Structural features of Education in India – Part 1

Written by  //  August 18, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  17 Comments

Based on my one year work in India, I would summarize some of my important observations about the structure of the education system in India.

India is obviously a huge nation, so no single article/policy or framework can adequately capture all the aspects of education. However, in the subsequent paragraphs, I will try to systematically synthesize a coherent framework that can help us to make some important distinctions, understand some key underlying concepts and give a broad overview of its success/failures. In the later articles on this subject, I will try and elucidate some of the finer points, and seek to fill in the details.

The following structural factors characterize the education in India to a large extent. We can divide the whole population of India between age groups 5-17 into four broad categories.

a) Large uneducated /illiterate or severely undereducated rural community that enrolls in rural government schools.

b) An elite / well established English speaking urban populace, which is a minority, that enrolls in elite English speaking schools.

c) A significant upwardly mobile English speaking urban population, that enrolls in mid level private schools in urban areas OR some well functioning government institutions (like KVs)

d) An even more significant and largely ignored urban  urban population, that enrolls in the ill functioning government schools or community run / NGO run private schools.

Apart from these, we can argue that at any time, a lot of people are ‘in transition’, and since education is a very precious resource, closely linked with both social economic prosperity and social status, at any time, there is a large community which is moving from one of these categories to another.

An accurate education system that is (a) just and fair (b) meritorious towards the performers (c) is able to improve the abilities of the under performers (d) Addresses how to include the non-performers (or the highly under performing communities) into the system is needless to say very difficult and complex to both design and implement and will take an integrated structural reforms at the socio-political and economic systems of the nation.

Some of this task will be economic and market driven. Eg. we do not need to attempt to design or implement the system, which is part b). The schools run in this category are largely driven by demand and supply. However the schools that come under category c) are driven both by demand and supply and by other factors such as the existing economic parameters in the society. Schools under category a) and category d) to a large extent are government or community run, and suffer from rampant corruption, ill-funds, poor thinking etc. needing a very strong socio-political and economic framework to instantiate the process of any reform or change.

Thus before attempting to have a debate or discussion on reform, we need to lay down a structural basis, that can be an approximate model of the full system. Needless to say, such a model can never be perfect, and can only ‘approximate’ the issues that we are trying to discuss. However, as long as the model is a ‘good fit’ or a fairly representative approximation, it gives us enough basis to move on the tasks of reforms, discussions, debates and analysis.

This can also help us streamline our discussions to be more productive and conducive. Eg. any discussion of the effect of political instability on the schools under category b) is largely irrelevant, since these schools are economically driven by a fairly well off section of the society and therefore immune to political factors. Similarly, a discussion that does not include any economic point but only focuses on the political situation for schools in category c) is again faulty, because the schools here are effected both by economic power of the section that ‘powers’ them as well as the political situation and so on…

I have clearly identified four broad pillars of this structures above. The representation, I believe is mostly based on my individual experiences. Modification of this structure should be done with care, because since the future focus would be based on this ‘underlying’ foundation, if proven, that this structural model is weak or faulty, that undermines our attempts of further reforms and analysis making the results either trivial or insignificant.

Next, we move on to the equally important, but rather difficult task of capturing transitions. Any structural model needs to include the important fact of transitions in some form, because needless to say the society or these structures are not static. Infact, as I am writing this, the structure is changing dynamically (say a student from rural areas just enrolled in an upper middle class urban school, thus changing the statistical model). Economic progress in different parts etc. is also changing this structure dynamically, sometimes more rapidly than we may think.

Eg. a very strong economic progress can push a large section from part d) to part c) in another two decades, thus making the task of policy reform for schools in part (d) again pointless, because the economy is itself creating the transformation that policy makers would essentially be wasting their time trying to do.

Although, this change appears to be slow, over a period of time, it is precisely these changes that we need to capture neatly, because of make any policy or propose any  business/economic argument that is durable, our underlying model needs to include the change in the model itself. This is highly complex, because we are trying to capture the change, and effect of the change in a single model, which is very hard.

In the future posts, I will build on the underlying basis and suggest appropriate topics that we can then adequate propose and discuss since the base has now been laid down(Example of such a topic is say: Science Education in Rural cities and emerging urban and semi rural areas).

About the Author

Sumeet has a degree in computer science and engineering from Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi. He enjoys studying science and technology both from an abstract perspective and the applications they can have in solving some compelling real world problems. He also frequently writes on some socio - political issues and enjoys working and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and interests.

