Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Where are the good public schools in Inda? Why do people like Gurcharan Das ignore them?

Columnists such as Gurcharan Das keep telling us that our public schools are a mess. Are they, really? Are there counterexamples to this assertion? There certainly are, and they are called Kendriya Vidyalayas. As a group, these schools (together with Jawahar Vidyalayas) do even better than private schools in the examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Evidently, there are some things that are being done right in these schools that are not done well in so many other public schools being run by the state governments. What might they be?

Whatever they are, centralization is not one of them. All the KVs -- some 860 of them! -- belong to one monolithic organization: the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, headquartered in Delhi. With that out of the way, let me offer two possibilities that could explain the difference between KVs and other public schools. The first is financial resources: All KVs have pretty good -- not fancy, but adequate -- infrastructure: classrooms, blackboards, desks, labs, playgrounds, play kits, etc. Oh, yes, they also have separate toilets for boys and girls! And, yes, teachers show up for work every day! At the state-level public schools, particularly in rural areas, some (or all!) of these resources are missing.

Clearly, KVs command a lot of resources that other schools can only dream of. This is mainly because of their mandate: they are meant primarily for children of Central Government employees who keep getting transferred all over India, sometimes in the middle of the school year. Their admission policies reflect this mandate; they have a detailed priority list describing who has a higher claim to a KV seat than the others. "Outsiders" can claim only those places that are left out after taking care of children of employees of armed forces and central government ministries and departments. The competition for these limited number of left-over seats is very intense, indeed.

This line of reasoning leads us to the second factor: stake-holder interest. This interest is largely hidden from the public eye. It erupts only when something negative happens to the KVs. For example, if the general funding level (and therefore, quality level) goes down, the government will have a revolt on its hands from its army of bureaucrats and clerks and peons!

One of the things that infuriate me about Gurcharan Das and his ilk is the fact that they dismiss oh-so-casually all our public schools without looking into the differences among them, and the underlying causes for these differences. In their zeal for privatized education (and its public support through a voucher program), they use a very broad brush to tar the entire public school system.

* * *

Kuffir offers a different line of criticism for this privatized education scheme:

every time i read choice in this debate over schooling in india, about different schools for different classes, i hear caste, and i hear different schools for different castes. and i think: why don't we carry this idea forward, why don't we have different nations for different castes?

i've seen mr.gurcharandas arguing on talk shows on reservations and couldn't help thinking: he should visit india some time. and find out how a dalit is different from a kamma. or a kammari. or a kurmi. or how yechury yesobu can't be sitaram yechury. and why they both need to go to the same school.

I certainly see this as a very serious problem with privatized school system: disparities are inherent in this market-led scheme. In the public school system, one can think of corrective mechanisms which can minimize these disparities. The present disparities between KVs and the other public schools tell us the direction in which our government ought to move; it is the job of politics -- us, really -- to find a possible way forward. It's a pity that folks like Das are unwilling to participate in the debate about how to improve our public school systems.

* * *

In a pretty comprehensive post, Dweep Chandana "evaluates if education is also amenable to privatization," and tests the underlying assumptions behind the assertions of superiority of privatized education. Privatization enthusiasts are not going to be happy at all with his conclusions!

The preceding [analysis] suggests that a private system is not a sufficient condition to better quality and access. Is it, however, a necessary condition? Or, is there another way of solving the problem through a public system?

There is no better argument that the same results are possible from a public system than China. [...]


  1. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abi,

    If only left over seats are offered to public in KVs then how can you call them public schools. I do not reckon KVs as public schools at all. They are schools created for central government employees, in essence.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I think KVs function better when so called well educated middle class people send their kids there. The thrust here is on the surveillance or some short of accountability is there. There are also many vernacular medium public schools, which are performing quiet better, even in rural areas. But the problem starts, when the educated middle class starts thinking that private schools better and send their kids there. Off course other problems are there like infrastructure, attendance of teachers etc. But these things can be easily taken care off. Due to the above mentioned reasons KVs are functioning better say the one at IITB campus (Where many faculties and Staffs send their kids) but not so well at some other places, say one in the JNU campus(Where I don’t think any profs sending their kids), no doubt it must be better as compare to a public school in a rural area.
    Am I making too generalized statements?

