Once a fortnight, Bharati Prayag, a driver in New Delhi, used to
treat himself to a chicken curry and a quarter bottle of rum.
Earning a salary of 7,000 rupees ($144) a month and living in a
hovel far from his wife and three children back in Shivan, a village
in the state of Bihar, the curry and rum served to lift his spirits
But a year ago, his wife complained that the village school teacher
was frequently absent leaving the pupils with no proper instruction.
Knowing his children would have no future without an education,
45-year-old Prayag, now sends home 800 rupees ($16) every month to
pay for private tuition in maths and English for two of his
"I don't mind forgoing my little treat. Their future is more
important," he said.
Like millions of poor Indians, Prayag has to send his children to a
state school because it is free. But he knows the education they are
getting there is mediocre and must be supplemented by a private
Some Indians, both in villages and in urban slums, are so dismayed
at teacher absenteeism in state schools that they make huge
sacrifices to enrol their children in private schools.
A study conducted by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation
providing education to under-privileged children, found that 65 per
cent of slum schoolchildren in Hyderabad, south India, were
registered at private schools.
Mohammed Ansari, a farmer in Haryana, near New Delhi, says the
teacher at his son's school is sometimes absent for weeks on end.
"My son started school at [the age of] six. After three years, he
still couldn't write a sentence or do simple addition," said Ansari.
Education system criticised
The malaise runs deep and wide; while the poor are unhappy with
state schools and hire tutors for a basic education, the middle
class is unsatisfied with the education provided at the top private
The middle class hires private tutors to compensate for declining
teaching standards in private schools so that their children perform
well in exams and secure a place at a good university.
"The mismatch between demand and supply is crazy. The shortage means
that students have to score 95 per cent or more in their exams to
get admission in the university of their choice," said New Delhi
parent Anisa Tiwari.
Tiwari's son, Nishant, 20, secured a place last year at St Stephen's
College - an elite institution in New Delhi - largely because he
scored 97 per cent in his final maths exam.
"In India, if you don't get into a top university, you're wasting
your time. So you have to make that superhuman effort to score top
marks," Nishant said.
Despite being exceptionally bright, he had tutors throughout
secondary school to help him with maths, physics and chemistry.
A recent survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry
of India (Assocham) shows that middle class families spend one-third
of their income every month on private tuition.
The survey revealed that the use of private tutors has increased by
between 40 and 45 per cent in the last few years.
Maths and sciences
Assocham's interviews with 5,000 students and parents across 11
cities in India indicated that maths, physics and chemistry were the
main subjects for which tutors were needed.
"Many schools conveniently push the ball back to parents, to tell
them to engage private tutors for their kids. This is a serious
failure in the education system," says D S Rawat, Assocham's
The result is a parallel education system in India. More than 80 per
cent of tutors in the survey said that parents hired them to
compensate for the deficiencies of school education.
But Anuradha Awasti, a former maths teacher at Springdales School in
New Delhi, says that tutoring weakens the students' independence and
self-direct learning capabilities.
She believes private tutorship hinders a child's reasoning and
analytical abilities, and places too much emphasis on exams as
opposed to genuine learning.
"With a tutor around, children are being spoon-fed instead of
learning themselves and relying on their own resources and figuring
things out for themselves. Tutors are a crutch," Awasti told Al
Mohini Verma, an English teacher at Step-by-Step School just outside
Delhi, says a child's extra-curricular activities should include
time to play, daydream and relax.
"It saddens me that they have no space to breathe with all that
pressure from so early on," she said.
Just as Prayag's sons trudge 3km to their tutor's house in another
village, Akash Gupta, 12, is picked up each evening by the family
driver and taken across New Delhi in rush hour traffic to his maths
teacher's home in Saket.
He changes out of his uniform in the car and has a snack on the way.
"It's one of the best private schools in Delhi but the teaching is
pathetic. His teachers give him homework on subjects they haven't
covered properly in class so he can't do it alone," says Akash's
mother Neha, a graphic designer.
"I'm a working mother with little time, so I had to get a tutor."
Throughout urban India, on weekday evenings, a frenzied two-way
traffic takes place. Tutors on their humble scooters rush across
town to the homes of affluent children. If they cannot go to the
children, the children are ferried to their homes or to coaching
Centres with names such as The Cambridge School in New Delhi and The
Harvard Centre in Faridabad, just outside the capital, have sprung
up all over India. Every evening, hundreds of children troop through
the gates of these plush new buildings with air-conditioned rooms
and manicured lawns.
Education has always been highly prized by Indians, not so much for
its intrinsic worth but as the key to a better life.
However, just 20 years ago, engaging a tutor for your child was an
abnormality. Now, not having a tutor is a sign of parental
"You have the brightest students getting tutors to score good
grades. It's become a ubiquitous crutch. Parents feel secure and the
children also feel they have a safety net under them," child
psychiatrist Megna Kapoor tells me.
Race to university
July is a stressful month for students who have applied to
university. Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital, for example,
receives around 100,000 applications but accepts only 1,500.
At the hugely respected Indian Institute of Management, 70,000
students fight every year for 200 places. At St Stephen's College
12,000 applicants compete for 450 places.
Despite the fact that half of India's population is below the age of
25, the Indian government has not built a new university for 50
India has 338 government universities. A government commission
looking into the state of higher education said last month that it
needed 1,500 universities.
Kapil Sibal, India's education minister, has promised long overdue
root-and-branch reform of the educational system, saying it had to
be 'de-traumatised' for the sake of pupils and parents. He also
plans to encourage foreign universities to open shop in India to
alleviate the shortage of places.
He also wants the Grade 10 exam for 15-year-olds to emphasise
grading a pupil's work throughout the year so that the focus
switches from marks-based to knowledge-based learning.
Blaming absenteeism, laziness
But critics of the private tutor culture say lazy teachers and
mediocre teaching - even in some of the country's top private
schools - is to blame.
In state-owned rural schools, absentee teachers are virtually the
norm. In Bihar, where Prayag comes from, 40 per cent of all
schoolteachers are absent at any given time.
Instead of being in the classroom, they give private tuition to bump
up their government salaries.
Experts always point out that enrolling poor Indian children in
school is easy. Their parents prize education above all else. It is
keeping them in school that is difficult because of what they say is
mind-numbingly boring teaching.
"After a year or two, they drop out because it doesn't seem
worthwhile. If they aren't going to school, then their parents send
them out to earn to supplement the family income," says Mohini
Kapoor, an education consultant.
When Prayag's sons talked about dropping out of school in Shivan a
few years ago, he would have none of it and threatened to beat them.
"This is about their future," he said.
"Without maths and English they will never escape poverty."