The Real Lesson of Kendriya Vidyalayas

A couple of years back, at a blog meet, I was having a discussion with Anand, who used to blog at locana. He was trying to defend government schools. His defence went: “Not all government schools are bad. I went to one myself. Ok, it was a government school at a campus that was filled with professors, but still…”

I sputtered a bit but never got a chance to complete my response in the din of the meet. This post at Nanopolitan reminded me of that conversation. This is as good a time as any for a response, I suppose.

People argue that private schools will serve only the rich and never provide the same quality to the poor. When faced with evidence that government schools also provide good quality only to the rich and neglect to serve the poor, their views undergo a fascinating inversion. The success of private schools for the rich is evidence that they will serve only the rich. The success of government schools for the rich is evidence that hope is on the way for the poor.  

Nonsense.  Rich parents will demand, and get, good education for their children whether they go to private schools or government schools. If you set up a government school in an IAS officers’ colony, it will probably be among the best in India. If a teacher skips classes, or if there is peeling plaster or if there is a shortage of chalk to write on blackboards, a few phone calls to the appropriate authorities will be made and appropriate action will be taken. It is precisely when government services need to reach people who do not have access to these levers of power that there is a problem.

In fact, opponents of private schools never tire of reminding us that the reason private schools will not work (even with vouchers) is that the poor have little knowledge to evaluate the schools and are not empowered enough to demand better services from them. Won’t the same problems afflict government schools?

The market has a mechanism by which private schools will improve. We supporters of private schools claim that competition among schools will force them to improve in quality and reduce their costs. The market will educate, not just children, but also parents. Schools will advertise their quality, forced to copy one another’s best practices, and parents will talk to each other about the education their children are getting. No one expects this process to be quick, easy or painless. Along the way there will be many bad and dishonest schools, and many children will get sub-standard education. Opponents of private schools are so terrified that some children will get a sub-standard education that they are perfectly willing to condemn them to no education. The government’s zeal in shutting down unrecognized schools is matched only by its apathy towards actually improving government schools. 

The solution, according to opponents of private schools, is to empower parents, so that they will demand and get better government schools. This is a rather severe case of deceptive advertising. The problem is that the market process is long, messy and untested. If you are going to advertise an alternative, you shouldn’t conceal the fact that your alternative will take just as long if not longer, will be just as messy  if not messier and has been tried with no sign of it working.

Advocates of government schooling who recognise this problem have another solution to this. They say, let’s force everyone, not just the poor, to attend government schools. That way, the rich will be be forced to put pressure on the government to improve schools. Anand’s experience, our experiences with Kendriya Vidyalayas and with IITs tell us why this is a fallacious argument. If the rich are forced to use government services, they will force the government to improve the services that are provided to the rich.  And while they are at it, they will vote themselves a nice subsidy to themselves out of funds meant for the poor.

12 thoughts on “The Real Lesson of Kendriya Vidyalayas

  1. Nice post. Just to add a small post, when i joined eleventh standard in a matric school, all the good students from various pvt schools joined in. But it was the KV students who topped at last. I always used to wonder how this was possible, as it happens every year there. So,where ever competitive atmosphere prevails, the students tend to do well, looks like. Be it govt or private. In fact there is one country which has an excellent record of the public schools giving excellent education – France. We must learn from them.

  2. Wow, this is a really impressive post. It completely demolishes any arguments put forward towards government schooling.

  3. I see merits in both forms and don’t think one is theoretically better than the other [like you are saying].

    If you are trying to tell us that private education has a better chance of achieving quality (thank Govt.), I’m afraid you haven’t completed your argument. I re-read this post a couple of times checking if you have some great point hidden somewhere but found none.

    You think competition will improve quality of education provided by private schools eh?? May I ask how? The utopia you have talked about in para 6 of your post is nowhere close to reality.

    In any case, I think this is a debate that needs to consider far more complex issues than the rather trivial ones that you have considered in your post.

  4. Swami, my post wasn’t supposed to be a full-scale case for private schooling. It is a criticism of one particular argument. For a full argument, please visit

    There have been studies conducted that show that poor children who attend unrecognized private schools get better education than those who attend government schools. There are studies that show that poor people send their children to private schools as soon as they begin to afford it.

    Note that it is extraordinarily difficult to actually start a private school in India. So we do not actually see the benefits of competition.

