' high aspirations. In Naini, for example, the Shishu Mandir school is held in a dilapidated two-room community hall, one of whose rooms has been deemed unsafe because the roof is in danger of collapse. (At the local government school, part of the roof has already fallen.) And just as at the government school, winter classes in the private school are held outdoors where, under the sun, it is warmer than inside the unheated, poorly lit building. The two blackboards and the handful of books are shared by all the classes. Students learn mostly by rote.

Each morning, youngsters start with calisthenics, then move on to reading and math. After the lessons, students write what they've learned in notebooks. Then it's on to English. Teachers recite the ABCs, followed by simple sentences, such as "This is a book" and "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." The children repeat after them, in nearly incomprehensible accents. Practicing real English conversations is not part of the program.

Why India's Poor Pay for Private Schools (int'l edition)

Shishu Mandir teacher Prema Rawat, 18, a high-school graduate, reads En-glish nursery rhymes to her students but can't tell them in Hindi what the rhymes mean. So the children repeat the strange sounds without understanding them. Yet even public school teachers believe private school students come out ahead of those in government schools. Girish Bhatt is one of two teachers grappling with 83 students in a public school. "Government schools are just to make people literate, to prepare them to be low-level government clerks," he says. In the private schools, "they talk about the environment, health. It's like the difference between earth and sky." So Bhatt spends $3.50 per month to pay for his three small children to attend private school.

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