What we learned from 1000+ children in urban low-cost private schools in India

1 year 10 months ago

The world is facing a global learning crisis. There are 250 million children in developing countries who go to school but aren’t learning the basics.

At vChalk we are part of the movement that seeks to address this problem and achieve the new Sustainable Development Goal for education by 2030. 

During August-September, we interacted with 1,068 children in 11 schools, out of which 919 children in grades 3rd to 5th in 9 English medium schools with fees between INR 6,000 to 18,000 per year (approx. USD 100 – 300/year) across Bangalore city and peripheral areas. 

A few lessons from our experience so far:

  1. Numbers of children who can’t read or do basic number operations are worryingly high across urban low-cost schools  

In assessing the children, our team instructed students in one college in Bangalore on how to interact with the children using standard tools (please see the test tools in Note 1). Each person spent at least 5-10 minutes with each child, outside the classroom. Our results for the 919 primary grade children in urban low-cost schools are bellow: 

English test results: only 60.8% of all children in 3rd to 5th grade can read a 2nd grade level English story. 19.4% of them are only able to read 1st grade sentences. This means more than 39.2% of all these children are 1 to 4 years behind in English reading.

Starting in November we will further understand children's ability to comprehend what they read.  

Math test results: only 67.7% of all children in 3rd to 5th grade can solve a simple subtraction like 51-35. This means that 32.3% of them are 1 to 3 years behind in basic Math. 

2. First generation learners in English don't get enough of parents’ support in learning - a fact easy to understand if we step in parents' shoes 

We asked all children about their parents’ occupation and how many years their parents studied. Most of the fathers in our sample are auto-rickshaw drivers while most of the mothers are tailors or housewives. If they went to school, most of these parents never reached or passed 10 grades in a government school (where education is in local language). The average monthly income of these families is estimated at INR 20,000 (approx. USD 330). 

From interacting with parents themselves, we learned they do their best: work hard the entire day, pay for schooling and even pay for tuition classes after school. Mothers are the key figures who assist the child in learning but, just as the tuition teacher, they focus on completing the homework for the class next day. In the mother-child interaction, the communication happens in mother tongue, not in English.

3. Teachers and school leaders try to do their best in their context - lack of know-how to support all children

Unlike government schools across India where teachers are comfortable in their roles and salaries, in low-cost private schools teachers are accountable to the school principal/headmaster and the parents.

While financial incentives for quality improvement are lacking, school leaders and teachers also face a number of constraints related to a lack of resources and know-how in order to make sure all children aquire the basic skills for learning by 5th grade.  


Here is how we explain when people ask us “Why don’t all kids learn the basics?”.

There are multiple, interconnected reasons for which children from less privileged families lag behind in basic learning skills. A few of these reasons are:

  • These children are first generation learners or first generation English learners.
  • Children don’t make the most out of kindergarten or don’t attend one at all.
  • The government has not adapted the pedagogy and the curriculum to consider the needs of these children.
  • Teachers face a compulsion to complete the prescribed syllabus.
  • There is a tendency to go ahead only with the children with the best performance.
  • Schools have no systemic approach to identify children who are lagging behind and at what.
  • The tuition quality is low and focused on home-work completion.
  • Parents lack time and knowledge to provide attention at home etc.

There is clear evidence from around the world that children who encounter learning difficulties early on face an uphill struggle to catch up. According to research by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), “interventions that direct instruction toward children’s actual learning levels are the most consistently effective at improving learning outcomes, and are also very cost-effective” (please see Note 2). This research-based insight explains the critical importance of remedial education programs. 

At vChalk, we believe all children can learn. It is urgent to take this approach that has been proven effective (please see Note 3), to kids in schools everywhere because learning inequalities keep on growing every day. Support us for children to be confident for school lifeFollow our progress here and on Twitter @vchalkindia and Facebook  or just drop us your thoughts at hello@vchalk.orgSign up to receive our regular-but-not-disturbing updates here.



1. Our interaction with children was a 1-to-1 assessment using tools created by ASER Center (Annual Status of Education Report). Math-Number Operations and English Reading tests are previewed bellow.

2. Student learning, JPAL, Accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.povertyactionlab.org/policy-lessons/education/student-learning

3. Remedial education at large scale, Accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.povertyactionlab.org/scale-ups/remedial-education