The story of the Daily Wrong
What are unrecognized school and why are they shutting down?
Unrecognized schools are schools that run without government license, most often because they are unable to fulfill the unrealistic infrastructure requirements and teacher salary scales that the government stipulates as prerequisites for recognition. They are private unaided i.e they do not take any financial or material aid from the government. But they might be beneficiaries of private donors and/or organizations. The implementation of the Right to Education Act (RTE) has deemed these unrecognized private schools illegal and has been shutting them down in thousands.
As on date, the count we keep based on information acquired through applications under the Right to Information Act (RTI) and from media stories through the year suggests that 2962 schools have been forcibly shut down. Another 17,871 schools have been issued notices for closure. These 20,833 schools together have been catering to 12,82,118 children who are now out of fee-charging schools that their parents preferred for them over the nearest state run no-fee school.
What is wrong in shutting down unlicensed schools?
This gross injustice of the state taking away a parent’s right to choose a school for their children is made morally more repugnant when one considers the fact that year after year studies show that learning levels in these schools are better than the learning levels in state run schools. In terms of infrastructure too, they are not far behind all government schools. About 50% of the government schools do not even have functional separate toilets for girls, but they are recognized schools by virtue of being state-run. For a small fee per month, unrecognized schools offer teachers who are present and teaching- unlike in state schools where one-third does not show up and another one-third does not teach- and basic amenities such as drinking water and separate toilets for girls.
Unrecognised schools are often low-cost and cater to the aspirations of the weaker sections of society. As such there is no official or universally accepted criteria based on which to determine whether a school falls into the low cost or medium cost or higher cost category. The thumb rule we follow is: If a school charges a monthly fee less than INR 300, then it is a low cost school. A medium cost school charges between INR 300 and INR 499. Any school that charges INR 500 or more per month is a higher cost school. License and cost category are not officially linked i.e, the government does not fix a minimum fee that schools can charge after they get recognition (license), but there is generally the correlation that if a school is recognized then it would charge a little more than a quality wise comparable but unrecognized school in the same locality.
Where has the government gone wrong?
In numbers. Our research in the school education sector has uncovered a large number of unrecognized schools that remain invisible in all official statistics in India. India’s unrecognized schools have been greatly underestimated in literature too. For example, the Common School System commission of Bihar estimated the number of unrecognized secondary schools in the state at 700. The seventh All India School Education Survey by the NCERT in 2002 estimated 3922 unrecognized schools at the primary level and 2193 unrecognized schools at the primary level in the state, aggregating to 8.81% and 18.09% of the total schools in the respective categories.
The government’s data banker for the school education sector, the District Information System on Education (DISE) does not provide data on unrecognized schools. For instance, its data on recognized schools in Bihar suggest gross underestimation. In 2008-2009, DISE estimated a total of 93 private schools in Bihar. The 2009-10 provisional data from DISE estimated only 14 private schools in the entire state. We, however, found that 80 new schools came up in Patna urban alone between 2009 and 2010. These 80 schools cater to 6190 students totally and 3900 students in grades 1 to 8.
However, the 64th round of national sample survey (Education in India: Participation and Expenditure) by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2007-08 pegged the extent of unrecognized schooling at a much closer level to reality. Interviewing households, as opposed to enumerating schools has given a realistic picture in this regard. The NSSO calculates that 43.8% of the primary school children in urban Bihar go to unrecognized schools. At the upper primary level, unrecognized schools cater to 25.5% of the students.
As with their numbers, the service rendered by unrecognized schools has gone largely unnoticed by experts and policy makers. The RTE act of 2009 mandates that all unrecognized schools be closed down by 2013. In the case of Bihar itself, in our interaction with the education department officials, we identified a lack of appreciation for the contribution these schools were making to educating India’s children and for the parental aspiration of the economically weaker section that has propped the space for these schools. The Bihar Common Schools System Commission opined that
“Most of these schools have some structures but no regular class of teaching takes place on time.”
To some extent this misperception could also be a result of having to form an inference without enough evidence to support it. As per the report, most unrecognized schools were established in the 80s. However, in the case of Patna at least, only 14% were set up between 1981 and 1990. About 10% existed before 1980 and the remaining 76% came up in the two decades starting 1991.
Our policy recommendations:
• We recommend that the government bring low-cost private schools into the legal ambit by devising criteria that focuses on learning output rather than inputs alone. This could include student performance, teacher attendance and a small range of essential safety and comfort features.
• The RTE Act should not be implemented in haste , especially in case of shutting down unrecognized schools without taking into consideration the vast majority of students enrolled therein.
• Imaginative solutions to institute quality ratings mechanisms could be adopted to ensure improvement in the standards of education being imparted in the country.