FIVE DOLLARS buys a month’s education at Rafiq Siddiqui’s private school, which serves the children of migrant workers living in a slum in Mumbai. But its corridors have been silent since March, when officials battling covid-19 closed schools across India. Mr Siddiqui, the principal, thinks almost 40% of his 900 pupils have left the city as their parents look for new jobs. The rest are “whiling away their time” at tea stalls and bus stops, seeking respite from the one-room dwellings many have to share with their families. Mr Siddiqui is trying to offer them online classes, but not many have easy access to smartphones. “We are going through a very long tunnel with no light at the end of it,” he says.
India’s education system was failing its children long before covid-19 forced them out of their classrooms. Only about 55% of the country’s ten-year-olds can read and understand a simple story, reckons the World Bank. The last time India’s children participated in internationally comparable tests, they ranked almost last out of 74 countries. The most recent large survey of staff attendance, in 2010, found that almost a quarter of public-school teachers were absent. In one state the proportion was close to a half.
Dismay at this state of affairs is one reason India’s children have for years been flocking to private schools such as the one Mr Siddiqui runs. Before the pandemic half of all children were educated in the private sector, among the highest rates in the world. Most are far from wealthy. About 70% of fee-paying schools charge less than 1,000 rupees ($14) a month, according to research by Central Square Foundation, a charity. Roughly 45% charge less than $7.
These institutions are struggling as the school closure drags on. In October the government lifted a national prohibition on schooling in person, but local officials who have the final say have largely chosen to keep schools shut. Ekta Sodha, who runs a small chain of private schools in Gujarat, says that although her teachers are offering online learning less than a tenth of parents have signed up. Mr Siddiqui has kept only four of his 31 staff on the payroll. He is fortunate that his school owns its own premises, but other schools in the neighbourhood are finding it difficult to pay rent, he says. A few have shut for good. More are on the brink.
The travails of private schools will make it even more difficult to remedy the damage prolonged school closures are doing to India’s children. Studies suggest that, after controlling for class and wealth, children do not learn greatly more in private schools than they do in government ones. But private schools take on a huge share of the burden of education, vastly more efficiently. Some 80% of them charge fees that are lower than the cost per pupil in the public sector, according to Geeta Kingdon of University College London. The main reason is that teachers’ salaries are set by the market, not by politics. Staff in public primary schools, in contrast, earn around eight times India’s GDP per person. That is eight times more than the average in rich countries and also well above the norm in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
A large survey of rural schoolchildren carried out in September by Pratham, an NGO, detected a small shift in enrolment from private schools to government ones. It said this could be because parents who had lost their jobs could no longer afford the fees, or because the schools themselves had gone belly up. Should this trend accelerate the authorities will need to find a lot more cash for education, at a time when there is little to go around. The biggest worry is that some parents who can no longer send their children to a private school might prefer to keep their children out of education altogether, rather than enroll them in a public institution with a bad reputation, or in a good one that is too far away. The exact scale of these shifts will be difficult to measure until schools are back in session.
Because private schools are required to operate as charities, they have not been permitted to take advantage of loan schemes to aid small businesses. Rajesh Malhotra, the owner of a school in Delhi, says the local government has been a “mute spectator” to the problems he and others are facing. At the very least he wants authorities to speed up payment of subsidies that private schools receive under rules that require them to admit a share of students from the very poorest backgrounds (these sometimes arrive years late). He thinks that during the present crisis the government ought to cough up in advance.
India can not afford to give handouts to private schools, says Bikkrama Daulet Singh of Central Square Foundation. But he hopes the crisis can change attitudes in government. Some states “ignore” private schools; others meddle unhelpfully, by tightly regulating fees, for instance. Slashing rules that make it difficult to set up and expand schools would help the industry recover more swiftly. Officials who are presently required to check the size of playgrounds and the colour of walls could spend more time making sure private schools’ teaching is up to scratch.
The best thing would be to allow schools to reopen swiftly, with some precautions. Vikas Jhunjhunwala, who runs two schools in Delhi, says many parents do not yet understand that their children are unlikely to get sick even if they catch covid-19. The extremely low rate of female employment makes families less reliant on schools for child care than they would be elsewhere. All this has made it easier for risk-averse state governments to keep schools shut, even though they have been allowing many other everyday activities to resume.
Such judgments underestimate the cost to children of keeping schools closed. In October the World Bank estimated that six months of school closures could reduce pupils’ lifetime earnings by 5%, at a cost to the country of around $450bn. Out-of-school children are more vulnerable to scourges that already plague India, such as child labour and forced marriage. Mr Siddiqui is keen to bring children back to class, using masks, social distancing and extra cleaning for safety: “We have to make a start.”
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