Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Closure of private schools and the right of children to education: A Rejoinder

(Guest Post by Professor Geeta Kingdon)

A post on Law and Other Things by Dolashree Mysoor on 12th Oct 2014, commenting on my Opinion-Editorial in Times of India (TOI) of 26th August 2015, claims that my article advocates deregulation of private schools. Since my article does not advocate deregulation, Mysoor has set up a straw-man argument.

While my TOI article alleges that, in name of the RTE Act, state governments are imposing infeasible recognition norms and undue interference on private schools, it calls the fulfilment of infrastructure norms “desirable”, and advocates that government pays “subsidies to low-fee schools to help them become RTE compliant”.  What it asks for is lighter-touch regulation, and for sheltering private schools from over-regulation, in order to preserve whatever quality of education exists in private schools.

Mysoor has listed the infrastructure norms of the RTE Act, such as office room and all-weather class rooms, furniture, playground, books, water, girls’ and boys’ toilets, etc., and all will agree (as does my article) that these are desirable for the comfort/well-being of children.  By calling the RTE recognition norms “highly contested”, Mysoor’s post is making two errors. Firstly, it shows a lack of analytic clarity between the desirability of the recognition conditions (on the one hand) and their implementability given the reality of private schools (on the other).

The second error is: not realising that the difficulties of norms-compliance spring not so much from the physical infrastructure norms stipulated in the schedule of the RTE Act itself but from a plethora of other, more difficult, recognition conditions foisted on private schools in the name of the RTE Act in states’ Government Orders.  It is unfortunate that Mysoor has not paid attention to the careful wording in my op-ed, which says: “Many state Rules and Government Orders­ issued in the name of implementation of the RTE Act prescribe norms, standards and conditions for private schools' recognition which are overly restrictive or infeasible, especially for low-fee private schools, which are the vast bulk of private schools in the country”. In a 900 word article (only one-third of which was on the consequences of the recognition norms) – it was not possible to elaborate, but this point can be substantiated here.

Consider the example of Uttar Pradesh. Its two Government Orders (GOs) both dated 8th May 2013 (for English Medium schools; and for Hindi Medium schools) prescribe about 40 different conditions that a private school must fulfil in order to obtain government recognition, and most of these are difficult for existing schools and for new low-fee schools to fulfil, e.g. for rural private unaided schools in Uttar Pradesh, where the median fee is Rs 150 per month.

Most private schools would face problems in complying with many of these norms. To take a few examples, many low- and high-fee private schools run in rented buildings, and it is rare for a landlord to agree to a 10 year lease, and many school landlords also do not agree to sell their building.  To have separate rooms for Principal, office and staff, is infeasible in many small private schools and even the government schools frequently do not have these or have furniture for students despite the mighty financial backing of the government. To require schools to open themselves to inspection by any government official at any time will lead to an Inspector Raj. Forbidding private schools from raising fees by more than 10% once in three years is imposing an inequitable rule which allows govt teachers’ salaries to rise generously each year but restricts private school teachers’ salaries to rising only once every 3 years. The requirement that all schools be non-profit is well-intentioned but theoretical. It relies on the charity of rich philanthropists to establish schools, who are willing to give free land and resources (e.g. to build schools, buy furniture, etc.) all for free. Disallowing profit in education will either lead to largescale school closures or, more likely, spawn another source of corruption and hypocrisy: the pretense that all schools are running as non-profits.

If the recognition conditions are seriously implemented, scores of thousands of low fee private schools are likely to close, leaving the burden on state governments to provide education to millions more children, for which the state governments have scant financial capacity, especially since the per-pupil-cost of providing education in the govt schools is many times that in the private sector, mainly because average teacher salaries are about 20-25 times as much in govt schools as in private schools (Rs. 1500 pm in rural private schools in some states and Rs 40,000 pm in govt schools (see Vimala Ramachandran’s NUEPA study of teachers in 9 states in 2015).

In order to understand the impact of the RTE norms on private schools in India, it is necessary to understand the nature of such schools.  31% of 6-14 year olds in rural India are studying in private schools (ASER, 2015) and the evidence on their average size – total enrolment 191 students from class 1 to class 8 (DISE, 2014) – and their median fee levels (Rs. 300 per month in rural areas, in NSS 2014 data) suggests that the majority of private schools are small scale, low revenue and low-budget operations, that can ill-afford the cost of compliance with the laid recognition conditions.

Does this mean that government should allow schools to run in unsafe buildings, or without fire-fighting appliances, as in the past, and as many govt schools currently run? My Times of India article appeals that, instead of closing down the very large number low-fee schools that do not have the resources to comply with the norms, the government “needs to take a facilitative rather than a punitive approach, perhaps with subsidies to low-fee schools to help them become RTE compliant”. 

Some states are very dependent on the private sector to deliver basic education. For example, private schools cater to 52% of the children of rural Uttar Pradesh (ASER, 2014) and thus are an indispensable partner in imparting education.  If these lakhs of low-fee schools close down, the burden of providing education to displaced children will fall on the government which it could not easily shoulder, especially as the per-pupil-cost in the govt school system is far greater, due to teacher salary being 20-25 times higher in government than in private schools. These realities must temper the idealistic fervour of purists.

Far from establishing neighbourhood primary schools, as they are legally obligated to do under section 6 of the RTE Act, many states are closing down govt schools where total enrolment has fallen below 20 students due to parents abandoning govt schools: according to newspaper reports, in 2014-15, about 31,000 schools in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Orissa were closed down (or merged with secondary schools) due to being economically unviable.  In the context of large-scale closure of govt schools and a rapidly increasing child population, closing down private schools for non-compliance with RTE norms is doing worse than throwing the baby out with the bath-water – it is denying children their right to education, paradoxically in the name of an Act that avows to secure children’s Right to Education! 

Mysoor and others who are genuinely concerned with securing children’s right to education must work to prevent such a terrible outcome, by persuading governments to financially help the low-fee private schools become RTE-compliant.

Professor Geeta Kingdon holds the Chair of Education Economics and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London. She is also President of a registered society non-profit secondary school in India.
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