School Education

India’s Public School Education Holding the Fort

By: Sachidanand Sinha
Indian school education system has evolved to provide education to nearly three-fourth of the students. The sector has seen the participation of governments
Education Population

Vision of a public school

In my opinion, public school is the one where a child feels welcome because of the school’s warm and conducive learning environment and caring staff. It has a good physical infrastructure, equipped with a wide range of co-curricular activities where learning and teaching programs with innovations and dedication are organized and where every child is special. A good public school rises above the usual social divides and helps children grow into responsible and sensitive human beings. At this juncture, it is important to note that the term ‘public school’ may differ from one country to another. In this paper, it refers to government/public funded (as in the context of public finance) including fully funded and government aided schools.  It may also be kept in mind that the pattern of government aid varies from one state to another within India.

Public schools are founded, managed and financed by the state, accountable to public authorities and are accessible to all. With common curricula that help inculcate core values of humanism, liberty, equality and freedom, public schools help in building humane societies. Public education, ‘a global common good,’ (UNESCO 2015), produces a variety of public goods of immense value to the society.

[They ] . . . are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity. . . Education is public, above all in a democracy. To think of it any other way is to rob it of its essential meaning.

The ‘public value’ perspective of education necessitates adoption of normative policy based on the principles that underscore the rights of citizens, the obligations of citizens to society and those of the state to the citizens (Tilak, 2016).

The idea of common school is located in presenting a framework of norms and standards which could serve as a basic minimum in terms of schooling infrastructure, institutional and governance practices, and quality of teachers. The idea behind this is to ensure equity in the provision of educational facilities, reducing gaps both in quantity and quality of the educational infrastructure. The right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 provides some broad guidelines on norms and standards for an elementary school. It covers several areas including specific norms for teachers in primary and upper primary classes, building and other facilities such as a number of classrooms, toilet facilities for boys and girls, safe drinking water, kitchen for mid-day meals, playground, teaching/learning materials, library and play materials etc. These norms and standards refer to the bare minimum and therefore should not be considered as standards themselves. Tilak (2016) puts the public/private dualism into perspective:

In India, the general perception is that the learning in private schools is superior to that in government schools. However, a large number of surveys on learning achievement would show that private school education does not work better even when some individual private schools could perform better…With growing role of private sector in education, the school system has begun to reflect the deep stratification of our society—the diversity and inclusion that should be at the heart of education are getting lost. Given our socio-economic structure, it is highly likely that more than 70 percent of families will not be able to afford any kind of fees charged by private schools. Competition and market-based mechanisms do not improve school systems; on the other hand, they increase inequity.

Improvement of public education is central to India’s educational development. The efforts are reflective of a deeper struggle—the struggle to retrieve the idea of public systems, including functioning public education. After achieving dramatic success in access to elementary schools in terms of spread, the focus must now shift to providing safe, stimulating, vibrant environments for all our students to learn.

Figure and Table
Fig. 1: Children currently not-attending by age, sex and social groups, 2014

The real issues

The contemporary educational situation in India is characterized by a phenomenal growth of private education in the country, especially during the last two-three decades. According to some recent statistics, 22 percent of elementary schools and nearly 60 percent of secondary schools are in the private sector in the country (DISE, 2015).  In terms of a number of students, nearly one-third of students in elementary education and over 50 per cent at the secondary level go to private/aided schools in India (NUEPA 2015). This is perhaps an alarming and an unsustainable situation with dangerous implications for the development of a healthy society. Elementary education in many countries—advanced and not so advanced, is nearly completely in the state sector(Table 1). So is the case with respect to secondary education in many advanced countries.

On the whole, public perceptions are not ‘favourable’ to government schools. With a hierarchical social structure of India, private education easily catches the imagination of a progressively mobile social class—not so much because of what they deliver in terms of knowledge and values, but more as sending children to such schools adds to social rank even though at the aspirational level, if not real. It may not be entirely incorrect to suggest that the neglect of the government schools is because children of the upper and middle-income strata of the society including government officials go to private schools.

School Education
Fig. 3: Average number of teachers in government elementary schools in india: 2013-14

Out-of-school children

According to the NSSO (71st round, 2014), the percentage of the rural children still to be brought within the ambit of school education is 11 and 13 respectively for boys and girls in the 6-10 years age, which is significantly lower than about 22 and 24 percent respectively as per the Census 2011. The decline in the urban areas has been equally notable. The percentage of children in 14-17 year age group, which corresponds to secondary and higher secondary classes, however, continues to remain high. If one compared the never attended and ever-attended categories then it appears that the schooling system has been successful in bringing back school dropouts, but the real challenge has been to bring those who never attended schools into the purview of school education (Fig 1).