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17 Comments on "Structural features of Education in India – Part 1"

  1. Vipul August 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm ·

    Dear Sumeet,

    I have a lot of things to say about your post, so I’ll take them up one by one.

    There are two aspects to what you’re doing: a descriptive (or “positive”) aspect which attempts to accurately describe and clearly model the current state of Indian education from nursery/kindergarten to high school, and a second, prescriptive (or “normative”) aspect where you use this information along with certain moral values that you have to suggest possible changes. There could then also be a third aspect, which actually involves trying to figure out how to bring about those changes. (Some of your recommendations may involve activities that individuals can take on their own, some may involve government policy that individuals may be able to influence, etc.)

    Basically, first figure out where things are, then figure out where you’d like them to be, then figure out how you can try to manipulate things to get from here to there.

    I think you made a good first attempt at getting a descriptive account — which is what the first few paragraphs were — but then, moved too quickly to the world of prescription, and then swung back to descriptive mode. It seems to me that a lot more effort is needed just to get the descriptive story straight. It is not necessary, of course, that each one of us do fieldwork throughout all parts of India to get the descriptive story straight. But some people have done fieldwork and aggregate statistical data, and this can be used as a starting point.

    One of the most interesting directions of research in Indian education, in my opinion, is the work conducted by James Tooley, now at the E. G. West Centre at the University of Newcastle. Tooley describes much of his research in the book “The Beautiful Tree” (see here for links to purchase and reviews). He discovers that people in some very poor communities in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, are ditching the free public schools in those communities and choosing private schools. This isn’t really that new a discovery — the Oxfam Educational Report and Amartya Sen also note similar things. But Tooley went further and tried to determine why parents were making the choices they did, and whether the private schools were outperforming their government school counterparts. His research also led him to the conclusion that private education must be a major component of any strategy to achieve universal literacy. Whether you agree with his conclusions, the data he has collected (along with the personal anecdotes) make his work worth a read.

    Since this comment is getting too long, I will comment later on some of the specific issues, language, and assumptions of your post.

  2. Vipul August 18, 2010 at 9:07 pm ·

    You write:

    “d) An even more significant and largely ignored urban urban population, that enrolls in the ill functioning government schools or community run / NGO run private schools.”

    “largely ignored” by whom exactly? And “significant” to whom? And does your adjective “ill functioning” apply to “government schools” or to “community run / NGO run private schools”, or both?

    Let’s start with “ignored” — most people ignore most other people, so what does it even mean to call a population an “ignored population”? Most of the people who have lived near me have ignored me, and I’ve ignored them — does this make me an “ignored person”? The adjective makes sense if this population deserves a certain level of attention which it is not getting. But attention from whom exactly?

    The people in the poor urban populations aren’t ignoring themselves, and, to the best of my knowledge, in so far as they live near and interact with each other, they aren’t ignoring each other. People in other areas who don’t interact with them probably ignore them, but is this a big surprise? People in poor urban populations probably “ignore” Ratan Tata and Narayan Murthy, does this make these captains of industry ignored?

    Perhaps what you mean is that the urban poor are a small minority and are ignored by the elite, who are the majority? To the best of my knowledge, even in urban areas, the poor are of comparable numbers to the rich, and probably more in number in many urban areas. So, this interpretation does not make sense to me.

    Are you claiming that they are ignored by the political process? I don’t know if this is true, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that politicians care a lot more about getting the votes of poor people than about getting the votes of rich people. In the urban areas where I’ve lived, the majority of people attending political rallies were either lower middle class (the non-elite non-poor) or poor. And the poor were also much more likely to vote. It is still possible (and plausible) that the poor participate more in the political charade but it’s the rich who affect the actual decisions made by politicians. If your argument is a variant of this, I’d like to hear it more clearly.

    Perhaps what you mean is that their paying attention to each other isn’t important, because the “elite” are ignoring them. But why should attention from the “elite” count for more (from the perspective of measuring degree of attention or ignoredness) than attention from each other? Is it because the elite are in a greater position to bestow favours or create real improvement, and the urban poor can’t do much for themselves?

    I think this last argument is defensible (though I don’t fully agree with it — poor people, even if less equipped with general intelligence or knowledge, may still be better equipped with the local and circumstantial knowledge that is needed to help themselves than well meaning outsiders), but if this is the real claim, I’d like it if you made it explicit.

