Is education a level playing field?

Engagement in non-school work and availability of out-of-school learning support.

Field studies in education 3

Policy makers and parents alike recognise the value of schooling as a primary vehicle of learning for a child. But learning in schools depends on many factors, ranging from the education system and schools, to social, economic and political institutions within which the education system and schools function. Learning is also influenced by support and opportunities provided by families of children outside the school. Not surprisingly, families with better socio-economic conditions are able to provide more such external support to their children.

We studied how external factors affect children’s ability to engage in school processes in indirect ways. The study was drawn from a larger research on school choice in rural India that covered 121 public and low-fee private schools and 1210 families, in 10 districts across 4 states. 

This study shows how larger social and economic inequalities afford differential possibilities to children to engage with the school system.

Learning and Working

We asked parents about the work their children were engaged in outside school hours (non-school work). There were significant differences in response to this question between parents of children going to public and private schools.

  • 65% private school parents supervise learning outside school hours
  • 50% public school parents supervise learning outside school hours
  • 5% students in public schools have paid tuition
  • 18 % students in private schools have paid tuition

Economic status had a direct bearing on the ability of families to provide learning support outside of school. Well over two-thirds of children in the poorest quintile of our sample go to public schools and only four per cent of them get additional support through paid tuitions. 

On the other hand, well over four-fifths of the children in the richest quintile go to private schools and 29 per cent of them get support through paid tuitions.

Similarly, 46 per cent of the 71 percent of children in the poorest quintile going to public schools do not receive any form of learning support outside school while only 10 percent of the nearly 83 per cent of children in the richest quintile going to private schools do not receive any form of learning support outside school.


Very often, market-based solutions tend to underplay or ignore socio-economic factors external to the school. 

As our study shows, these factors play a crucial role on the extent to which children are able to engage with school learning processes. 

Non-school work

Children’s engagement in non-school work — both domestic work and in wage-work enhancing family livelihood requirements — is a common phenomenon in India, especially in rural areas and among the socially and economically weaker sections of the population. This factor affords differential learning environments among school-going children and is evident in our study in terms of the higher likelihood of children going to public schools being engaged in non-school work than their private school counterparts. In addition, and expectedly, girls are seen to be at a comparatively greater disadvantage. 

Learning support outside school

Supplementary tutoring and other forms of external support is a widely prevalent practice that is more common for children who atttend private schools. These findings behove us to ask if private tuitions reinforce the social and economic advantages’ already available to children going to private schools and accentuate differences. 

This also leads to an important question. If it is dissatisfaction” with public schools that makes parents send their children to private schools, then why tuitions? Is this trend fuelled by high aspirations, or low faith in schools?

The study points out the potential inequalities inherent in a stratified school system and how such inequalities can deepen if the quality of the school education system is not addressed at a systemic level.