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Home > Media Room > SCC in News

Right to Education Act threatens existence of budget schools

John Samuel Raja D, The Economic Times, 23 November 2010

In the corner of a street so narrow that two Maruti 800s would do a kiss of dent if they tried passing each other stands Shiv Public School. If it weren't for a 15x2 board outside that emphasises its identity as a 'recognised' school, this two-storey premises in the East Delhi suburb of Shahdara would pass off as a house in a residential colony. Which is what it was built to be.

In 1982, the mother of Prashant Aggarwal, its current owner and principal, turned it into a primary school, with 65 students and two teachers. Today, Shiv Public has 350 students and 18 teachers crammed into 13 rooms in a space the size of a set of two-bedroom apartments. Aggarwal charges a monthly fee of Rs 300 per student. These are mostly kids of Muslim workmen, who earn Rs 4,000-6,000 a month by stitching jeans. But for how long Aggarwal can keep the school running is anyone's guess.

He's not alone. About 300,000 'budget schools' like Aggarwal's, or an estimated 19% of all schools in India, face a similar existential crisis. Threatening the existence of these schools, which position themselves between government schools and good private schools in cost and quality of education, is the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

The RTE Act says all schools should be 'recognised' before they start operations. That is, they should get government approval by meeting minimum standards on infrastructure and teaching staff. Before the RTE Act became law on April 1, there was no such stipulation, and schools could be unrecognised till class VIII. Along the way, they could get recognised, by meeting the stipulated criteria. The RTE Act has tightened the minimum criteria.

Further, it has asked all existing schools, recognised and unrecognised, to meet these criteria by April 2013 -- or face closure (See box: Entry Barriers). "We are doing good for society. Why do they want to shut us down?" says Aggarwal. "It's impossible for us to meet the requirements." It's no different for most of the 300,000-odd neighbourhood budget schools across the country.

Since education is a state subject, the RTE Act, which aims to provide free and compulsory education to children of 6-14 years, only lays down model rules. State governments provide the specifics. So, for example, one of the conditions in the RTE is that a school must have a playground. States set the size of the playground. The Delhi government, for instance, requires its schools to have a playground of 900 sq yards -- about the size of two basketball courts.

Whatever the size, most budget schools will struggle. They are mostly in urban areas, they are in houses and they don't have a playground. "Where is the land?" asks Aggarwal, pointing to the street outside stacked with houses and shops, wall to wall. "Even if there was, where will we get the money from?" At current market prices, 900 sq yards in Shahdara, for instance, will cost Rs 1 crore. For a school like Shiv Public School, the interest cost alone would eat up all the fees it collects.

"How can you have one rule for all schools?" asks Santosh Sharma, principal of New RD Public School, another budget school in Shahdara run out of a house. "Even for property tax, localities are divided into different categories and draw different rates," he adds.

Teacher salary is the other pain point for budget schools. The RTE Act sets the minimum qualification for a primary-school teacher at higher-secondary education with a two-year diploma in education. On an average, only one-third of teachers in budget schools meet this criteria. "Even the government is unable to find professionally-trained teachers, but it asks us to employ only trained teachers," says K Narasimha Reddy, who runs three budget schools in Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh.

Further, the RTE Act gives state governments or local bodies the power to fix the salary for teachers in private schools. Reshma Lohia, principal of Lohia's Little Angels High School, a Hyderabad-based budget school, says budget schools pay trained teachers a maximum of Rs 6,000 per month. But they are hard to find, as most want to work in government schools, where the starting salary is about Rs 10,000. "Even though we pay less, our salary cost amounts to 50-60% of our monthly expenditure," she says.

Lohia fears that the RTE norms will send the costs of budget schools soaring, making them unaffordable to the very people they serve: the lower-income group. It's a dilemma that is rooted in the reality of India and there are no easy answers.

Although there are no official numbers, by one estimate, budget schools account for about 18% of all schools in India. "There are about 300,000 budget schools imparting education to about 90 million children," says Mohammed Anwar, chief executive officer (CEO) of Empathy Learning Systems, a Hyderabad-based firm that is setting up a chain of low-cost schools.

Budget schools mushroomed because the state failed to provide enough schools or quality education. For low-income families who aspired for a decent education for their children, government schools were not good enough and the well-run private schools out of their league.

Neighbourhood budget schools fell in between: they were affordable; and though they didn't provide the best education, they delivered more than a government school. "The market has worked out a solution that meets the needs of people in the lower-income group who didn't want to send their kids to a government school," says Parth J Shah, founder of the Centre for Civil Society, a Delhi-based not-for-profit think tank.

"There is good discipline here (private school) and teachers are present," says Rehana, who has enrolled one of her five children in New RD Public School in Shahdara. "We hope Rumana (her seven-year-old daughter) will develop a good base by studying in a private school."

ASER, an annual school survey done by NGO Pratham in rural areas, partially supports this perception. About 52% of children in private schools (classes I-V) can read at least class I text, compared to 43.6% in government schools.

