Provision of education in India, as Myron Weiner argues in his landmark study, has historically been biased towards elites. Emphasis has been more on tertiary education that can ensure economic mobility for elites rather than primary education that can socially broad base human capabilities. Recent policy efforts to counter this bias such as the Right to Education Act seem to be a positive step in this regard. The most recently conducted survey by NSSO (Survey on Household Social Consumption on Education in India, NSS 75th Round) reports near 99 per cent gross attendance till the middle level schooling in the nation as a whole. While this is a welcome trend, this is also a period when private provisioning of school education has increased tremendously. Kingdon (2017) points out that between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the total enrolment in government schools actually fell by 11.1 million students while the enrolment in private schools increased by 16 million students during this period. While government schooling continues to account for bulk of the students (about 60 per cent in govt. till the secondary level of schooling), there has been a growing preference for private providers. It appears that this phenomenon represents a new manifestation of an elite bias in human capital formation.
Here is what an analysis of the unit level data of the NSSO survey tells us. To begin with there are spatial and gender divides. Such a divide is manifested in terms of disproportionate presence of students in Govt schools in terms their attributes. For instance, for every hundred students in Govt schools, rural male and rural female children amount to 36 and 44 respectively while their urban counterparts amount to only 9 and 11 respectively. This gap is wide enough to suggest a rural-urban divide in the choice of schooling with urban children slowly exiting the public system. Even across these divides, girl children are further more likely to obtain school education from govt. institutions.
There are also differences across social groups. Tribal and scheduled caste children are more likely to be in government schools.For every three tribal children and every two scheduled caste children, there is likely to be only one other caste group child in government schools. More importantly, the distance in likelihood of adopting govt. schooling across caste hierarchy is 2.02 with scheduled and backward castes much more likely to be in government schools . Beyond caste there exists a class divide as well. Out of hundred children in Government schools, 46 belong to the poorest quintile households as against 20 from the richest quintile household. Other studies also indicate that children attending private schools come from households where the educational attainments of their parents are better. This poses the following questions. What explains the declining preference for public schools among socio-economic elites? What are its implications?
Field based studies indicate that two of the most important factors behind declining preference for govt. schooling are to do with perceptions of poor quality of learning in government schools and the need for English medium education. But interestingly, studies on the differences between learning outcomes between budget private schools and government schools point to mixed results. While some do concur that households are justified in exiting public schools because of poorer learning outcomes, others find that the learning outcomes in public schools are not different and are even better in some states. However, even in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu where learning outcomes in public schooling are better than in private schools, there is a growing reliance on private schools. As activists like Kancha Ilaiah argue, the idea of proficiency in English as merit has taken roots in a globalizing India which may also be fueling this move to private schools. While we do not have clear cut answers, it is important to recognise that this perception is leading to a segmentation of the schooling system by caste, gender and income.
As Alcott and Rose (2017) point out, household level characteristics such as income, social background and educational attainments of parents are very critical to the educational attainments of school children. They particularly highlight the role of parental education and household income levels in generating such differences. Even when low income households invest in private tuitions, they are not able to compensate for the poorer educational resources within their household. In other words, irrespective of whether public schools are able to provide better education compared to private schools, such household differences continue to perpetuate differences in schooling outcomes. Alcott and Rose also point to another worrying phenomenon. They observe that the learning disparities tend to widen over time, even among children moving into higher grades within the primary level. Further, such differences increasingly constitute a critical axis of income inequality. Labour market inequality due to technological and organizational shifts in the last three decades has been increasing, with human capital differences accounting for most of the differences. It is clear therefore that in such a context, a segmented schooling system is likely to feed into increasing economic and social divides. In other words, while the emphasis on universalization of primary education has led to large numbers from lower social and economic groups enrolling in schools, it does not reduce the relative distance between these groups and elites in attainments.
Ghettoisation of lower caste lower income groups in public schools is also likely to undermine the effectiveness of peer learning. When peers are from heterogeneous social backgrounds, interactions in the school are likely to lead to better social osmosis of values. As Ravi and Sidharth (2020) convince us, educational spaces need to embrace diversity in India because it is one of the rare domains where inter-caste and inter-faith communication and dialogues are possible. It therefore appears that policy efforts at universalizing education are unlikely to undermine the elite bias that India has historically been known for.