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Beware school nationalisation

Licenses and Regulations, Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), Right to Education, Unrecognized Schools

Government policy towards school education is schizophrenic. While on the one hand, it is working on rules to set up, to begin with, 2,500 public private partnership schools as a means to see how it can increase private sector involvement in providing education to the underprivileged (economically or socially) in a bigger way; on the other, it is all set to virtually nationalise elementary education in the country through the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. If that sounds like a huge overreaction, read on.

The manner in which the government will nationalise private school education is two-fold. First, all private schools have to reserve a fourth of their seats for “children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in the neighbourhood and provide free and compulsory elementary education till its completion”. That is, private schools will now have to deal with SC/ST/OBC/poor and any other reservation the government can think of — and all these criteria can be “specified by the appropriate government, by notification” and changed from time to time. As for the payment for sequestering of a fourth of their capacity, schools will be paid rates thought fit by the government — this could be what the government spends per child in its own schools or some other formula. All those planning to expand their schools, like education provider Educomp and school chains like Delhi Public School, would be well advised to reconsider their plans since the Act will lower earning levels significantly. More important, private schools will now be answerable to various government departments, from the minority affairs ministry to the schedule caste commission and more — apart from, of course, the education bureaucracy which will monitor whether children belonging to “disadvantaged groups” or “weaker sections” are being admitted in adequate numbers.

There are other gems in the Act which make you wonder how schools are to be run — “no child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education”; “medium of instructions shall, as far as practicable, be in the child’s mother tongue” (that’s something both Ashok Chavan and Raj Thackeray should welcome!); “no teacher shall engage himself or herself in private tuition or private teaching activity”, etc.

If this isn’t bad enough, there’s another section which says that in the future, only “recognised” private schools will be allowed to impart education — existing unrecognised schools will have three to five years to get this certificate. To be “recognised”, the school has to meet certain infrastructure norms, it has to have a minimum teacher-to-pupil ratio and its teachers must have certain basic educational qualifications. In principle, this sounds the correct thing to do, but if this results in these schools closing down (or paying hefty bribes to school inspectors to survive), that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? There are no firm numbers on private schools and estimates vary from 25 per cent in rural areas (according to Pratham’s annual Aser report) to 40-50 per cent in cities like Delhi by others.

The schedule of the Act has some basic norms on the teacher-pupil ratio (two for schools with 60 children, five for 121 to 200 children and so on) and says there should be at least one classroom for every teacher. Each state, however, is free to set its own norms — the Punjab one, for instance, says elementary schools have an area of at least 750 sq metre (1,000 sq metre for matriculation and 1,500 sq metre for senior secondary), each classroom has to be 200 sq feet and should be at least 10 feet wide, the door passage must not be less than 3×6 feet, the laboratory must not be less than 225 sq feet and the library should be 250 sq feet. There can be little doubt bigger classrooms are better, but can the schools afford them? And shouldn’t the focus be on testing for education outcomes than on simply listing physical infrastructure? In any case, since no private school forces parents to enroll their children at gun point, it is obvious they are providing some education that existing government schools aren’t. Education minister Kapil Sibal doesn’t believe unrecognised private schools teach anything, but why doesn’t he get his own testing done on a regular basis or, more important, just focus on improving the government schools? Unrecognised private schools that don’t teach will then die a natural death.

There’s more. It is common knowledge that unrecognised private schools pay a fraction of what the government does to teachers, and they make do with teachers who aren’t as qualified as those in government schools. According to the Act, “the salary and allowances payable to, and the terms and conditions of service of, teachers shall be such as may be prescribed” — the Model Rules issued along with the Act spell this out in greater detail. Not surprising then that when Sibal told a group of educators that there was nothing in the Act which said private schools had to pay government salaries, there was a stunned silence in the room.

Postscript: While Sibal is categorical that foreign/private colleges will not have to reserve seats for SC/ST/OBC since they haven’t been set up with government money, he has little compunction in asking private schools to reserve seats for these groups! Though several private schools are threatening to go to court, I wouldn’t worry too much about this — when telecom firm STel went to court and won its case against the government’s arbitrary allocation of licences to a handful of chosen firms, the government simply asked it to stop operations in the places it had licences. So, the company wrote a note saying it never wanted any more licences anyway and the government used this to try and convince the Supreme Court not to rule on the matter! Basically, no one can take on the government when it resorts to strong-arm tactics.

Sunil Jain, Business Standard, 15 March 2010


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