Drop in number of govt schools too suggests jobs are top priority in India

Possibly for the first time in India since independence, where education has been the subject of discussion and a sector requiring quality improvement, government elementary schools in India are on a decline. 

While the total number of schools in India is rising, the decline is only in the elementary schools run by the government (Chart 1), and there are two chief reasons for this: the shift of demographic bulge from school going-age to working-age, and tapering enrolment resulting from increasing preference for private English education. 

The population bulge in India shifted from the 5-9 age range in 2001—meaning, primary school—to 10 to 14—upper primary and secondary school—in 2011, according to Census data. The Statistical Year Book published by the ministry of statistics puts India’s demographic bulge in 2016 in the 20-24 age range, the initial years of healthy working age post-education. This substantiates the urgent need to provide jobs to the burgeoning working age population.

The other and equally important reason is the growing preference of parents towards private schools, gradually affecting the enrolment in government schools, and thus resulting in either a ‘closure’ or ‘merger’ of government-run primary schools. (Chart 2)

“Government schools are at the bottom of parents’ preference, starting from international schools at the top, followed by the best private schools to the government schools”, a senior government official said. “On the same line, demographic changes have shifted government’s focus from elementary education to skill development”. 

“Many states are consolidating schools since the enrolment at some schools is declining fast due to demographic changes, mostly in rural areas. In cities, private schools are being preferred”, said Suman Bhattacharjea, director at ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) Centre, a pan-India non-profit organization working in the quality of education sector.

Schools can broadly be categorized as elementary on one hand, which impart primary and upper primary education (Class 1 to Class 5 and Class 6 to Class 8, respectively) and secondary on the other, which represent Class 9 to Class 12. Based on ownership, they can be classified as government-run and those run by private institutions. 

Enrolment in private schools as a percentage of total elementary enrolment increased from 28% in 2006-07 to 38% in 2015-16. Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based think tank, also notes that a quarter of elementary students also undertake private tuitions irrespective of being from a government run school or a private school, as of 2014, showing that private education is slowly becoming an integral part of education as a whole. 

Some states buckle the trend  

Enrolment in elementary schools grew till 2014-15, but reduced from 198 million children in 2014-15 to 197 million in 2015-16. However, enrolment in government schools has been steadily reducing from 130 million in 2011-12 to 117 million in 2015-16. In the same period, secondary school enrolment improved from 54 million to 64 million, showing that the percentage children actually opting for secondary education after elementary education is on a positive rise. (Chart 3)

There are some outliers among big states. Tamil Nadu, despite the reducing number of school going population, has shown a significant rise—from 36,500 in 2011-12 to 38,200 in 2015-16--in elementary schools run by government, as against Bihar, which has shown a comparatively slower rise, from 69,400 to 71,400, despite the fact that Bihar has India’s youngest population. 

Government run elementary schools are reducing even in under-developed Chhattisgarh, along with big and faster developing states like Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra. 

Issue that remains unresolved

There is a shortage of about 900,000 schoolteachers in government schools nationwide, data tabled in Parliament show. As the preference for private schools started increasing, teacher vacancy worsened in government run schools.

Some states have tackled the situation by filling up the vacancies; Gujarat reduced the vacancy from 25,000 to 4,000 in a year (2015-16 to 2016-17); while Assam improved the shortage from 40,000 to 20,000. Bihar, which struggles with two thirds of schools without electricity, has had no improvement in school teacher vacancies over the year, and, along with Uttar Pradesh, leads all states with the highest vacancy; the two states having a combined vacancy of over 400,000 teachers.

Though the need for schools, or school benches, to be specific, is reducing due to the demographic shift, the number of children per teacher, which was reducing till 2014-15, has surprisingly risen from in 2015-16, meaning more burden per teacher, potentially hampering the quality of education. The compliance to the norms of right to education act is, too, slower than expected, the report by Accountability Initiative notes.