    Also, when I see that one side provides argument and the other side responds with “we need more evidence”, I know which side to support, whether it is on evolution or in education.

  5. Destination Infinity has a point. I have noticed the best professional colleges in India filled with students from KV (and some private schools catering to middle class students) and very few from the elite schools (where I suppose they provide the “best” education) and rural schools. I think it has to do with middle class values and an education system biased towards a certain medium of education (English language, importance given to entrance tests etc).

    One of the most important factors for uplifting the poor has been the provision of a way for the poor to mingle with other people who are better off. Mixing poor students with the children of the middle class and the rich has been found useful. In the US, for college education controlling for SAT score and other factors it has been found that it doesn’t matter where a person graduated from. But studying in an Ivy League helps those from a poor background than those of the middle class and the upper class. The reason given is that those contacts made in such elite schools stands in good stead for these poor graduates while for the others it makes no difference because they already had those connections. I remember as study with similar finding at the school level in the US. So there is an argument for government-imposed mixing of students from different backgrounds. This happens to some extent in KV where children of different government servants (at all levels and not just IAS officers), military personnel and private individuals with connections study together.

    What a private system would do is balkanize society further. The children of the rich would study in prep schools, those a little less rich will be in their own schools and the poor in totally different schools. I have already noticed a bit of this in Delhi where children in rich people’s school are infused with western values in a western-style education system and the poor study in me-too schools never reach the quality of these elite school or even that of KVs.

    You are right about parents demanding good education and getting it. But then in general KVs in the south are better run than those in the north. There are so many factors that a simple private system will not work. Also, it is easy to say that there will be mistakes on the way. If that mistake happened to you, you wouldn’t be so positive about this who utopian fantasy of yours. Life has turned out well for you. Others may not share your positivism.

  6. HiAgain,

    children who go to the most elite schools will probably go directly to universities in Australia/ the US/ the UK which they can afford instead of bothering with the stress and rigmarole of admission to professional colleges in India. Professional tertiary education in India attracts the children of those who are rich enough to afford school and coaching without worrying about the opportunity loss of a working child, while being low-quality enough to ensure that the children of the truly rich are shipped off to the West for their education.

  7. Continuing from the last comment.

    Therefore, the subpar quality of Indian tertiary education is what ensures that it is geared to access by the middle middle class and the lower middle class rather than the truly rich.

  8. Aadisht, my opinions are based on what I has been seen over two or more decades and not the recent influx of Indian students all over the world. Also, I am referring to the rich in smaller cities and towns of India.

    Also, children of the truly rich who move out to the West for education generally get stuck there (not all but I know many), thus making way for government-subsidized middle class graduates a take over the helm like the ones from IIMs. What bothers me is that the same people who were the biggest beneficiaries of government subsidies want to kick away the ladder they used so that others are in a sink-or-swim situation.

    You are right that tertiary education is geared towards the whiny chattering middle class who have the real vocal and voting power in India (which brings us to Nilu’s point). They didn’t achieve any of it through phone calls from IAS officers. Good examples of these are IITs and IIMs. Again why are IIMs not mentioned in this indirect attack on the IAS, KVs and even IIT. Surely, the IIMs fit in somewhere in the great big bad world of gubmint services/institutions.

  9. HiAgain,

    vocal though the middle class might be, I don’t see where it has voting influence. The middle class moves elections in a vanishingly small number of urban constituencies, if at all.

    Also, where tertiary professional education is concerned, they don’t need to capture college seats through phone calls to IAS officers. As I mentioned in my first comment, the mere fact that they are middle class and can afford to send their kids to Kota for coaching helps. For non-professional university courses, and school education in a vast number of ‘reputed’ private schools whose trustees are usually a collection of politicians, bureaucrats, and retired army officers, government contacts are extremely helpful.

    Also, what are the IITs and IIMs good examples of?

  10. Hi,

    I don’t think I have enough knowledge to comment on this article I just want to equire something from you (just for my knowledge)

    1. Can only children of Central Govt Employee take admission in Kendriya Vidhyalaya ?

    2. Why Kendriya Vidhyalaya are better than Govt Schools ?

    3. If Yes why Govt is not so concerned about Govt Schools ?

    4. Inspite of a Govt institutions Why IIT and IIm are scoring better (or a dream place to take admission) ? Is this just because of fees they are charging (I know still it is lesser than private institutions)

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