Tuition culture

Print edition : November 06, 2009

A private tuition session in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The practice is now so widespread that not going for private tuition is seen as something abnormal.-G. MOORTHY

ONE of the more remarkable features of our education system is the way it has allowed and even encouraged the proliferation of private tuition outside the regular school system. This is something relatively unique to India, as it is not found to this extent even in countries where education is completely commercialised and privatised, such as Singapore.

The practice has become so widespread that no one even thinks that it is a concern. The very ubiquity of the activity puts pressure on children and parents to participate in it for fear that avoiding it will have adverse consequences on performance. Newspapers and handbills in urban areas regularly advertise the merits of tutorial colleges. Those who succeed in competitive examinations and in school board examinations proudly thank these teaching shops or their individual tutors when they are interviewed by the media.

This is not a phenomenon confined to the rich or the middle classes. It seems that even in less-privileged circumstances, the pressures to send children for private tuition are just as great, if not greater. Survey data show that even children from poor households, in both urban and rural areas, regularly take private tuition, especially at the higher levels of schooling and for competitive examinations.

There are numerous cases where schoolteachers themselves egg parents on to send their children for separate and paid tuitions. Where these classes are conducted by the teachers themselves, there is a direct conflict of interest, but the incentives are substantial in terms of less pressure of teaching at school.

In cities and towns across the country, children regularly sit down with private tutors, either in their own homes or in the teachers homes. They typically pay much more than the regular school fees for such tuition. The practice is now so widespread that among the elite and the middle classes not going for tuition is seen as abnormal. Even among poor families, parents are under tremendous pressure to send their children for private tuition once they start lagging behind in school.

This is something that is evident in urban India, especially among middle-class households, where children are geared from an early age to prepare for competitive examinations for admission into professional courses. But the urge to invest in private tuition and the growing dependence of pupils upon it seem to have spread even to rural areas.

Thus, the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2007, brought out by the Pratham Foundation, found that at least one-quarter of all pupils in elementary schools in rural India rely on private tuition in addition to attending classes at school. The problem is apparently most acute in West Bengal, where the survey found that more than 80 per cent of middle-school pupils in rural West Bengal were taking private tuition.

It is argued that this points to the poor quality of education in government schools, which forces children to go for private tuition. But this cannot be the main reason because the same survey found that the practice is just as prevalent among children of private schools. Indeed, in rural West Bengal the survey found the incidence of private tuition to be slightly higher among private school children in the lower grades and in Class VIII. The heavy reliance on private tuition in West Bengal probably reflects social attitudes that affect both parents and children.

The situation in the urban areas of the State, though not as well documented, is probably even more intense. For instance, a 2006 study by the Pratichi Trust of government-run primary schools in Kolkata found that the number of pupils of these schools taking private tuition was more than that in the ASER 2007 survey. It was 73 per cent in schools run by the Kolkata District Primary School Corporation (KDPSC), 41 per cent in schools run by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and 50 per cent in the Shishu Shiksha Kendras (SSKs) of Kolkata. It is likely that the ratios are similar, if not higher, for urban children attending private schools.

The dominance of private tuition may reflect a peculiar academic culture where competitive pressure and high aspirations combine to create a milieu in which tuition is seen as a minimal requirement for any kind of academic achievement. Several surveys have found the performance of primary schoolchildren who did not go for tuition to be slightly poorer than those who did, but the difference in performance is not very large. At higher grades, the problem is self-reinforcing because teachers assume that their pupils go for such tuition and change their teaching methods accordingly.

This practice will be difficult to uproot simply because of the widespread acceptance, and even complicity, of all those involved. As a professor in a reputed college in Kolkata remarked, We are all like the characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. As a teacher I am against those colleagues of mine who indulge in private tuition. But as a parent I send my son to private tutors. I think all of us teachers and parents have to rectify ourselves first. (The Times of India, June 21, 2001)

Yet, it is a problem that must be addressed because it has many negative effects. Dependence on private tuition may even be the most important feature militating against better quality in the school system, causing parents to expect and demand less in terms of actual teaching at school and reducing the incentives for teachers within the school as well.

In addition, private tuition is obviously deeply inequalising because better-off parents are able to afford better tuition or even afford it at all. And it places a significant additional financial burden on parents even when the actual school education is ostensibly free. The Pratichi Trust study found that the average additional cost per child for private tuition was more than Rs.1,000 a year even at the primary level. Even at the SSKs for the less-privileged groups, the average expenditure per child on tuition was more than Rs.850.

Significantly, even poor households in slum areas were found to be making resources available for such tuition for their children, often by restricting the consumption of necessities. As a result, even when it is officially free, school education is effectively no longer free even for poor families in backward rural areas or urban slums

There have been public interventions designed to combat this tendency. For instance, in West Bengal, where the problem is especially acute, in 2001 the State government banned private tuition by full-time teachers in government and government-aided institutions from the primary to the university level. It also promised to take the necessary legal steps to ensure the ban was enforced. This ban was supported by the teachers associations as well. However, even the most recent survey evidence indicates the persistence of widespread dependence on private tuition.

But in other cases, even governments at the Centre and in the States connive explicitly or implicitly with the system of private tutoring. It is well known that almost all, if not absolutely all, successful candidates in entrance examinations for professional courses and the civil services have been through some private preparatory course. There are even scholarships for students from marginalised groups, such as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled tribes, and Muslims and others, to help them attend such tuition classes. While the aim (increasing the access of such groups to higher education or the civil services) may be benevolent, this amounts to an official confession that private tuition is a necessary requirement for success.

Obviously, if this situation is to change, more than legal measures are needed. A complete overhaul of not just the school system but even more importantly the school board examination system and competitive examinations is called for. Even this may not be enough because, as the professor in Kolkata noted, we first have to change ourselves.

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