The difference is more pronounced in the case of understanding English. About 44% of children in private schools can read simple words in English. By comparison, it's only 26.5% in government schools, reinforcing the belief of parents from the lower-income group who believe private schools impart better English.

Sharma, the principal of New RD Public School, making a social case for leniency. "If we start a school, we shut down a jail," she says. Shah says the government should acknowledge the presence of these budget schools, whatever their shortcomings, and frame policies accordingly.

Advocate Ashok Agarwal puts forth the other side of the argument. Agarwal, who is part of Social Jurist, a group of lawyers and social activists involved in eradicating child labour, is unsympathetic towards the plight of school owners. "I am not against private schools. But they should meet at least the minimum standards," he says.

Social Jurist did a survey in 1997, where it found that Delhi had more than 10,000 unrecognised schools with 400,000 students. Its contention is that compromising on minimum standards means not taking care of the interests of children, who are often put in crowded classrooms and taught by unqualified and poorly paid teachers.

He cites two accidents involving schools and children to substantiate his point. The first was in Madanpur Khadar village in South Delhi in December 2006, when a blast occurred in a spray-painting unit next to an unrecognised school. The second was the July 2004 accident in Kumbakonam district in Tamil Nadu, where 94 lives were lost, mostly children, due to a fire in an unrecognised school.

In 2008, Social Jurist won a case in the Delhi High Court to close down unrecognised schools in the capital if they didn't meet the minimum standards set by the state. The court gave schools six months to comply. However, before that, the Association of Unrecognised Institutions, a grouping of unrecognised schools, filed an appeal against the verdict in the Supreme Court, where the matter is currently.

The RTE requirements could lead to a similar standoff in the lead up to the April 2013 deadline for compliance. However, this time, instead of civil society, budget schools might be pitted against the state.

Round one of the tussle between school owners and bureaucrats has started. "District education officials are threatening to shut down schools, citing the RTE Act," says K Narasimha Reddy, who runs three recognised schools, with 1,600 children, in Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh. He is also the vice-president of the Private Schools Management Association (PSMA) for Rajendra Nagar mandal in the district.

How the RTE is implemented will have a bearing on the future of a large number of children. Reddy says the private schools association in Ranga Reddy district has 1,200 recognised schools, with 360,000 students. Rajendra Nagar is one of the 37 mandals in the district, with about 125 private schools, of which, 45% are unrecognised.

An overwhelming majority of private schools, even those that are recognised, don't even meet the existing standards set by their state governments. "About 90% of budget schools have facilities on paper only. They have paid bribes to become recognised," says Anwar of Empathy Learning, a company he runs in partnership with noted educationist Professor James Tooley. "Bureaucrats will now have another weapon to demand more bribes," adds Shah of the Centre of Civil Society.

In such a scenario, private budget schools have two options before them: shut shop or find ways to survive. Given that running a school is profitable, they are likely to slug it out with bureaucrats. "What's wrong in seeking a reward for our effort?" asks Lohia of Lohia's Little Angels High School in Hyderabad. "We have been running this school since 1986 and have been serving the poor. We are not a fly-by-night operator."

The clock is ticking for schools like hers. Chandana Khan, principal secretary to the Andhra Pradesh government, says schools will have time till the end of the current academic year to submit a declaration on how they plan to comply with the minimum standards. "We are not looking to dilute the rules under the RTE Act at this stage. There is enough time for private schools to comply," says Khan, who is in charge of school education in the state.

Simultaneously, Khan wants to improve the standard of government schools in Andhra to compete better with private schools. As part of this, beginning the next academic year, the Andhra government will introduce English as the second language from class I. "This will address one of the main reasons why parents prefer private schools," she says. Earlier this month, the state government also appointed 26,000 teachers to fill vacancies in state-run schools.

Still, given the kind of numbers budget schools have -- an estimated 300,000 schools and 90 million children -- it will take a monumental effort on the part of various state governments to fill a potential void left by budget schools.

Solutions that will make it easier for budget schools to make the transition are being discussed. One revolves around providing funding to budget schools to upgrade their facilities. Since budget schools don't have proper books of accounts, banks don't provide funding. That's the market being targeted by the Indian School Finance Company, a Hyderabad-based non-banking finance company that provides loans up to an average of Rs 8 lakh, at 20%, to schools that charge a monthly fee of Rs 200-600.

Another solution is to have an independent rating of low-budget schools to help parents make an informed choice. Gray Matters Capital, a private foundation, has partnered Micro-Credit Rating International Ltd (M-Cril), a microfinance rating firm, for its school ratings project. The idea is to develop an easy-to-use rating system that will assess the quality of schools, and at the same time, develop rating tools that can assess a school in a day.

Yet, these don't address the core issue for the 300,000 threatened schools in light of the April 2013 deadline. Only the respective state governments can do that. And, for now, the establishment is not making any concessions.

Read the story in The Economic Times

 

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