India’s Invisible Classrooms

by Uzra Khan:

Fifteen-year-old Aarti Gupta (name changed upon request) attends the tenth grade at the well-reputed Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. Each Monday after school, she spends an hour and half with four others in a private Hindi tuition class. On Tuesdays, she passes an hour and a half in a group of six with a private math tutor, followed by a one-on-one chemistry tuition. Wednesdays, she and a friend take a private tuition for technical drawing, her elective subject. On Thursdays it’s math again, followed by group geography tuition. And on Sundays, it’s physics.

Students in India's government schools are turning to private tuitions to supplement their state-provided educations. (Courtesy World Bank/Creative Commons)

Does Aarti have difficulties learning? Quite to the contrary, she is consistently ranked in the top 10 in class, and was recently one of the few students in her grade to ace the school’s annual comprehensive math exam. Out of the 150 students in her grade, Aarti said, “I don’t know even one person who doesn’t take any private tuitions. Many take more than I do: in English, biology, history…”

Education for the Elite

Private tuition classes are now nothing less than a parallel industry to India’s education system. Tutors charge exorbitant fees. The yearly fee for each subject ranges from about $400 to $2,000, which in many cases is as much if not more than the fees for a semester at school. Many tutors ask for their fees in cash so that it remains untaxed, forming an invisible yet buzzing educational industry.

Some schoolteachers decide to start private tuition classes of their own, and those who do find that the latter is the main source of their income. “Teachers in schools in India are paid peanuts for what they offer,” said Abbas Darbar, a private math tutor who prepares between 70 and 80 students a year.

The educational system in India, private and public, focuses on an external examination after the tenth grade and another after the twelfth grade. Scores in these examinations are everything, and the competition is fierce. The difference between a 96 and a 95 could mean the difference between a good college and a mediocre college. Private tutors guarantee good scores in final examinations. Parents now see it as their responsibility to enroll their children in private tuitions as much as it is their responsibility to educate them.

Private tutors blame the educational system’s inadequacies. “At least for the subject I teach, the schools in Mumbai do not have qualified teachers,” said Nina Dandekar, a private geography tuition teacher who used to be a schoolteacher. In a tuition class, teachers can give the students the individual attention that the 40 to 50-student classrooms lack. “Competition and expectations have never been higher than they are today. Indian schools have too many children and not enough resources to be student-centric. In our tuitions we are able to build a rapport with our students, and give them the individual attention they need,” said Darbar.

Although the flaws in the education system and genuine weakness in certain subjects may have started the private tuition phenomenon, it has now become a deep-rooted part of the Indian psyche — leading even the brightest students to take tuitions in several subjects at a time. Soonoo Kapadia, a schoolteacher of English, said, “I don’t blame the system at all. It is just a mentality of wanting to be spoon-fed; tuitions are becoming the alternative to students putting themselves out and asking for help.”

School administrations frown upon private tuitions, and students are usually uncomfortable admitting that they are enrolled in them for a variety of reasons — the foremost being that they degrade the quality of classroom learning. Mehak Chadha, an IB student at The Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai, said, “I pay attention in all my classes, except those for which I take tuitions, like math.” Teachers, too, feel that there is less incentive for them to put so much effort into teaching. “We are trying to teach them how to walk, but in tuitions, they are learning to walk on crutches,” said Adarsh Wadhwa, a schoolteacher in accounting in Mumbai.

For some, tuitions have become a status symbol. To spend large amounts on many private tuitions for one’s child is seen as a hallmark of good parenting. Many of these tuitions are arguably unnecessary. As Kapadia said, “It is one thing to have help in a subject like math if you are having difficulty in it. But for a bright, fluent English-speaking child to be taking English tuitions — it is just absurd!”

Many students claim that the tuitions, especially those conducted in larger groups, don’t help them much. Their parents nevertheless insist that they enroll in order to keep up with the Joneses, or the Patels, as the case may be. The irony is that several group tuition classes have now become a place for social gatherings, complete with close friends, snacks, and chatter. When children realize that all their friends are enrolled in tuitions, opting out of private classes means missing out on the fun. The social pull of tuitions further reinforces the destructive cycle, weakening the quality of formal schooling and channeling more students into private lessons.

Education for the Poor

So are private tuitions a money-spinning industry out to swindle the blindly competitive, rich parents at private schools? Not at all. The malaise runs far and deep. At the opposite end of the spectrum, municipal schools across India also have a parallel private tuition industry. Madhu Solanki, who earns $3 a day washing clothes and cleaning floors for a household in Mumbai, saved her money so she could enroll her daughter, who was at a free government school, in private tuitions that cost her $10 a month. “Of course I had to,” she said. “How could she have done it all on her own?”

While tuitions at elite private schools are motivated more by competitiveness, tuitions at municipal schools arise out of inability of the government of India to adequately staff public schools with qualified teachers — the heart of India’s educational crisis.

Meera Isaacs, principal of the Cathedral and John Connon School, told the story of three children of about nine years old attending a municipal school in Ulhasnagar, near Mumbai. “Their grades had been sent to us each year from the school, but I don’t know what those were based on, because after three years [of schooling], when I met them, they didn’t even know the letters of the alphabet! The quality of education in those schools is just appalling.”

The Pratham Foundation, an NGO providing education to underprivileged children, found that nationally, between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of children enrolled in private tuitions increased for every class in both government and private schools.

Indians of all social classes want desperately to see their children pull ahead in life. This, combined with the widespread belief that private tuitions must complement schooling, has sparked a tuition craze at both ends of India’s socioeconomic spectrum. From the skyscrapers of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, to slums like Dharavi and villages in West Bengal, this industry is growing each year in India.

Looking ahead

Will it ever stop? After all, 20 years ago, the phenomenon was not nearly as widespread as it is today. India has seen a time without private tuitions. It is unlikely, however, to return to that time in the near future.

Educational reform is a slow process. Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for education, spoke in 2009 of his vision of doing away with point scores on public examinations, perhaps even making the external examination system optional. These will be important changes but are unlikely to take place soon. In municipal schools, NGOs like Pratham and movements like Teach for India — the Indian version of Teach for America — are trying to improve the quality of education, but again, this will take time.

While these reforms fitfully attempt to improve the education system, the number of people competing for a good education and high scores in exams is multiplying manifold. “In Eastern cultures, education is the only key that can unlock a successful future, for there are no safety nets of adequate social security later,” said Isaacs. As India bursts at the seams with people trying to unlock success, its flawed education system is being held up, and at the same time, eaten away at, by the industry of private tuitions.

Uzra Khan ’12 is a Psychology and International Studies major in Trumbull College. Contact her at