School choice is the provision and promotion of alternatives to public schools. This is seen as a path to improving school systems. It is a significant element within a market-based approach to school education. These solutions have failed in the United States, and especially in school systems already characterised by existing inequalities.
The idea of school choice assumes that private schools can be a viable and better alternative to the public education system. This claim has been disproved in recent studies and a recent World Bank report. Some of these findings are also in keeping with philosophical ideas that underlie education that it is not a marketable good.
India has seen a significant expansion of the schooling system since the 1990s, and the last 15 years alone have seen a rapid growth in enrolment in low-fee private schools. Public government schools have seen increased access for disadvantaged groups. Even as parents are faced with more choice, information on schools and schooling is low.
Despite insights from around the world, market-based solutions such as school choice and low-fee private schools for the poor as drivers for improving the school system continue to feature prominently in discussions about school education in India.
These dynamics led us to conduct a three-stage field study, covering 121 public and low-fee private schools and 1210 families, in 10 districts across 4 states to understand, in some detail, how parents make school choice, especially in the context of rural India.
The study was conducted in ten districts across four states (Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand) in the country. These are places where the Azim Premji Foundation has an active presence and has been working for some time. One block per district was chosen and most of the blocks are those in which the respective district headquarters is located.
A Family Survey Tool was used to elicit from families a nuanced understanding of issues. We asked questions about opinions on local schools and choices. For example, when asking parents about the preferred school of choice in the vicinity for their children, parents were asked to provide the top three reasons and then the main reason for their opinions. The responses to these questions were open-ended and the survey team later classified the responses into one of the 15 categories. The analysis of data from the Family Survey Tool was followed by the development and implementation of a School Information Tool.
Complex nature of school choice
Some factors that affect parent choice are
- Medium of instruction
- Teacher characteristics
- Non-educational benefits — safety, discipline and security
- Social barriers
- Gender of the child
- School infrastructure, exam results and pupil-teacher ratios.
Which schools in the vicinity do parents prefer?
The most preferred school in the vicinity where parents would like to send their children, across 25 villages, was almost as likely to be a public school as a private school.
Which schools do parents actually choose?
More than half — 51 per cent — of the children in our sample attend public schools and the rest go to private schools. The variation in type of schools chosen for their children is by economic status. Poorer students went to public schools, while only a few children from more privileghd backgrounds attend public schools.
‘The books are in English and teachers teaches in English, which helps children learn better. There are activities that get organised by the school in which children participate and need to communicate in English. Teachers talk in English outside the class with children and also among themselves, as I have seen during parent-teacher meetings’
- Father, one child, Raigarh.
What distinguished private schools was English teaching and discipline. But public choices were a default to poorer families for affordability reasons.
‘We are very poor; so we did not think about other schools and chose government school. Poor children study in government school only’
— Father, five children, Tonk.
Equivocal choices, shifting preferences
Analysis of data from the qualitative interviews does not indicate unequivocal parental preferences in favour of any type of school, public or private. Instead, what is seen are both a reassessment of their initial choices and switching of schools based on this reassessment among parents. We also saw cases of persistence with apparently sub-optimal choices due to their desire for cultural capital.
‘She (elder daughter) is in class 2. But she does not know her tables and cannot read properly while other children going to the government school are doing better. So, I am thinking of transferring my children to the government school from next year. Despite paying fees that are difficult for us to afford, learning is not happening in the current school’
- Father, two children, Tonk.
Medium of instruction
Despite a great desire for English-medium, there is discrepance in parents’ reports of English as medium and the official medium as reported by schools and the one in practice.
Stark differences found in public and private schools in academic and professional qualification of teachers, which is considered a highly important element in school choice.
Parental aspirations and marketing practices
Data told us that there are mismatches between parental perceptions and school realities. Most private schools organised systematic enrolment drives to generate admissions. These drives advertised safety elements like conveyance, CCTV cameras; benefits like sibling discounts and early admission discounts; cultivation of manners and computer education and extracurricular activities.
One of the parents, from among the families who were in a position to afford low-fee private schools but opted to send their children to a public school, seemed to aptly summarise this broad approach to choosing between public and private schools among parents:
‘Government schools are good today as well. But people usually think that children of poor people study in government school. Hence other people do not send their children and choose private schools.’
- Father, two children, Tonk.
The findings of this study challenge the simplistic notion that parental choices are well-informed and always based on the most important educational criteria for assessing schools. The role of multiple factors and the influence of both practical and educational considerations in the parental choice show that school choice is an inherently complex process. Moreover, the study reveals significant mismatches between parental perceptions of specific school characteristics and school realities with reference to the same characteristics, for most parents sending their children to private schools.