School Fee issue snowballing into a parental reformist agenda

File photo: Parent group protest in 2019

By Autar Nehru

The Covid19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines within the school system as the wavering trust between private schools and parents touches nadir over fee payment and both sides are now standing vociferously against one another, including in several courts. While some states have made a general appeal to these schools to waive the fee for the first quarter in light of reduced or no family incomes, majority of parents wary of schools not paying any heed to these kind of advisories, have organized themselves
almost in the entire country to defend their interests. According to some reports about 80% of parents haven’t paid the fee so far and are awaiting a reassurance on fair treatment.

“Schools are mostly themselves responsible for this mistrust because managements never thought that such a day will come. They had taken parents for granted all these years and collected money on one pretext or the other and parents never asserted their rights as they thought child may be unnecessarily harassed. Now that anger has come out,” says Akshay Sahu, a parent based in Noida. Actually, apart from fee or the annual fee, parents knew that schools in addition to  pricey textbooks and loads of school sold stationery, parents were apprehensive that schools will ask for contributions from children, so a collective and spontaneous response against diktats in the form of a spontaneous ripple generated a few years ago throughout the country has now turned into a movement. Now it is a nationwide and each day garnering more strength.

And, school lobbies, which have been traditionally politically connected and known pressure lobbies have gone back to same old tactics and antics and camouflaged their commercial interests in conjunction with many ed tech companies by way of starting online classes. According to parents this attitude and mindset had drained out any amount of sympathy that they may have had for schools as partners in education of their children. And hence, it is now building towards a war like situation.

“Actually it is transforming of private schools into service firms that is looking back in face of school owners, else a lot of parents would have resorted to charity to bail these schools out and keep them going. And now if anything, these schools are using their politico-bureaucratic nexus to win over parental resistance,” said another parent on condition of anonymity.

Simultaneously, civil society groups are also lending moral support to the fight of parents and raising their voice in support for children affected in millions due to this pandemic and lockdown.

At a webinar organized by RTE Forum on June 10 over the Covid 19 crisis reflections over school reopening, fee and digitalization in states, speakers brought out the pathetic impact of closure on country’s thousands of small budget schools.

According to Ashok Agarwal of Social Jurist and president of All India Parents Association, the situation of budget schools is such that they have started laying off their staff and most will close down if this pandemic stretches a few more months as their cash flow from fees has stopped. “The crisis was already there but now it has become gravest in face of this pandemic. Where will these children go? The answer still lies in the problem from where it first generated—the neglected and poor quality government schools, which will need to be converted to an efficient public education system to deal with the crisis and sustainable school education ,” he said while categorically denying any sympathy for these budget schools as these according to him never fulfilled school norms from day one.

Agarwal is also of the view that this year be declared as zero academic year and all classes children be promoted to next level and let children stay safe at home as parents don’t have trust in the badly exposed and inadequate healthcare system of the country.

After Government indicated that it is contemplating the option of reduction in the syllabus and instructional hours on requests on parents and teachers, experts at the seminar felt it is premature at this stage and after a review next month, a national debate should precede to any actual action.  Any quantum of reduction would depend on when will the schools reopen and what will be the loss of school days due to closure.

“What should matter in this whole debate are interests of children and nothing else,” declared Agarwal.
Speaking about private schools in his state (Odisha), Anil Pradhan, Odisha state convener of RTE Forum said, “ Chief Minister had to appeal to private schools to waive off fees for 3 months due to COVID – 19. This is because of the pressure of Parents’ Association. Though, no private schools waived off fees so far as our knowledge is concerned. Parents’ Association has filed a PIL in the High Court in this regard.”

As many schools are being used as quarantine centres for migrant workers and those returning from other places, reopening of schools, will also not be possible in near future as the infection curve is still peaking within various regions of the country.  In this situation, Pradhan, suggested converting schools into digital resource centres and calling students in small batches to take benefit.

Sharing findings of a study they did over 1500 students in 15 districts in West Bengal, Prabir Basu, director Span and WB convener of RTE Forum said along with Corona, the state is also suffering from Amphan cyclone. Around 14 thousand schools have been converted into quarantine-centers. In such a situation, there is a lot of confusion about the future in the minds of children and their parents as well. Digital education is not the solution not only because of the huge digital divide is creating a further marginalisation and negative impact on students.

So, clearly there is a lack of direction in the way country is moving to tackle the education crisis precipitated by the pandemic.  “We will have to defend our public education system and keep pressure over the government because this government doesn’t seem to be talking to stakeholders but promoting agenda of money hungry digital lobbies,” said Ambarish Rai, National Convener of RTE Forum.  

Parents have started finding their own innovative ways like enrolling with NIOS and preparing for online tuitions as tuitions was a normal during regular schooling as well and are watching for activities avenues where children can participate without inviting risk of getting infected.

Now it will be the turn of schools to get innovative to retain students. But on serious note the parent movement will force a change in schooling  and what will be its shape is something nobody has the answer at the moment.