It is well known that children who go to private schools come from relatively affluent backgrounds.
The Annual Status Of Education Report 2016, that was released on Wednesday, comes after a year’s gap (the last report was ASER 2014), during which time a lot has happened, particularly a general acceptance of the fact that learning levels are falling and that something needs to be done — urgently — about it.
Between 2006 and 2014 private school enrolment rose steadily from 18.7 per cent to 30.8 per cent, but in the same period learning levels either languished or declined in government schools while those in private schools held steady. The gap between them thus widened. These trends seem to have been arrested this year. For the first time since 2006, private school enrolment has not increased — in fact it has fallen marginally in 2016. There are also signs of resurgence in government schools, where learning levels — both reading and maths — have improved in lower primary grades.
With learning in government schools improving and private schools holding steady, the gap between them has narrowed. The superiority of learning outcomes in private schools has long been the subject of debate. While public perception has always been that private schools provide a better quality education, research has shown that just comparing learning outcomes between government and private schools isn’t comparing apples with apples. Many factors determine how, and how well, a child learns. Her cognitive abilities, her parents’ education and the learning environment in her home are just a few of these. Thus, attributing the entire difference between learning outcomes of government and private schools to the private school effect is misleading.
It is well known that children who go to private schools come from relatively affluent backgrounds. They also tend to have more educated parents. This affords them certain advantages that help learning. Once we control for these other factors, the gap in reading or maths levels between children attending different types of schools narrows significantly.
Consider the average child in Class 3 in a government school. ASER 2016 figures suggest that the probability that this child can read a Class 1 level text is 34.8 per cent, as compared to 59.4 per cent in a private school. However, the likelihood that this child lives in a “pukka” home is only 36 per cent as compared to 65.9 per cent of an average Class 3 private school child. Similarly, the probability that this child has a television at home is 43.5 per cent compared to 64.9 per cent for a Class 3 private school child; and the probability that this child has a mother who has some schooling is 48.4 per cent compared to 66.5 per cent for a private school child. How would this child perform if she had some of the advantages that most private school children have?
First, let’s give her a pukka home to live in — immediately the probability that she can read increases from 34.8 per cent to 41.7 per cent. Now, let’s give her a TV to watch so that she can see what’s going on in the outside world — the likelihood of her being a reader increases to 49.9 per cent. If she has a mother who has been to school, the probability that she can read increases even further, to 57.4 per cent. Just with these very basic advantages, she is almost at the average private school level. And if in addition her mother maybe reads to her from print material available in her home, she outperforms the average private school child with a 62.2 per cent chance of being a reader.
But the importance of household affluence and mother’s education for learning outcomes is well established. A private school child with the same characteristics would have even higher learning levels. After all, the above comparison is between an advantaged government school child and an average private school child. How much higher, though? It turns out that a private school child with the same set of advantages would not be doing that much better — the likelihood that such a child is reader is 73.6 per cent. The gap is much less! So when we compare children with similar home environments, the difference between government and private schools narrows significantly.
However, while household and parental factors are important and often explain a large proportion of the difference between government and private school learning outcomes, they aren’t a substitute for what happens in schools. Every year when ASER is released and there’s no improvement to report, we are asked what should be done to improve learning levels. But ASER is not designed to answer this question. It is a rapid assessment that shows the temperature on the ground. As it’s done every year, at the same time, and has large sample sizes at the state level, it is able to pick up even small changes at that level. For instance, the Punjab government started a state-level intervention to improve learning levels in government primary schools in 2014-15. Though there was no national ASER in 2015, at the state government’s request the assessment was done in Punjab. And sure enough, an improvement in learning levels was visible in the state estimates.
In the past few years, the focus has clearly shifted from enrolment to learning in education. The government is preparing to unleash a variety of learning assessments in the country; there’s talk of doing away with the automatic promotion policy introduced by the Right to Education; the government is also looking to define grade-wise learning goals. Clearly, something is also happening on the ground because this is the first year since 2010 that we have seen any improvement in learning levels in state schools, albeit small and restricted to lower primary grades. The important thing now is to sustain the momentum so that these small changes multiply and spread across the system.