  3. Anonymous said...

    Agree with anonymous, but you cannot argue about the quality of education there..its good for sure. But if KVs are opened to public will the quality go down ?

  4. Anonymous said...

    Yeah the question about getting the seat in the school is very important. My dad worked in a govt organization with trafereable job and so all of us (my 2 sis and my bro) got into KVs whereever we go.

    Today I work in private organization although my heart tells me that I should get my kid intoo a KV but the system wont allow me to do so.What to do? I have to put the child in a "fancy" school where pony riding is taught as a hobby :-(.

    Last but not the least I loved all the KVs I studied in and I am very proud about it :-).

  5. Anonymous said...

    Abi, great post. And I feel your frustration!

    FYI, do we/will we have similar data on the 2008 results?

  6. Sharad said...

    Hi Abhi,

    I think you are generalizing when you say KVs are well run. I grew up Varanasi, where there were 3 KVs, one in the BHU campus, another in the Diesel Locomotive Works campus and another in the Army Cantonment. The BHU KV (where I went) had very poor facilities - mostly broken windows, antiquated furniture, stinky/dirty toilets and a general run-down atmosphere. The teachers, well they were well qualified on paper, but their commitment levels and teaching qualities were highly erratic. And there was considerable gunda gardi. From what I remember, K V DLW was very similar. Only, the cantonment KV was better maintained - pehaps because it was inside the Army's campus.

    I think the reasons for the KV's performing reasonably OK has a lot to do with the socio-economic backgrounds of their familes. Most are middle class children whose parents are central government employees.

    Perhaps, the state and other government schools are run much worse. But, using the KVs as an example of well-run central govt. public schools is a stretch, in my opinion.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Abi, quality of KV depends on where it's located and the quality is uneven even within the same city, so I can't say it's a good model to follow. Also, here's my personal do-paisa worth of anecdote: I attended a KV for about 10 years and noticed that students with well-educated, middle-class parents like mine were treated better by the teachers and received reasonable encouragement and help. Students whose parents were less well-off or uneducated were largely ignored. They got away with it because there was no accountability. If you want KVs to be a model, that situation has got to change.

  8. Anonymous said...

    First, as the original commentator noted, the Kendriya Vidyalayas are not really "public": they are meant children of Government employees. As such, there is a "selection bias" here in that the students who attend those schools are not a random selection of school-going children. The bias is such that it is not *that* surprising children attending those schools do well. Secondly, in many cases, the children of the teachers in those schools attend the schools as well. This provides a good incentive for the teachers. How many cases do you think there are where children of teachers in the general public schools attend those schools as well?

    Thirdly, as yet another commentator noted, not all KVs function well. If I had to take a guess, it would be ones where there are enough "upper" class students attending those schools.

    You might want to note this anecdote, told by my sister who teaches at JNU. In one case, she went along to the local KV to help her domestic help get admission for her daughter. She managed to do it - but mind you, had to jump through a number of hoops - typical bureaucratic runaround. So I asked my sister whether the faculty members at JNU send their children to the KV. The answer: of course not! They send their children to schools with names like Springdales, Delhi Public School, Loretto Convent etc. etc. where they can learn, among other things, French as a second language and know how *not* to speak in Hindi or the local language. Can the KV offer that?

    Another anecdote concerning the same KV adjoining JNU. Apparently another faculty member also went to help - who else? his domestic help - get his child get admitted to the KV. The Principal said, that of course, we will admit the child but we would be even more happy if you send your child to our school!

    Last, but not least, what is the fraction of KVs as a proportion of the public schools? I think very little. I think Gurcharan Das categorization of our public schools as a mess is more-or-less right. Pointing to a few exceptions - which in the case of the KVs are not even that for reasons indicated above - doesn't change that picture.

    Best regards,


  9. Vijay Ramamurthi said...

    i dont know where ur from but KVS ARE NOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS!!!!!

