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Learning gains: Better in private schools than public? - Myth, Truth, and Unknown.

Rather than completing different levels of education, learning gain at school is important for individual earning and national economic growth (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2008). If there is a difference in learning gain in private or government schools, then choosing the private or government school has a significant effect on people’s earnings and the nation’s economy. That is why the question of better learning outcomes in private schools than in government schools is of great importance in India and elsewhere.

Since the 1990s massive growth of government schools as well as parallel growth of private schools and increased enrollment into government schools have been witnessed. Simultaneously, several studies have been conducted that highlights parental dissatisfaction with the performance of government schools. Accompanied by growing dissatisfaction the nation has seen steady growth in private school enrollments (e.g., Kingdon, 2007; Wadhwa, 2009). With 26.1 crore students enrolled in 15.1 lakh schools, (2019-2020 Unified District Information System for Education - UDISE data) Indian education landscape globally became massive. Simultaneously, the private schooling phenomenon has also become prevalent with time especially driven by low-fee private schools.

Over 8 crore students are enrolled in private schools which constitutes 35% of India’s school-going children. The transition from public or government schools to private schools, especially low-fee private schools, happened due to the increased attention to the idea of ‘Quality of learning and/or ‘learning outcomes.

There is indisputably growing participation in Private schools not only in urban areas but also across rural India, where low fee-charging private schools with ‘English medium’ tags have mushroomed. The choice of private education in comparison to government education suggests dissatisfaction with government schooling and the belief in superior results from private schools. There is a limited understanding of the efficacy of private education in India.

Parents send their children to private schools with the belief that private schools are of better quality than public schools. The important question is, ‘Do these low-cost private schools produce higher learning outcomes efficiently?’ Let’s try to have a more comprehensive discussion around the statement - ‘do the children in such schools outperform their public school counterparts?’

The Myth:

Although the data on student learning outcomes in government and private schools has its limitations, a quick glance of the available data records higher performance on the part of students from private schools than from government schools. For assessment purposes, a lot of studies examine the data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), National Achievement Survey (NAS), and Integrated Human Development Survey (IHDS) to comprehend different aspects of learning in private schools.

ASER report suggests from 2006 to 2010, the percentage of children who could read a grade 2 level text in grade 5 in government schools fell slightly from 51.4% to 50.7%. Whereas, private schools show the percentage is rising from 60.8% to 64.2%. After 2010, Government schools further lowered 42.2% in 2014 but private schools maintained it’s consistency with 62.5% in 2014.

Source: School-Education-in-India-Data-Trends-and-Policies, 2019, Central Square Foundation

In 2018, the difference between government and private schools in the proportion of children who could read a grade 2 level text in grade 5, 20.9% high. The percentage of children who could do

Source: School-Education-in-India-Data-Trends-and-Policies, 2019, Central Square Foundation

Division in Grade 5, government schools showed 17% low than Private schools. The foundational literacy level stayed stable but basic numeracy skills gradually declined over the decade. Grade 10 students of private schools scored below 50% on average in four subjects out of five in NAS assessment (NCERT 2017). So, the available ASER data records the higher performance of the students from the private schools than government schools. Similar results are shown by a study in Delhi slums (Tooley and Dixon, 2005). However, these studies do not fully control for the family’s socioeconomic status of government and private schools.

The Truth:

If we consider the student’s learning gain or in this context basic numeracy or literacy skill as an output, the input can be divided into child-level input, household input, and school-level input (French, R., & Kingdon, G. 2010). Child’s own input like a natural knack, motivation, effort, maturity, and health contributes to their learning outcome. Parents’ ability and motivation towards education attainment, their income, occupation, education, and financial status of the house come under household input. School quality inputs include infrastructure, resources, teacher quality, and management. All these factors have a bearing on the child’s learning outcomes. To isolate private school effects from other variables that might enable learning outcomes is challenging.

For example, parents choosing private schools are usually of higher socioeconomic stature (Desai, S., Dubey, A., Vanneman, R., & Banerji, R. (2008). While assessing the relationship between private schools and learning outcomes, these factors are measured imperfectly. Parents prioritizing their children’s education will also encourage their children to work hard and complete their homework which may improve learning outcomes but cloud the private schools’ effect.

The advantage of the ASER data set is the huge sample size. . A total of 546,527 children in the age group 3 to 16 years were surveyed. These data sets also provide a clear picture of the quality of rural schooling. But the data set has control variables imparting on learning outcomes that might get removed from the data set. There are three such variables like (a) income data or socio-economic status of the family, (b) data on the motivation, natural ability or prior achievement of the student, ( c) the caste and religion of the child - could have been in the data set (French, R., & Kingdon, G. 2010).

