By Shivaji Sarkar
India’s private school education is collapsing. Thousands of schools have closed down, many others are gasping and it may cost the nation over Rs 1.75 lakh crore a year.
The lockdown has harmed the education sector immensely. Private education conjures up an image of spunky public schools with their high fee structure. These too are in crisis. Worse are the virtual budget schools, charging a fee of Rs 1,000 or less penetrating the rural, small town or low-income areas of metros, according to the State of the Sector Report on Private Schools by Central Square Foundation (CSF).
There are about 15 lakh schools, with 26 crore students, according to World Education News and Reviews (WENR). The recently released Household Consumption on Education in India Report, the aggregate household expenses are on private schools, about Rs 1.75 lakh crore, almost equal to the e-commerce sector.
Though almost all are under stress due to lockdown the worst sufferers are virtual informal schools with a government recognition or not but serving the hinterlands of the country. It has improved school enrolment especially in rural areas, where the number of students attending private schools has increased from 4 per cent in 1993 to 26.6 per cent in 2017-18.
The CSF report says the struggle is intense for survival of private education. In normal circumstances, it is not easy for private schools to attract students and during COVID-19 times it has worsened as parents refuse to pay fees. Weak and digital footprint has made online unaffordable.
So most such schools have either closed down or facing closure as they are neither able to pay their teachers their salaries nor afford infrastructure costs. Some had planned expansion in early March and even taken loans. Many have gone into severe debt and even after closures are in distress. Most of these are entrepreneurial ventures by innovative individuals. In Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh, a shopkeeper’s son started a school at Re 1- a-day pay concept. Since the students are not coming to school, entrepreneurs like him have little option but to close down the operations.
The impact on the society is severe. These employ mostly jobless youth at low salaries or payment on daily wage basis or as in Chennai on hourly-payment system. But each school sustains at least 100 persons on an average. The youth prefer to opt for such jobs for sustenance as well as the prestige they enjoy in the neighbourhood.
In villages or semi-urban areas such schools have become the choice for parents, as they are perceived to be better than government schools, may not be in pedagogy but in overall care that a child is given. Teachers trained or not, since from the neighbourhood, are considered dependable.
This is making education more mass based as the official system has many limitations and despite some recent efforts suffers from delivery problems. Recruitment of teachers itself is flawed as the disclosures from VYAPAM in Madhya Pradesh or recent disclosures by UP government have shown. The UP government also found that the district officials interfere in Basic Shiksha schools and issued orders for severing these from the district administration. The orders stated that no district official should intervene in any such schools.
But online education has come up largely as cropper in all such schools. The pandemic has given a sudden rise to the need of having a digital infrastructure and due to their low budgets, the unaided private schools claim that they are neither able to match up with elite schools nor with the state-run schools for which the content is aired through televisions, radio, and other government-run platforms.
Parents do not consider it to be education. They do not pay to the schools because their wards are not going there. This apart they find online – mostly mobile phones – teaching expensive for the high internet costs. Another problem they face is that each child should have a smart phone, which they cannot afford.
Many children too do not find online interesting as it interrupts too often and teachers find themselves limited for lack of eye contact. Students mostly put off video because of the poor network across the country as also to reduce unaffordable data use. Digital, which the telecom companies are trying to promote for a revenue model, is collapsing the education system. At kindergarten and primary level it is burdening the parents, mostly mothers, as they have to remain present continuously during online classes that in many cases have become the norm in metro cities. The parents complain that children do not consider “laptop teaching” as education and pester them to allow them to go to schools.
Another aspect that has not been taken into account that home education has become cumbersome, more expensive and uninteresting as in many families a child at home is a resource for family work or business. The pandemic panic is mostly being taken as holiday and the society is complaining of apathy of the schools.
The students and their parents find being physically at school more affordable and at least fruitful because apart from the books they learn etiquette, interaction with peer groups, use of library and social behaviour, even if they quarrel or fight there.
So the society despite the low incomes does not mind paying for education and that is heavy. As per MoSPI report Indians are paying 12 times the money for pre-primary education at a private school. The number decreases to about three times at higher secondary level. The majority, 70.8 per cent students pay less than Rs 1000 monthly fee, while 45.5 per cent pay less than Rs 500. The monthly median fee in an elementary unaided school is Rs 958 in urban areas and Rs 500 in rural India. Schools complain that at least one-third of the parents default in paying that also.
The New Education Policy has also ignored the basic aspect of survival of private education, elementary to higher. The idea that greedy capitalists use it to shore up their bottom line is impractical. They have to survive on low fee and also pamper the policemen, government officials, panchayat pradhans and sundry others. Many in the business even in national capital are keen on exiting.
The shutdown of private schools can adversely impact ‘education for all’ and multiply unemployment. With apathy, low government allocation and highhandedness education is becoming nobody’s baby.— INFA