  10. Anonymous said...


    We are stuck with British terminology, hence your confusion. In Britain - in the era of totally private education - some private schools were called "public schools" because they would accept anyone willing to pay the fees the schools demanded. This was in contrast to some other private schools which would discriminate on the basis of religion (Protestant/Catholic) or class. In India, some private schools adopted the British terminology (think of "Delhi Public School" and the like).

    As Abi uses the term, "public schools" refers to schools run by the government and open to all. True, even by this definition, KVs are not "public" since there is a sort of priority system at work whereby children of government employees get first preference and anyone else gets admission only if there are vacant places. Anyway, hope this clears the terminology a little bit.

  11. AMODINI said...

    I've studied in KVs all over the place, and the facilities were, as you say, just about "adequate" as compared to the Convent schools I've been in. The libraries for one thing, were extremely poorly stocked. There was no fancy-shmancy stuff (we learnt Sanskrit, not French), although we did have the basic sports/lab facilities etc. , and at that time barely a handful of computers for the entire school. And those PCs were such hallowed machines that only the teachers were allowed to "operate" them :-)

    I do think that KV standards are better because of the crowd that goes into them - kids of mostly well-educated, English speaking and generally well-off parents. Some teachers were good, but some were pretty pathetic - the kinds that wouldn't have been allowed to teach in the more "expensive" schools. So I don't think the GOI is doing something exceptional here - it's the parents who are well-informed and involved.

  12. Nikhil Narayanan said...

    Hi Abhi
    I can vouch for KVs. I did my schooling , the whole of it I mean in a KV. 12 years in a KV was indeed an amazing experience.
    KV taught me some skills, I would have never learnt anywhere (may be Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan)...like stiching,candle making,chalk making,iron box repairing,hanger making(wardrobe) as part of SUPW.
    Trust me, I would not mind mending a button myself, thanks to this. Not that I did make candles or chalk after that, but a horse riding you can learn later. After a point one would be inhibited to learn vocational skills unless you land in a polytechnic, which anyways is not a favourite of any student.

    The teachers were so loving, caring....through out my life there. They knew they were being paid less that their private school counterparts, but I found them to be dedicated.

    I have had classes underneath trees, not because of lack of infrastructure but because teachers loved to do such things.
    Infrastructure, our class has some 12 tubelights and 6 fans if I remember correctly, more than needed I would say.
    Yes, we did have separate loos for the girls and boys.

    Carnatic music was taught in school. Art, sports and games were also was on offer for the interested guys.
    The library was decent for that age and they had the funds to get any book that I asked for.

    My school was in a cantonment area so most of the students were from Defense background.
    May be the only place where students mingle across socio economic backgrounds, kids of colonels and majors would be pally with kids of a jawan. Where else can such a thing happen?

    Excellence, a criterion to judge the school was moderate, thanks to no filtering based on academic credentials.
    So some students were weak, and the doors of the school were open for them if they came in via a transfer.

    The sense of Indianness was developed in me (that being one of the missions of a KV http://kvsangathan.nic.in/mission1.aspx)

    and I made friends from across India..

    I did go to one of the best engineering colleges in India after my school (NIT Warangal)
    I don't care if I don't know horse riding or to play golf. There is still time to learn.

    Taking a bow to all the KVs


  13. Nikhil Narayanan said...

    Jus an addition

    KVs are of 3 types:
    and PSU/Project

    The admission patterns differ and NOT necessarily defence kids come as the first priority


  14. Dr.Bhargava said...

    If KVs are not public schools as they give preferential admission to children of Central Govt employees, consider Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalas which offer admission to the general public.

    There is one Jawahar Navodaya Vidyala in every district

    Through a MCQ test, only 80 students are selected from one district every year. So there is a selection bias. Students are screened at the point of entry.

    Only 40 students per class room

    Dormitory, mess, class rooms and yes toilets, 33 acre campus.

    Govt picks up complete bill for food, uniform, notebooks, text books.

    Other govt schools (and many private schools) come nowhere close to this.

    I cant imagine the GOI rolling out such schools by the millions to cover the whole country any time in the near future.