It may be noted that a number of those who never attended has remained significantly large. It means that while geographical access may have improved, the socio-economic impediments to enrollment for certain categories of the population have remained obstinately in place and therefore children belonging to the marginalized groups remain excluded from the opportunity of education. There are significant inter-state and inter-district variations in the proportion of currently not enrolled children. In fact, there are pockets of very low enrollment in each state and therefore there is a need to examine region and location specific causes to alleviate the status of enrolment in such areas. A part of the causes of non-enrolment could possibly be associated with supply-side constraints, especially that of girls, who may not be sent to schools at a distant location for reasons of safety.

It has already been mentioned earlier that share of enrolment in government schools to total enrolment is declining particularly in favor of the unaided private schools. One can observe that the share of unaided private schools in primary enrolment in the rural areas went up by almost 8 percentage points. The growth for upper primary and secondary enrolments was not as impressive through (Table 2).

According to the NSSO estimates, enrollment is moving out of government schools especially in Gujarat, Punjab, Andhra, Telangana, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. In Meghalaya, a share of government schools in enrollment has registered an increase in the recent years. In other states, government schools continue to remain relatively significant with the much higher share of enrolments.

Infrastructure in schools

Major initiatives such as the operation blackboard program launched after the National Policy on Education (1986), the World Bank funded District Primary Education Project (1994) which had covered 272 districts in different phases. The Government of India scheme—SarvaShikshaAbhiyan (SSA), the flagship program of (2000-2001), the follow-up initiatives of the Right to Education Act (2009) and the recently la unchedRashtriyaMadhyamikShikshaAbhiyan(RMSA) have made significant contributions towards improving the physical conditions in government schools.

According to RTE Act, every elementary school should fulfill 10 core parameters to function properly—only around 10 per cent schools fulfill all the 10 parameters whereas about 55 percent schools across the country have met with more than eight parameters (Fig 2).

As per U-DISE data, Maharashtra ranks first where more than 33 percent of schools have fulfilled all the 10 parameters. Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Puducherry, and Punjab have more than 20 per cent schools in this category. There are thus a few states which have fulfilled 8-9 parameters of RTE. As per the data, Bihar ranks the lowest with only 2 percent of the total schools fulfilling all the 10-core parameters.

School Education
Fig. 4: Percentage distribution of single teacher in elementary schools in India: 2013-14

Teacher demand and supply

There is a significant shortage of teachers in the country—both in terms of numbers as well as a quality of teachers. RTE recommends the pupil/teacher ratio (PTR) of 30:1 at primary level and 35:1 at upper primary level. RMSA norms envisage a student classroom ratio (SCR) of 40:1 with a provision of minimum of 5 subject teachers for a secondary school with up to two sections in each class.

In 2014-15, 19,85,484 posts were sanctioned under the SSA of which 4,79,033 were vacant with some states having more than 30 per cent vacancies. Of the 1,07,676 positions sanctioned under RMSA 36,759 were vacant. There is a significant shortage of subject teachers at the upper primary and secondary school levels. The World Bank (2011) estimates that 500,000 new teachers will be needed nationally to fill vacancies and replace teachers who are to retire. Managing teacher supply entails having the capacity to plan for both current and future teacher recruitment, which is very poor in our country (Tilak, 2016).

According to the U-DISE statistics 2014-15, 11 percent of the primary schools were single teacher schools; and the pupil-teacher ratio in 14 percent of the primary schools was observed to be above 35 (NUEPA 2015). Disaggregated picture at sub-national levels—state, district, block and village level is quite disturbing (Figs. 3 and 4), sometimes the ratio touching a three-digit figure. It would also be instructive to note that predominantly rural and tribal districts tend to suffer from a poor supply of teachers. The absence of headteacher in a large number of government (as also in private unaided) primary schools could explain a variety of aspects pertaining to governance at the school level (Table 3).

Shortage of subject teachers is a predictor of poor examination performance. The passing of the grade X Board Examination is determined by the composite score from all subjects a student takes. Thus, any student attending a school without a full complement of specialist teachers will be at a distinct disadvantage in the examination. The shortfall in specialist teachers (notably science, mathematics, and languages) is common across India. In many instances, this may be further exacerbated by sub-optimal teacher deployment. Improving student performance for the most disadvantaged will require particular attention to subject-specific teacher shortages, teacher preparation, and teacher deployment. Unfortunately, our country does not have clear policy guidelines for teacher deployment.

