Reshma Ravishanker (Bengaluru)
Almost 15 months after the country’s 1.5 million schools including 450,000 private schools were ordered to shut down by the Central government on March 25, 2020 to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, several surveys and reports are highlighting the extensive damage done to children’s education in terms of learning loss and children dropping out of the school system. A survey report submitted to the Karnataka high court on July 16 by the Associated Managements of Primary and Secondary Schools, Karnataka (KAMS) has revealed that 60,094 students dropped out of 250 private schools surveyed statewide in the academic year ended April 30, 2021. The survey found that the aggregate enrolment of these schools plunged from 185,933 in 2019-20 to 125,839 in 2020-21, a drop of 32 percent.
According to KAMS, which has a membership of over 3,000 mostly low-priced budget private schools (BPS), this decline in enrolment resulted in revenue loss of Rs.41.34 crore to the 250 schools surveyed which levy average annual fees of Rs.20,000-40,000 per year. Moreover, of the 125,839 students who were admitted in 2020-21, only 45 percent paid the full annual fee, 17 percent paid 70 percent, 9 percent less than 25 percent, with the remainder 29 percent defaulting.
Meanwhile, the state’s 21,000 private unaided (financially independent) schools and the BJP state government are at loggerheads over the quantum of fees payable by parents for the recently concluded academic year. In February, several private schools associations filed petitions in the Karnataka high court contesting the constitutional validity of a January 29 state government directive to all private schools — including schools affiliated with pan-India CBSE and CISCE exam boards — statewide to collect only 70 percent of the tuition (and no other) fee for the academic year 2020-21.
Spokespersons of the state’s private unaided schools say that 30-40 percent of parents haven’t paid full contracted fees for the past year (2020-21). As a result, fees arrears owing to private schools have accumulated to a massive Rs.4,000-5,000 crore. They contend that private schools, especially an estimated 16,000 BPS, are on the brink of financial bankruptcy, stretched to pay teachers and staff salaries.
The KAMS survey highlighting “missing students” is backed by interim student enrolment data for the new academic year 2021-22 — the last date for admissions is August 31, 2021 — compiled under the government’s Student Achievement Tracking System (SATS). Data released by the Karnataka department of primary and secondary education on July 7, reveals that student enrolment in schools (government, private aided and unaided) statewide dipped to around 62 percent in 2021-22 (cf. 70 percent in 2019-20) with government schools recording highest enrolment (76.86 percent) followed by private schools (43.77 percent).
Even though it’s common knowledge that budget private schools have mushroomed countrywide as affordable refuges for children fleeing dysfunctional government schools, hitherto primary education minister, S. Suresh Kumar interpreted this data as evidence that government schools are becoming popular again. “Admissions in government schools have seen their biggest increase in the last 14 years. During the Covid-19 pandemic, families from economically weaker sections have turned towards government schools. This is a silver lining,” he crowed, addressing the media on July 8.
Yet, the truth is that government school enrolments are rising because a large number of lower middle and working class households have suffered severe income and employment loss and cannot afford even the modest tuition and other fees — the lowest worldwide — that BPS charge. And the major attraction for low-income households devastated by mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, is the free mid-day meal provided to government school children.
“The number of children who have dropped out of the school system in Karnataka is massive — much more than official figures. The correct figure can be ascertained only if a door-to-door survey is conducted. The only way to stem this rising drop-out tide is to reopen schools — especially primaries — immediately. For under-privileged children, schools — especially government schools — are the safest places during the pandemic. Already too much damage has been caused to children’s education by the world’s longest schools lockdown. The government needs to reopen schools right now,” says Dr. V.P. Niranjanaradhya, senior fellow and programme head, Universalisation of Equitable Quality Education Programme at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
The urgency that informed academics exhibit to restart on-campus schooling is not shared by politicians and bureaucrats. According to informed sources in the education ministry, Karnataka’s schools are unlikely to be allowed to reopen anytime soon for fear of an imminent third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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