Shivani Chaturvedi (Chennai)
The continuing closure of all schools and higher education institutions nationwide to safeguard children from being struck down by the dreaded Coronavirus, has prompted an almost 70 percent drop in pre-primary admissions in nearly 3,000 aided and 12,000 unaided private schools across Tamil Nadu (pop.68 million). According to a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Nursery Primary Matriculation Higher Secondary and CBSE Schools Association, in the academic year 2020-21 pre-primary admissions aggregated 6.3 lakh, plus 1.2 lakh poor children admitted under s.12 (1) (c) of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. In the current academic
year which commences in mid-June, preschool admissions have totalled a mere 2.5 lakh.
Usually in May, there is a rush for preschool admissions with top-ranked pre-primaries closing the admission process by the second week of the month. However, this year most schools have kept the admission window open till the time of writing this report. Many of them having slashed admission and tuition fees to fill capacity.
“For this academic year 2021-22, we have reduced the annual fee for LKG (lower kindergarten) and UKG from Rs.30,000 to Rs.20,000. Despite this, we have filled only one against the four-five pre-primary classes we fill normally. Although the usual number of parents have collected application forms, they have not formally admitted their children. Most are waiting for in-school classes to commence once the Covid situation improves and schools reopen. A minority have preferred to give their children homeschooling because of the widespread belief that youngest children can’t learn in the online mode,” says Priyanka Nandhakumar, secretary of the Sri Sankara Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Chennai, which has 1,200 students and 58 teachers on its muster rolls.
This unprecedented phenomenon of dwindling preschool admissions is confirmed by Sudha Malini, principal of the CBSE-affiliated RMK Senior Secondary School, Thiruverkadu. “We used to offer a total of 150 seats in LKG every year. In the past academic year, admissions are down to 60, and this year 50 parents took our application forms but only 30 have paid the stipulated admission/ tuition fee. For pre-KG, we used to have 80 admissions. Last year they dropped to three, and this year there are no preschool admission applications,” says Malini.
Even low-cost budget private schools (BPS) which hitherto attracted children of lower-middle and working class households anxious for affordable English-medium primary education are experiencing reverse migration. According to a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association (TNPSA), in 2020-21 an estimated 3,000 students have migrated to free-of-charge government schools. Even the rock-bottom Rs.5,000-25,000 per year fees levied by BPS have become unaffordable for a growing number of working class households because of jobs and income losses.
With a rising number of youngest children dropping out of the all-important foundational ECCE (early childhood care and education) which is given pride of place in the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 — promulgated on July 29 last year and awaiting implementation — ECCE educators fear that a large percentage of India’s 164 million children under five years of age will enter primary schools with weak foundational learning that may hinder them through the education continuum.
“It’s now proven beyond doubt that 80 percent of brain development happens in the first eight years. Therefore, children’s brains shouldn’t be idle in the early years. Although most parents believe that children don’t learn sufficiently in online classes, an hour of carefully curated digital learning per day is better than no education at all. Parents should not fall prey to false propaganda,” says Sudha Malini (quoted earlier).
This argument is persuasive. Clearly a glass half full is better than no water at all. The minds of youngest children need to be active and stimulated in their early years. Later may be too late.
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