Management Guru Peter Drucker’s maxim, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” holds significant weight in the domain of public policy. A compelling example of this principle in action is seen in the early stages of the US government’s response to the opioid crisis. A lack of comprehensive data on prescription rates, overdose incidents, and access to treatment facilities stymied initial efforts. This absence of precise measurement made it difficult to allocate resources effectively or to target interventions where they were most needed. It wasn’t until governmental agencies began to systematically collect and analyse data related to opioid use and its consequences that policymakers could devise more effective strategies, such as prescription drug monitoring programs and enhanced access to addiction treatment services.

One such area which has not been properly measured is that of shadow education. Its impact on education and society is under-researched. Also, absence of data on actual extent of shadow education makes it difficult for policymakers to intervene. Shadow education refers to the extensive network of private tutoring, coaching and ‘cram schools’, and it has its roots in East Asia due to the cultural priority given to academic achievement. This phenomenon, characterised by supplementary educational services outside the traditional classroom, thrives in competitive settings where educational success is highly valued. In nations such as South Korea, Japan, and China, the demand for these services has led to the widespread establishment of cram schools, known locally as Hagwons in Korea and Juku in Japan.

Despite this, its impact on education and society is under-researched, especially in the case of India. The issues associated with shadow education are numerous and complex. Firstly, it can exacerbate educational inequalities, as only those who can afford the often exorbitant fees of private tutoring or coaching centres gain an edge in competitive exams.

Direct costs

Second, this system not only imposes direct costs, including fees for tutors and their agencies, but also necessitates additional expenditures on educational materials, travel, and, increasingly, technology such as computers. The expenses escalate with the level of education, and individual tutoring sessions generally command a higher price than group sessions. The financial strain is compounded by the opportunity costs associated with the time spent in tutoring sessions, including preparation, administration, and commuting. This considerable outlay reflects the high value placed on educational success, despite the fact that much of the income generated in this sector still needs to be recorded by official tax systems due to the informal nature of many tutoring arrangements. As a result, substantial amounts of money are funnelled into this shadow education system with little oversight or regulation.

Third, the reliance on shadow education reflects and possibly amplifies deficiencies within the mainstream education system, suggesting that schools are not meeting the learning needs of students.

Fourth, the psychological toll on students, including increased stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of well-being, raises serious concerns.  Important studies, such as the work by Mark Bray and UNESCO, have highlighted these issues, emphasising the need for better regulation, quality control, and an understanding of the impact of shadow education on mainstream educational ecosystems.

In India too, private tutoring and coaching spans all economic strata, reflecting the educational system’s competitive nature and the widespread belief in the value of supplemental education. While affluent families may access high-end tutoring services, middle- and lower-income groups also invest in private tuition to enhance their children’s academic performance, often prioritising education over other expenditures. The last official estimates for the extant shadow schooling can be found in the 71st round of NSSO in 2014.

Private tuition and coaching are most prominent at the secondary and higher secondary levels, with 36 per cent of students in those segments seeking additional academic support, perhaps reflecting the crucial academic transition and the pressures of preparing for higher education entrance exams. Even at the primary level, there is a notable 22 per cent participation. Further, there is intra-State disparity too. A study by Asian Development Bank found that in West Bengal, nearly 60 per cent of primary school students receive private supplementary tutoring.

Education is in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, with the majority of schools under the State and UT governments. The National Education Policy 2020, however, recognises the problem of the impact of private tutoring and coaching on students, especially at the secondary and higher secondary levels. It shifts the focus towards continuous and comprehensive evaluation of students to promote learning, moving away from the traditional final assessments that often lead to a reliance on coaching institutes.

Leveraging tech

To counter this prevalent ‘coaching culture’, the government is leveraging technology and diverse education delivery methods. As a part of this initiative, the Ministry of Education has initiated SWAYAM Prabha, a free-to-air DTH channel specifically for students of 11th and 12th grades. This channel, IITPAL, aims to provide high-quality educational content, incorporating rich visual and graphical explanations, to support students preparing for competitive entrance exams like JEE and NEET. Further, this should be supplemented by quality education in our public education system.

Recently, the government also developed guidelines for regulating coaching centres. By setting clear standards for registration, infrastructure, curriculum, and the welfare of students, including their mental health, the guidelines aim to ensure a safer, more accountable, and more educationally conducive environment within these coaching centres. The emphasis on qualified tutors, fair fee structures, and transparent operations aims to curb the exploitation and undue pressure on students.

These measures, coupled with the enforcement of penalties for non-compliance, offer a robust approach to regulating the coaching industry, potentially leading to a reduction in the negative aspects of shadow education, such as undue stress, unfair practices, and safety hazards, thereby creating a more supportive and effective supplementary education system.

However, the responsibility of implementing these guidelines falls on the States. There is profound value in adopting them so that education does not retreat into the shadows but shines brightly as a beacon of hope, guiding every learner towards a future filled with knowledge, opportunity, and the promise of a brighter world for all.

Sharad is Professor and Head, Department of Teacher Education, NCERT, and Aditya is OSD, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Views are personal