This is a story of the Right to Educaton (RTE) Act 2010 and its impact on Private Schools.
Well, no, its not about the impact of the RTE on classy private schools, spread over acres and catering to Indias burgeoning well to do upper classes in our big cities. Yes, these private schools are now concerned about how the mandatory 25% reservations of seats for the economically weaker sections will make their schools viable, and yet allow them to deliver educational quality.
No, this story is about the hundreds of thousands of privately run schools running in every small town and village and urban slum of India, catering to the poorest of the poor because the public school system (government schools) in our country have failed the poor.
Rather than illustrate this story with theories, research findings and assumptions, I shall highlight some concerns based on personal visits to such schools in my neighbourhoood. I live in NOIDA, on the outskirts of Delhi, and in close proxiity to Nithari village – the village made grotesquely well known by a certain Mr Pandher couple of years ago, who was arrested with his man servant for killing children living in Nithari.
Abhay Public school is in the heart of Nithari village.
The lane leading up to the school is narrow and winding. As you get closer, you get the familiar smell of cow dung. You see the big school sign painted on the wall, but when you peer inside the hole below the sign, instead of children, you see four - rather saintly - buffaloes!
You wonder now.
On enquiry from a passer-by, I am told that the school is on the first floor and the Principal’s father is a milk vendor, and so the buffaloes. I walk up the steps and see a neat clean courtyard with three tiny class rooms and the Principals room adjoining the court yard, a new class room seems under construction.
Children are in the midst of a drawing test in the terrace on the first floor.
Dhirendra, the Principal, is a bright man in his twenties and greets me warmly. He comes across as someone sure of what he is doing, and in his eyes you can clearly see the fire to do well in whatever he attempts. He says he now has 92 children from class 1 to class 5 and the school is barely 3 years old. Parents pay Rs 110 rupees per month as tuition fees. Nearly all the fathers are cycle rickshaw pullers and mothers work as domestic maids. He pays his five teachers over 2000 rupees and a couple of them are graduates.
The school runs from 7 am to 12.30 pm. Dhirendra leaves at 11 am to join his regular work in a well known National Hindi daily as a news reporter. The class rooms are as clean as possible given the schools means, and the children are surprisingly very well dressed in clean bright uniforms. The ties the boys sport represent the aspirations of the parents and the school management. He talks animatedly about his “extra initiatives” - the trips planned for children every year and the annual sports meet in a nearby garden. This Dec he is taking them to the National Science Museum at Pragati Maidan and also to the Qutab Minar. He manages that by borrowing a school bus from a well to do school on their school holiday and paying for the fuel and the driver.
I ask him if he is aware of the new regulations under the RTE where every school must have a minimum of a 900 sq metre play ground or will face closure. He says he has yet to hear from government sources but has read some things in the newspapers. He is surprised but the government’s decision – he says there are over 15 similar schools in Nithari itself! It intrigues me further – 15 such schools could mean over 3000 children – where will the children go if they are all forced to shut down?
I ask Dhirendra why these poor parents don’t choose the government school over schools like his where the rooms are cramped, there are no sports facilities and the teachers are barely qualified to teach? He doesn’t give me an indignant angry answer as I expected. He just says, “Why don’t you go down the main road, turn left and walk 300 hundred yards in, you will see the government school and probably get the answers yourself! ”
I thank Dhirendra for his time and promise to visit again and walk down the road to see the government school for myself.
As I entered the main gate, I wasn’t sure if the school was in session or if it was a holiday. It wore a deserted look with hardly any children around. Then I noticed that the teachers were sitting in a corner basking in the morning winter sun. A few kids were playing outside and a few classes were going on inside the class room.
As I walked further in to the inner courtyard of the over two acre campus, I couldn’t quite believe the lack of hygiene – stagnant water, filth all around - the place clearly had not seen cleaning in days. There were three classes going on with a few students huddled around the teacher.
Soon a very aggressive, matronly lady walked up and gruffly enquired who I was and what I wanted. I told her I wanted to meet the Principal. She said the Principal was away on leave. She clearly suggested I should leave and was hostile by her manner and language. I had never felt unwelcome in the small private schools, but here the government teacher clearly made me feel uncomfortable. I then used my Army background to assert myself, saying that I was a retired Army Colonel who was researching on School systems in India and that I wasn’t going away, but I wanted to talk to a few teachers if that was okay. Reluctantly she agreed, but refused permission to me to photograph anyone among the staff.
The school was 20 years old and had only 600 odd students, but had over 25 teachers. I said I could hardly see any students, and no where near the 600 they mentioned. Apparently that was the registered figure, but very few actually attended classes daily. I asked them why they didn’t have more admissions when the huge Nithari village was adjoining the school campus. The teachers said, all in unison, “Parents now think it is fashionable to send their children to “English Medium” schools and don’t prefer the government school.”
This is in spite of the mid-day meal scheme and the Rs 1.30 per month fee in the government schools. They told me how they were involved in multiple government activities like election muster rolls, child immunization programs and have gone into the inner recesses of Nithari and have seen the many small privates schools run from shacks. They spoke poorly of these schools and said the teachers were hardly trained. The government school teachers were all paid handsome salaries of 20 -30,000 rupees and received the usual leave, provident fund and other benefits of government employees. They clearly came from a different strata of society than their wards and had a condescending tone when they spoke of the children and their parents. It would seem they were doing a huge favor to the children by trying to teach them. The teachers mentioned how the school had failing admission rates while the school has the capacity for 1400 children.
I thanked the teachers and said I would come again to meet the Principal. While walking out from the campus, I wondered what I would do if I were a rickshaw puller earning about 7000 rupees a month and cared for my children’s education? Clearly the answers were before me. The warmth, efficiency and concern of Dhirendra’s team were far more attractive than the coldness and the lack of attention of the government school! The private schools also showed that they needed to perform and make parents believe they were delivering education quality to retain their students the next year and get fresh admissions by reputation spread by word of mouth. The government school had no reason to perform and their seemed no government oversight or inspections in the school.
I also wonder if Mr Sibal, our Education Minister, will ever get to see first-hand, why the public school system was losing faith in the country among even the poorest of the poor. I doubt it, as he could never visit either the small private school or a government school unannounced and incognito as I did. Wherever our leaders go, the date would have been announced weeks before, the authorities would have spruced up and cleaned up the government school, classes will be in full swing, the teachers would all have come for the day, loud lessons would be on, children will be eating wholesome midday meals and all would seem well on this earth!
Now the government intends to close the very private schools which is covering for the failure of the public schools, because they don’t meet the physical infrastructure requirements! What the authorities need to realize is that these schools meet the emotional and social infrastructure, far more important than mere physical infrastructure.
You could see that from the smiles on the children's faces!