    Okay, that is enough quibbling about the meaning of one word — “ignored” — something that I could well have ignored. But words play an important role in shaping the way we think, and they both reveal and affect our underlying assumptions. I don’t know what your underlying assumptions were when you used this word, and I’ve just listed some possibilities. I would like to know what you had in mind.

    Another word I have often seen in this context is “underserved” — underserved by whom? As an amusing aside, “underserved” is often mis-spelled as “undeserved” which can of course be interpreted as “undeserving”. Some might argue that this slight mis-spelling completely transforms the meaning of the word. Others might consider it a Freudian slip.

  3. Sumeet Khullar August 19, 2010 at 10:40 am ·


    I just read your first comment. So I will form a reply to that first.

    I agree with your distinction between description and prescription.

    However, I tend to disagree that these need to be disjoint and cannot be done simultaneously within a single framework. Eg. If I say that I ‘describe’ something as ‘bad’, then I believe that it is also my duty to give some approach to a ‘solution’ immediately, so as to make sure that the description does not take a severely pessimistic tone.

    So the idea is that the very act of giving a highly accurate description also helps us infer some possible prescriptions, because very insightful prescriptions can be discerned from the very act of prescription.

    About field work, incidentally, I have done ‘field work’ in India for an year! So I was just writing from my personal notes, because I have really done this work in a lot of detail in the state of UP.

    Thank you so much for your reference. I would definitely see if I can find something from this.

    As another note, the very emphasis on ‘data collection’ dissuades me somewhat from reading this reference, because I really believe that there is abundance of data on these issues available.

    What I was also trying to indicate in the later part of the post, and what I also truly believe is that most of this data is irrelevant, since the situation is fast fluctuating, hence say a 5 year old data become irrelevant very quickly and cannot be used for any meaningful discussion 5 year hence.

    Therefore, as I argued, the necessity of creating a model that has ‘predictive ability’, therefore sidelining the task of data collection and focusing on the ‘bigger’ and to my mind, harder ‘task’ of an ‘experiential framework’ which ‘approximately’ captures most of the issues.


  4. Sumeet Khullar August 19, 2010 at 10:43 am ·

    Your second comment was good (and gosh, fairly detailed :)

    Your point about the usage that is inadequate and faulty as well as potentially misleading is well taken!

    I will see if I can edit this, and definitely keep it in mind for the future posts!

  5. Vipul August 19, 2010 at 2:22 pm ·

    Dear Sumeet,

    I did not mean to say that *all* descriptive work must be done before prescription begins. Further, description includes both data and theory or models for secular trends.

    What I think is important is that the descriptive work be clearly reported so that people can figure out the basis for your prescriptions. In your case, you could use anecdotes and examples from your own work and other srces to clarify what you mean.

    There are lots of statistics on education and it would be good for you to reference them. I think that there is scope for collecting more, for reasons given below.

    Large scale statistics often under-count private unregistered schools, pay too much attention to tangibles such as building and playground size rather than intangibles such as teacher regularity and student ethusiasm, and are too often of little help in comparing any two specific approaches because they don’t have fine-grained information on student characteristics.

  6. Akshat Rathi August 19, 2010 at 5:49 pm ·

    It was a good read. Thanks for sharing your insights after a whole year of work. I look fwd to the rest of the posts on this topic.

    I could not help but not agree when you said
    a very strong economic progress can push a large section from part d) to part c) in another two decades, thus making the task of policy reform for schools in part (d) again pointless, because the economy is itself creating the transformation that policy makers would essentially be wasting their time trying to do.

    Any help done by policy reformers irrespective of the economic progress can only help speed up the transition. Thus, that work can never be a waste of time.

  7. Sumeet Khullar August 20, 2010 at 6:30 am ·

    Points taken.

    I agree that I should pay some more attention to the ‘fine-grained’ statistics that exist here, and that will make the description very precise and throw more insight into the problem.

    Thank you for you comment!

  8. Sumeet Khullar August 20, 2010 at 6:33 am ·


    Agreed with your point.

    Policy reform can speeden up the whole process. But again, the policy reformers and business should work in conjunction and not disjoint with each other. Sadly, many a times they are at loggerheads which is very disappointing, but still.

    What I was trying to say was that we need to make sure that the work is ‘joint and additive’.

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