Does India need budget private schools?

The Covid19 pandemic has shaken the earth, the invisible has become visible. Worst existential fears have brought uncertainties of all kinds. In all this erupting disorder, education systems have been exposed to their fullest scrutiny and trade secrets have become known and compelling talking points.

India’s private schooling system, according to some estimates is catering to more than 43% of student age population through nearly 400,000 unaided private schools. And bulk of these schools is low-cost or what is called as budget private schools charging a tuition fee of less than Rs 1000 a month. The popularity and expansion of these schools even to hinter land is attributed to a public favorable perception about them in terms of better standards of education than government schools though nobody has conclusively proven that.

These schools have been glorified by likes of Prof James Tooley in his much talked about book The Beautiful Tree (published 2009) where he has likened mushrooming of these schools as an  extraordinary grassroots revolution taking place not only in India but across the developing world. He definitely looked at this through the lens of a tourist who marvels at unique things and then passed it as a compelling narrative for which the host countries must feel proud ?

Like him, there is no dearth of people in India’s civil society, government and political class, who hold the same opinion and extend all possible protection to this cottage enterprise fast turning into a well-oiled industry even though calling it ‘mafia’ will be an exaggeration at this moment. This segment primarily grew because of enterprise and employment opportunities that it created through there will be a small minority of these schools which came up as a result of situation or shining models of leadership of dedicated educationists.  The template of private education traditionally was of charity and endowments without a motive for profit.

That template doesn’t hold anymore. Be it big businesses or small street school owners, schools are now businesses for everyone irrespective of what laws say. The society has internalized this as normal long ago but the ‘ambiguous’ politicians always keep looking the other way and not paved a way for making schools as profit making social enterprises lawfully. The false façade of nonprofit official framework have promoted unscrupulous malpractices and deceit.

In pandemic situation today, parents are too frustrated in their struggle to make ends meet with loss of jobs, businesses and income. Most of them are rightly agitated at being asked to pay fees to schools and people know this fee is not only simply tuition fee but a bundle with a lot of other unnecessary charges. And, lockdowns have actually brought schools and parents to a situation where they have becoming almost warring parties because of money issues.

With cash flow seriously disrupted, a lot of these budget schools face danger of winding up permanently and a crisis for children enrolled in them may just be following it. While all talk, rather sweet talk has been shifted to the just announced New Education Policy 2020, the fundamentals of schooling architectures remain vulnerable and is in disdain.

In India, education is a fundamental right and government is well within its rights to regulate education provided by private schools. Delhi Education Act, 1973, despite its redundancies and harsh clauses is a template which can be polished and written anew according to changed times and made a national law alongside RTE Act.  Once, there is a friendly and reassuring regulation in place, the next thing would be making schools compliant.

There is hardly a merit in pitting private against government schools, confusing quality narrative and blackmails. School processes and finances must be transparent and parents must be a part and empowered through active SMCs.

The recourse to politicization, protection and court battles often to delay and derail rules and compliance must not be a road followed by school owners and politicians. Rather, they should move to address the trust deficit and correcting the fundamentals, which together have not allowed the beautiful tree to be so beautiful and fruitful when seen from a close quarter.      

…Autar Nehru