The post-MDG development agenda recognises that simply getting children enrolled in school does not equate with better learning outcomes for children. Globally, there is an ‘education, learning and skills crisis’ with vast numbers of children unable to read or do basic maths after several years of schooling. A focus on improving the quality of schooling is essential, but little is known about what parents perceive as a good school. As they are the key decision-makers when selecting schools for their children, it is important to know what they define as quality in schools.
This paper is based on analysis of in-depth interviews with parents of children aged 9-10 years in Andhra Pradesh. The intention was to explore parents’ perceptions of the changing education sector in Andhra Pradesh, and the factors that affect their decision-making about school choice and change. The paper explores these questions through the lens of school choice (i.e. perceptions of state schools compared with private schools). The findings are likely to resonate with parents in similar settings around the world.
1. Parents have a broad understanding that good teaching involves ‘caring’ about children’s education, and ‘taking care’ of pupils. This includes some very basic points, from teachers being present in the classroom, being well qualified, making sure children are attending school, telling parents if they are not, being kind to children, and providing guidance to children in relation to manners. ‘Care’ may equate with teachers disciplining children, sometimes using corporal punishment, which is expected and considered acceptable by some parents so long as it does not constitute serious physical assault (and despite being illegal). The quality of infrastructure (that is, school buildings, toilets, playgrounds, and so on) was mentioned by some parents but was not an over-riding concern.
2. Parents were (mostly) dissatisfied with Government provision. Parents complained about Government school teachers not caring about children, being absent frequently, being distracted, not caring whether children attended school or not, not caring whether children were fed good food, and not communicating with parents. Some parents felt Government schools were getting worse. Some parents complained about very large class sizes in Government schools, especially when teachers were absent.
3. Some parents expressed concern about private schools too, but feel they have the right to complain because they pay fees. Parents realised that private schools were not necessarily of high quality, and were resigned to having to overlook shortcomings in both systems. However, they did feel able to complain about quality of teaching in private schools in ways that parents of children in Government schools did not.
4. Parents want children to be taught English which means paying to go to private schools. English-medium instruction is highly desirable for children’s future prospects and an important marker of a good quality school, and a key reason why parents chose private schools. However, there was scepticism that English was really being taught effectively.
5. Quality is a central consideration when parents choose schools, but how parents determine quality differs greatly. Some parents rely on relatives’ opinions when finding out about schools, some mentioned the importance of being able to call teachers to account, others mentioned assessing school quality by the marks their children received, and some (educated) parents may assess child’s reading abilities independently.
6. Parents complained about lack of accountability of teachers in Government schools. Parents felt able to complain about teachers in private schools because they pay fees, while they do not feel able to complain to teachers in Government schools. There was a difference between more affluent parents in the urban community the researchers visited, and poorer parents in rural areas – more affluent parents seemed more proactive and confident in engaging with teachers and headteachers.
7. Parents choose which child to send privately, depending not only on their perceptions of the quality of schooling on offer, but also on the characteristics of each child. If there are several children in a household, poor parents may choose to send children they think will benefit from private school but won’t waste money on children who they feel may not learn or study well. Gender may play a role here, as well as birth order, with an older son being felt to be ‘worth’ educating in a private school.
This paper was written as a background paper for the Save the Children report on The Right to Learn: Community Participation in Improving Learning.