Thousands of small-budget private schools are fearing a shutdown over financial constraints due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several private schools claim they are still having to pay salaries to teachers and rent for their premises while the income or fee from parents has taken a dip. To worsen the situation, many parents are shifting their children from low-budget private schools to government schools.
Contrary to popular perception, most private schools run on a low budget. As many as 70 per cent of private schools in the country charge less than Rs 1,000 as monthly fee, according to the ‘State of the Sector Report on Private Schools’ report by Central Square Foundation that came out recently. The report also suggests that while the government schools have improved their performance over the years, the same has remained stagnant in private schools, thereby lessening the learning gap between private unaided schools and government schools.
Several such private schools have even moved courts across the country stating that they were facing a crunch in the pandemic. This has resulted in many states allowing schools to take tuition fees during the lockdown, however, schools say that it is not enough.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Viny Raj Modi, Vice-President, Association of Un-Aided Private Schools, Madhya Pradesh, said: “Schools are charging only tuition fee – which anyway is 50 per cent of the total fee – but only 30 per cent of parents are willing to submit that. Further, the banks are charging interests even in the cases where delayed payment of EMIs is allowed. The education institutes work as not-for-profit entities which means any surplus over the expenses is to be recirculated in the education system itself. This has left institutes with no or minimum cash and hefty loans, maintenance costs of buses, buildings, salaries to pay off. If schools are not resumed within three months, it would lead to bankruptcy and subsequent shutdown of thousands of unaided schools across India.”
He claimed that schools, colleges, technical institutes across the country combined would be staring at non-paid loans of around Rs 1 lakh crore in a couple of months. He is also running a campaign over change.org that has so far garnered over 5,000 signatures so far.
The association of unaided private schools is demanding interest-free loans from the government for parents to fund their children’s education and schools to pay recurring costs such as teacher salaries, overheads, and capital expenditure.
Political shift and the pandemic
Anirudh Khaitan, Treasurer, FICCI ARISE, who is also vice-chairman of Khaitan Public School, UP, said that with more and more state government supporting local government-run schools, low-budget unaided schools were anyway facing a closure. The pandemic, however, has accelerated the process.
“Before the pandemic, I was of the opinion that unaided private schools would be finished within 15 years – due to the political pressure on every state government to better the performance of state-run schools. Now, I believe thousands of unaided schools will not be able to survive the pandemic,” said Khaitan.
The pandemic has given a sudden rise to the need of having a digital infrastructure and due to their low budgets, the unaided private schools claim that they are neither able to match up with elite schools nor with the state-run schools for which the content is aired through televisions, radio, and other government-run platforms.
“Lower-fee schools are struggling with digital transition due to challenges around household access to digital devices and internet access for teachers. The majority of parents of private school students have been unable to provide their children with study support during this period,” states the CSF the report.
While sophisticated modes like Google classrooms, etc are being used by elite schools, more than 66 per cent of the private schools have adopted WhatsApp as the mode for digital provision of teaching, according to the report.
This has led to many parents opting for government-run schools. Guru (name changed), a Punjab-based student, shifted from a CISCE-affiliated small-budget private school to a state government-run school during the pandemic. “The government-run school has turned out to be a blessing during the pandemic. We get regular classes on TV without going to school which was not possible at the other school. We are a lower-middle-class family and have been facing a financial crunch because of the pandemic. Having to pay lesser and getting a good quality of teaching is a fair deal. The government schools have more qualified and senior teachers than the private ones,” said Guru’s family.
Need for a neutral regulator
Rahul Ahluwalia, who heads public governance and private schools at the CSF and has worked closely with Niti Aayog earlier, said, “We really need an independent regulatory body. Government departments are the ones who manage their own schools as well as the private schools which are their competition. We need an independent regulatory to look after both government and private schools as well as increased accountability, and autonomy of private schools and not burden them under excessive regulations and restrains.” The recently released New Education Policy suggests having an autonomous body to regulate both private and government schools.
Why do shutdown of private schools matter?
Nearly half of India’s school-going population, as per the CSF report, is in private schools and if these schools shut down, it would not only be difficult to find schools for all the students but hundreds of teachers would also be unemployed. The school closure can adversely impact the learning of a student measured four years after the event, as per reports. About 12 crore Indian students attend private schools and the sector contributes about Rs 1.75 crore to the Indian economy, as per the Central Square Foundation report.