Formal education from a ‘shadow’ perspective: an ethnographic account of private tutoring in Dehradun, India


Achala Gupta

PhD defended at: 

Department of Sociology, FASS, National University of Singapore


This thesis examines the educational landscape in contemporary India from the vantage point of private tutoring. By focusing on three aspects—1) the processes that produce the need for tutoring support, 2) institutional arrangements of tutoring businesses, and the 3) implications of private tutoring for the larger system of education delivery—the thesis offers an account of the relationship between ‘shadow education’ and formal schooling on the one hand and the institutions of education and family on the other hand. It draws on the material generated from ethnographic research for which the fieldwork was carried out in 1 public and 2 private schools, 53 middle-class families, and 12 tutorial centres in Dehradun between December 2014 and December 2015.
The study shows that the need for tutorial support emanates from the gap between institutionally generated educational aspirations for scholastic achievement and the apparent failure of bureaucratic structure and methodical practices of schools in providing sufficient resources to meet these aspirations. The demand for outside-school academic support varies as per the educational advantage children are provided with at home and school. In the same middle-class group, children of highly educated mothers despite being given valuable educational resources feel the need for additional enrichment classes, whereas children in families where mothers lack sufficient capital to assist their children academically require a more comprehensive educational support alongside school.
The tuition industry succeeds in projecting its claims of providing the necessary academic support by strategically adopting features from the classification of the public education system (such as curriculum, academic subjects, and educational levels) and combining them with market demands (such as examination-oriented academic services, student-centric teaching pedagogy, and constructive parent-tutor-student relationship). This structure and its associated practices make the system of ‘shadow education’ appear efficient and legitimate to the students and their parents.
When legitimising their position as one of the primary learning centres in the market, tutoring provisions reshape the landscape of education delivery. The prevalence of private tutoring expedites the process of commodification of knowledge and expertise. While operating simultaneously alongside formal institutions, tutoring businesses reproduce the problematic structure and practices of schooling by equating academic achievements with educational success and privileging certain subjects over others. Moreover, in the wake of growing participation of schoolteachers in tutoring businesses, professional role and work ethics of teachers are redefined to facilitate the justification of educators straddling the ‘formal’ and ‘shadow’ education systems.
The main argument of the thesis is that in the context of a credential-driven society, private tutoring is not an addendum but takes a significant place in the public education system. That is, formal institutions and tutoring provisions co-exist and are mutually sustained. It shows that as schools transfer their role of providing academic education to tutoring provisions, the latter emerges from the shadow of the former and take their position as an integral part of the mainstream system of education delivery. The thesis demonstrates how through examining both the systems individually and in relation to one another one can more fully comprehend the landscape of education delivery.