Monday, June 03, 2013

Schools spell trouble?

Schools have been in trouble lately. Hundreds have been derecognized. Thousands of them stand accused of fleecing us – all of us taxpayers, not just parents – of crores of rupees. There is talk of how the fate of millions of students hangs in the balance.

I have to confess that I find these developments slightly amusing, because schools are where we are supposed to learn basic democratic values.

Take this week’s report about 600 schools being declared ‘bogus’ by the Maharashtra government. It began in Nanded in 2011 when the then collector Shrikar Pardeshi asked for a survey of schools in the district. It turned out that about 30 % of enrollments were fake. Then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asked for a state-wide survey and at least two million ‘bogus’ enrollments were detected.

The interesting thing is that several of these schools were controlled by politicians affiliated to various political parties. Now this should not really be surprising to anyone who understands the new Indian economy. There is money to be made in education. And politicians like to control anything that makes money. They get even more powerful as they make decisions that enable them to make more money. According to the state’s own website, Maharashtra set aside Rs 26,443 crore (Rs 13,670 crore for elementary and Rs 12,773 crore on secondary education) for the year 2011-12.

What is at stake is not just children’s education, but also their health. The Indian state aids schools through cheap land, grants for teachers’ salaries. Funds are allotted for mid-day meals, which is imperative for a nation where half the child population is malnourished. There are special funds for residential schools for adivaasi children. Hence, the scam: set up schools and apply for aid, then claim larger and larger grants based on the number of students and teachers. The state-wide survey also discovered at least 12,000 teachers’ names on fake payrolls.

One way of dealing with such scams, of course, is to stop aiding schools. To make education a thoroughly private enterprise – by those who can afford to offer the service, for those for who can afford to buy it. But the problem is not just politicians or scamming ‘educationists’. Unaided schools are also turning out to be a problem.

Take recent reports about Billabong International High School in Thane. The institute reportedly served a legal notice to parents protesting a fee hike, demanding Rs 5 crore against defamation. But the parents did not pull their kids out and enroll them in other schools. They’re heading for the law courts instead.

In recent years, there have been many school fees-related protests across India. Delhi, Coimbatore, Aurangabad, Kanpur, Jammu, Bhubaneswar. Parents form groups like the Forum Against Commercialization of Education. They demand ‘transparency’ and proof that teachers are indeed well paid. They want politicians, activists and the judiciary to intervene although it’s none of the state’s business. After all, the parents chose unaided schools that set out to be expensive and exclusive.

So what do they want? Good schools, of course. But there is also a definite attitude that education shouldn’t be a free-for-all bazaar, that people deserve ‘quality’ education, even if they cannot afford it.

People often conflate ‘quality’ with how much money they’ve coughed up and this is obviously a problem because the best teachers aren’t the most buyable. But what does this attitude among the upper and middle classes tell us? I think it tells us that we all recognize the fundamental principle of the right to education. Assured of ‘quality’, we might even prefer state-run schools for which we pay a modest fee via taxes.

First published here

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