One of the most significant contributions of the Government of National Capital Territory (GoNCT) to the national discourse has been pushing education as an electoral issue. It has achieved this feat by pitting government schools against private schools. We argue that this positioning is not only baseless but also dangerous to the larger goal of providing quality education for all. 

To be clear, this article is not a critique of the AAP government or its policies. Instead, we try to understand what the data on education does and does not tell us and examine the overall regulatory framework for private schools in Delhi. 

In the run-up to the Delhi elections, there was much discussion around the performance of Delhi government schools vis-a-vis private schools. Delhi government schools apparently “outperformed” private schools. As per the data available on the website of the Directorate of Education in Delhi, CBSE pass percentage for class XII in Delhi government schools and private schools for 2017-2018 was 90.64 and 89.38 respectively. Moreover, CBSE pass percentage for class X in Delhi government schools and private schools for 2017-2018 was 68.9 and 89.45 respectively.

Pass percentages are a problematic indicator of superior performance because they do not reflect actual learning outcomes. But even if government schools did outperform private schools in this aspect, was it value for money? 

As per the Economic Survey of Delhi (2019), per-child expenditure for government schools increased by 122.79% from 2013 to 2019 and was Rs 66,038 for 2018-2019. For the same academic year, we estimated median fee levels for private schools in Delhi as Rs 31, 625 based on a 10% cap on fee hikes for private schools (using Kingdon’s NSSO analysis, 2017). Government’s per-child expenditure is double that of private school fees. Therefore, while outcomes for both types of schools might be on par, they are delivered at widely different costs. 

Moreover, private schools in Delhi (and across India) operate in a regulatory environment riddled with obstacles. For instance, schools face substantial entry barriers in the form of restrictive ownership structures and input-centric norms for obtaining recognition. In Delhi, private schools have to obtain three certifications: Essentiality Certificate, approval for Scheme of Management and Certificate of Recognition (Centre for Civil Society 2019). 

What determines essentiality for a school is not clear. Instead, an order passed in 2000 requires district authorities to “specifically state whether or not the school serves a real need of the locality and also whether or not it is likely to affect adversely the enrolment in a nearby school which has already been recognized by the appropriate authority.” 

State Department functionaries also have the power to exercise discretion at other different regulatory touch-points such as fee regulation, inspections, and management of schools. Under Delhi School Education Act 1973,  an Administrator can take over the management of any school if they are satisfied that any school has “neglected to perform any of the duties imposed on it by or under this Act or any rule made thereunder and that it is expedient in the interests of school education.”

Such an uncertain regulatory environment is not conducive for private school operations, yet they continue to deliver results on par with those of government schools. This becomes a critical issue to resolve as parents are increasingly migrating to private schools in Delhi (Economic Survey 2019). But the GoNCT, since assuming reins, has created an “us” versus “them” discourse. The discussion is often around ‘sarkari bacche’ and ‘private bacche’. But in fact, as one of our friends said, sarkar ke bacche to hote hi nahi hai, sabhi bacche private hote hain (there are no children of the government, all children are private). 

What we should be discussing is the role of the government in education. While the primary responsibility of the government is to provide access to education for all children, we often neglect to check its responsibility to regulate education well. Private schools operate on an uneven playing field as the government regulates all schools and operates its own schools. We need to interpret private school performance with the knowledge that they function with one hand tied behind their backs.

Read more: Should Schools Waive Fees During Lockdown?