With little evidence available on the private school effectiveness, ASER data have shown without accounting for any other variable private school children outperform the government school children. Few studies have been conducted to control the variables but find an advantage for private schools (e.g., Goyal & Pandey, 2009; Kingdon, 2007; Muralidharan & Kremer, 2006). The selection of a sample is also an issue in these survey data. The enrollment of children doesn’t happen randomly. It reflects their parent’s choices and values for education. This has an effect on the learning outcomes. Generally, the family with better income and better informed enroll their children in private schools (Goyal & Pandey, 2009).

Few studies have attempted to account for or correct the selection issue (Desai, Dubey, Vanneman, & Banerji, 2008; French & Kingdon, 2010; Goyal, 2009; Kingdon, 1996). All these studies have shown better outcomes for private schools after applying appropriate corrections for the selection issue. But the huge gap between private and government school learning outcomes has significantly reduced. All the studies leave room for improvement in terms of data, methods, and approaches.

A research study (Chudgar & Quin, 2012) used nationally representative data from rural and urban schools and investigated the relative performance of private versus public schools. They have compared children’s data who are alike on several attributes to correct the selection issue. But that also comes with limitations of the available covariates. In the cost-effectiveness of private schools, the study did not make a comment since children at private schools do not perform differently than those in public schools. A possible reason for that could be that children in private schools, whose parents can afford higher fees, do better than children attending government schools. Disagreeing with most of the studies from India, Chudgar & Quin, 2012 encounter inadequate proof to claim that children in private schools outperform those in government schools.

The Unknown:

While many studies (Desai, Dubey, Vanneman, & Banerji, 2008; French & Kingdon, 2010; Goyal, 2009; Kingdon, 1996) have been done on the role of private schooling and its impact on learning outcomes, all the studies unable to control for unobservable characteristics. These characteristics may affect the learning outcomes and enrollment in private schools.

Private education gained huge popularity before substantial research can be done on the private school effect and the student outcome. Usually, parents who are sending their children to private schools are educated or prioritize education attainment. So, children performing well in private schools and that is happening only for private schools quality is really difficult to say.

It is very difficult for parents who are prioritizing their children’s learning to make a choice between private and government schools with insufficient information available on the school’s effectiveness on learning outcomes. In the absence of data on learning outcomes, parents rely on other proxy information like the quality of infrastructure, uniforms, discipline, or quantity of homework.

India’s public and private schooling systems are separately second to China’s size. But the standardized indicators for school quality and learning outcomes are necessary for parents to make informed decisions. At least we hope to have a robust conversation on the benefits or limitations of the privatization of education in India.


  • Chudgar, Amita & Quin, Elizabeth, 2012. "Relationship between private schooling and achievement: Results from rural and urban India," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 31(4), pages 376-390.

  • Desai, S., Dubey, A., Vanneman, R., & Banerji, R. (2008). Private schooling in India: A new educational landscape. Brookings-NCAER India Policy Forum.

  • French, R., & Kingdon, G. (2010). The relative effectiveness of private and government schools in Rural India: Evidence from ASER data. DoQSS Working Paper No. 10-03, June 2010. London: University of London Institute of Education.

  • Goyal, S. (2009). ‘Inside the house of learning’: The relative performance of public and private schools in Orissa. Education Economics, 17(3), 315–327.

  • Goyal, S., & Pandey, P. (2009). How do government and private schools differ? Findings from two large Indian states. Report No. 30, South Asia Human Development Sector. Washington. DC: The World Bank.

  • Kingdon, G. (1996). The quality and efficiency of public and private education: A case study of Urban India. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 58(1), 57–82.

  • Kingdon, G. (2007). The progress of school education in India. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 23(2), 168–195.

  • Kingdon, G. (2017). The emptying of public schools and growth of private schools in India. Chapter 1, Report on Budget Private Schools in India, Centre for Civil Society.

  • Muralidharan, K., and M. Kremer (2006). Public and private schools in rural India. Unpublished report. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • .Wadhwa W. (2009). Are private schools really performing better than government schools? In Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) New Delhi: Pratham.

  • State of the Sector Report on Private Schools in India, Central Square Foundation.

  • NCERT - National Achievement Survey (NAS) Dashboard. 2017.

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