As the world's largest democracy goes to the polls for national elections, a closer look at India's struggle to improve its schools through privatization. Even for the poor.
LUCKNOW — Armal Ali lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Lucknow, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The 11 members of his family live together in a small windowless concrete cube. He spends his days sitting cross-legged in front of a weaving loom, embroidering saris famous all over the country for their golden threads. In this area, however, these long cloths are mostly known for damaging the eyesight and the backs of those who make them.
As he toils, Ali dreams of a different life for his 9-year-old daughter, Ousma. “Not so much,” he says, “but at least that she sits behind a desk, for example, with a lot of light around her.” He would also like for her to speak English, like “the people in suits and ties on television that talk all day long about money.”
But when he became ill, his daughter had to leave the private school where she studied, as the family could no longer pay for her tuition. At the same time, she could not go to a free, public school because the two that used to exist in the neighborhood had to be relocated a long time ago to bigger buildings, away from the slums.
Rich or poor, more and more Indians are having to pay to go to school. The proportion of children in private school went from 27.8% three years ago to 33% now. In rural areas, it rose from 16.3% to 29% in eight years.
Improvized private schools spring up in tiny living rooms, sometimes even in the streets. Though they are forced closed when it rains, it is still better than a classroom without a teacher, as is too often the case in public schools, where teachers are absent one day out of five on average.
This figure, and others, illustrates the education crisis that numerous researchers say is compromising the country's development. Half of India’s 1.28 billion inhabitants are under age 25.
A study by Indian NGO Pratham shows that although 96% of children are registered in school (the free daily meal plays an important part in that number), they are not learning much. After three years, 60% of them still cannot read, except for maybe their own names. Four years ago, that number was 54%.
The 2010 Right to Education Act requires every child aged between 6 and 14 to go to school, but there is no legislation about what must be taught.
Even the poor choose private schools
So what makes a good school in the underprivileged rural areas of Uttar Pradesh? First of all, its proximity to the road. That enables teachers to travel by car — and quickly, should a last-minute inspection be announced. Still, this “luxury” is far from common. In one of the small villages of the Sitapur district, the primary school in deserted, except for dogs and cattle. One of the building’s annexes is used to store hay, and the teacher warms himself in the sunlight, reading the newspaper, his feet on a chair, while the few pupils serve him tea.
Ali Ahmad is a teaching assistant, and as such his work consists mostly of looking after the children. He earns the equivalent of $55 a month, 10 times less than a tenured teacher, and without the job security. “The teacher doesn’t come very often because he lives in the city, far from here. So that leaves me to teach,” he explains.
In Uttar Pradesh, primary school teachers enjoy a higher standard of living than most people. And that is exactly were the problem lies. “Such high pay could be counterproductive, attracting the wrong kinds of people,” wrote Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in The Indian Express. They note that the practice is especially bad because performance is not rewarded and children automatically move on to the next grade.
As a result, the parents in this village would rather pay 70 rupees ($1.10) to send their children to the nearest private school, located just a few meters away from their homes. At first, five or six pupils would go there for private tuition with a retired teacher, under a tree. But in just a few years, there were 158 children, who now study under a roof made of random materials. “Here at least we have a timetable,” the head proudly explains. “The kids know beforehand whether they’ll be doing maths or reading, and the teachers are here every day.”
The parents, often illiterate, do not know what their children are learning. Still, for them the words “private school” seem to imply success and give them hope that their children may wind up better off than they. “It must be better than public school, since we’re paying for it,” says one mother.
In Uttar Pradesh, private schools are so successful that they even translate into votes at election time. “The new trend is not to hand out free alcohol anymore, but to build private schools,” one candidate says.
Experts now recommend reforms, such as cutting down the curricula or grouping pupils according to their abilities and not their age.
Since she left her private school, Armal Ali’s daughter, Ousma, has been going to an education center set up by NGO Pratham. There she studies with a small group. In just a few months, she learned how to read and write. Now, she wants to become a teacher.