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What's Happening with Education in India?

After 10 full days in India visiting various schools and organizations, both for profit and not-for-profit, I feel I achieved my goal to not only dig deeper into 3W-supported projects but also better understand the education context/landscape in India.   The trip provided an excellent overview of the Indian Education system with all its challenges — from the densely populated slums and cities to the rural areas, seeing first-hand both government and charter schools, and discussing the challenges facing non-profit and for-profit models.  The clear overriding conclusions are:

  • The education system is broken and ineffective, yet India is on its way up, i.e. by helping students at the bottom of the pyramid we are enabling their mobility out of poverty.
  • The hope for a brighter future is palpable in India:
  • You can feel that the immense growth in GDP has had a trickle down effect with greater disposable income, which parents use to obtain better education for their children.
  • The education system will change, but in the meantime there is great opportunity for 3W impact
  • 3W can have huge impact on a great many students through targeted and focused intervention through Pratham and potentially with Acumen’s investment companies.
  • As well as direct impact, 3W can be instrumental in shaping the future of education by supporting creative models exemplified in the Acumen mandate to identify and foster for-profit creative and sustainable models.

Observed Developments in Education

A few very interesting things have happened on the education front in India:

  • As India now has more disposable income, Indians are searching for alternatives to the poor state schools.  Some experts say as many of 70% in Mumbai now make use of some sort of private education (either through private schools or private tutors).  This trend leads to half empty state schools.  We visited one government school in Mumbai that could only fill three of its 12 classrooms.  And in another rural school, the only students left were of the lowest castes.
  • At the same time, the government’s 2010 Right to Education Act (RTE) has limited the ability of private schools by putting stringent restrictions on what can and cannot qualify as a school.
  • Those of the “aspiring class” – making 10-15,000 INR/month as domestic help, etc. – know that education is important but are uneducated themselves.  Their children are first generation learners. Unfortunately, the aspiring class is easy to fool as they have little to no experience of education and cannot recognize quality education when they see it.  A strong social entrepreneur in the ‘education-for-fee’ space is needed.
  • Most parents understand the importance of early childhood education to prepare children for school.  They want more than just day-care, and expect, sometimes unrealistically, proof of learning, i.e. letter recognition, writing, reading, and even a display of math and English skills.  Although a positive development towards the ever-important early intervention, the expectations often reward rote learning as opposed to needed conceptual learning.  Again, there is much work to be done in educating parents on best practices in learning.
  • Finally, Dr. Madhav Chavan, CEO and Founder of Pratham, made a good point that was validated throughout the trip, “Poverty in India today is not a lack of money, but a lack of services”.

Related Quotes and Supporting Facts

Private Schools (The Economist)

By one estimate, 40% of Indian students now make some use of private education—either private school or topping-up by tutors. A survey in 2011 by Credit Suisse suggested Indians typically spend 7.5% of their income on education, more than Chinese, Russians or Brazilians. Education is seen as a quick route to prosperity. A senior government economist worries that parents “almost spend too much”.

Quantity is not the issue.  However, the quality is often wretched. “A lot of private education is useless,” sighs a noted economist. Many management colleges do little teaching but lure applicants with promises of getting them jobs when they have graduated. Too many people end up with worthless qualifications.

Right to Education Act (The Economist)

A new law, the Right to Education act, is designed to lift school results by setting minimum standards for school buildings, playing fields, student-teacher ratios and the like. That could raise quality, but may mean more bureaucracy, too. It also requires every private school to reserve 25% of its places for poor locals. Critics say fees for the rest will rise or standards will fall.

Under the Act it is illegal there to operate a school for profit, so schools that charge fees must act as charities first and businesses second. The Right to Education Act, which came into effect in 2010, compels all independent schools to register with the government on pain of closure (surveys suggest that only about half bother to do so). The same law also compels private schools to take a quarter of their students from poor families. Many have resisted, not least because the subsidies that were supposed to pay for the places have not been forthcoming. Some state courts have ruled that private-school teachers must have the same high pay as state ones, and have mandated budget-busting facilities such as large playgrounds and libraries.

Importance of Early Childhood Education (Clinton Global Initiative)

Continuing the discussion from the Plenary Session, “The Early Years: An Irresistible Investment Opportunity,” early childhood education has many benefits, yet it has often been neglected relative to primary school education. Children attending pre-school are not only more likely to complete primary and secondary schools, they will also earn more throughout their life and drive up their country’s GDP. Pre-schooling also serves to reduce inequalities and is associated with better childhood health and nutrition and a mother’s ability to earn a living. For a business, organized day care centers help ensure improved employee productivity, attendance, and satisfaction. Only 46 percent of pre-primary age children across the world are enrolled in education, a figure that drops to 13 percent for the least developed countries and varies vastly by income level.