U-DISE data inform us that our public schools have better-qualified teachers, but their performance is not satisfactory. There exists a huge criticism against the teachers for absenteeism, low levels of knowledge, disinterest in teaching and above all lack of accountability with poor supervision and monitoring mechanisms in place. The performance of candidates appearing in teacher eligibility tests remains very poor.

The quality of teachers’ training programs, has to be very rigorous with the stricter assessment of teacher ability and performance, enabling rewards of merit and corrective mechanisms for inefficiency and low quality. A large number of teacher training institutions are in the private sector, which has contributed to a deterioration in their quality.

School Education
Table 3: Percent government and private unaided schools with number of teachers, 2014-15

School consolidation

It is argued that there are many economically unviable small schools—products of ad-hoc political decisions. The case in point is two government primary schools (boys and girls separately) in the same village! Such small schools may not even provide a good learning environment. Instead, if the two schools were consolidated into a single school the number of teachers would have increased, each class would have a teacher besides bringing down the total cost per unit. And the spared space converted into a middle school would have further added the educational resource for the local population.

According to Tilak (2016):

there is a multitude of advantages of integrated schools offering to school from pre-primary to higher secondary levels in one school, rather than having fragmented school system. … The need to upgrade primary schools to elementary schools that provide schooling from Grade I to Grade VIII, and then gradually to secondary (with Grades I to X) and higher secondary (with Grades I to XII) schools is being increasingly recognized. This will improve transition rates substantially, by reducing dropout rates, improve the level of availability and utilization of school facilities and even of teachers. The advantages of such integration would be many. Internal efficiency and overall quality of education may substantially increase.

At an elementary level, consolidation needs to be done keeping in view the Constitutional provision of elementary education as a fundamental right, while at secondary and higher secondary level, this may be taken keeping in view access and equity issues with adequate provision for hostel and transport facilities. Mergers should help in consolidation of schools in such a way that each school could be ensured of excellent facilities such as big laboratories, libraries, and playgrounds, and an adequate number of qualified teachers, including subject teachers.” Tilak further states, “it must be recognized that public finances are important for ensuring quality education. For example, it is estimated that we spend about INR 80,000 per student in Navodaya schools and these schools are found to be performing exceedingly well; so are the KendriyaVidyalayas and Kasturba Gandhi BalikaVidyalaya on which we spend about INR 30,000 per student; and on the other hand, we spend a small fraction of these figures on other public schools and we lament at their poor performance. We need to substantially raise public expenditure on education.


It is important to realize that the expenditure we incur on building high-quality public school education would yield immense benefits to the society and these benefits outweigh investments by several times. It may be strongly argued that liberal and generous public spending on education is economically a high paying choice, politically rewarding and socially an immensely potential instrument of social justice. In short, public school education is a great instrument of social transformation; it is a public good of very special nature and a fundamental right of a high order; it is the public schooling system that shapes the society.


This article draws upon the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) Sub Committee’s discussion on Devising Pathway for Improvements of Government Schools under Daljit S Cheema as Chair. The author served as research advisor to the sub-committee. The views are in his personal capacity. The author is grateful to the research team at the Azim Premji Foundation and its CEO Dileep K Ranjekar. Liberal inputs and quotes from the unpublished papers/notes of Prof. J.B.J. Tilak and MadhumitaBandopadhyay’s, (NUEPA)and research assistance of doctoral research students BiswajitKar and RanjanKaramkar is duly acknowledged.


  • Bandyopadhyay, M. 2016. Present Status of Infrastructure Facilities in Schools in India: From National and State-Level Perspective. Unpublished paper prepared for sub-committee, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA).
  • Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). 2014. NSSO Report on Social Consumption: Education Survey 2014, 71st Round.
  • Tilak J. 2016. Rejuvenation of Government Schools. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4318.488
  • United Nation’s Development Programme (UNDP). 2015. Human Development Report 2015: Work for Human Development.
  • District Information System for Education (DISE). 2014. Thematic Maps Based on U-DISE Data 2013-14.
  • District Information System for Education (DISE). 2015. Thematic Maps Based on U-DISE Data 2014-15.

The author is Professor of Geography and Regional Development, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi.


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