The woe of a person, who has been waging a battle for the closure of a school that he has been running without adequate number of students, for more than a decade in 100 percent literate Kerala, is far from over, even after the highest court in the country granted his plea.
The Supreme Court had on Monday allowed closure of 104-year-old Malaparamba Aided Upper Primary School in Kozhikode district while rejecting a government appeal against a high court order upholding the right of the private management to shut down the school.
While the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is planning to amend the Kerala Education Rules (KER) to circumvent the Supreme Court order, the school protection committee consisting of parents and teachers of the school and local residents have vowed to physically block the officials from sealing the school.
They had successfully blocked several such attempts made by the education department officials following last month’s high court order allowing the closure of the school. P K Padmarjan, who has been running the school, has been suffering loss since 1996. He said he will file a contempt of court case if anybody tries to block the implementation of the Apex Court order.
The saga of Padmarajan started in May 2014 when the government allowed him to shut down the school due to lack of students. His attempt to demolish the building was thwarted by the school protection committee with the help of local politicians. They re-built and re-opened the school with contributions from the public from June 2014.
However, the high court did not find any merit in continuing the school, which had 44 students, eight teachers and two support staff at the time of the demolition. It upheld the government’s earlier order and directed the education department to rehabilitate the students and teachers in nearby schools.
Padmarajan moved the court again this year after the school protection committee failed to ensure an increase in the enrollment. He told Firstpost that the enrollment last year was only 51.
“I would not have tried to shut down the school if the members of the committee had ensured an enrollment of at least 100 students. But they could attract only seven students in the last two years,” he said.
This is the plight of not just the Malaparamba School alone. According to the 2015 state economic survey, as many as 5,573 schools in both government and aided sectors are running without the required number of students (average 15 in a class) as on 2014-15. Such schools are termed uneconomic.
Enrollment of students in the state has been declining in recent years; the number has declined from 37.9 lakh in 2014-15 to 37.7 lakh in 2015-16, according to the state economic review. Change in demographic pattern of the state due to low birth rate is the main reason attributed for this phenomenon.
The decline in the number of students in lower primary section is 11,782 in 2014-15 from 2013-14. While the decline in upper primary section is 38,406 in 2014-15, and the high school section shows a decrease of 8,652 students over the previous year.
KC Zacharia, honorary professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at Thiruvananthapuram said that the school age population will shrink further as the state is heading for zero population growth.
The 2011 census statistics already show signs of negative growth. The 2011 census data showed that population growth rate of children, belonging to the age group of 0-6, had already become negative. The growth rate in this category between 2001 and 2011 is -8.44 percent.
According to him, children in the lower primary school ages are projected to decline from 2847,000 in 1991 to 1638,000 in 2051. This will render more and more schools in the state ‘uneconomic’ and teachers surplus.
A recent study by the education department showed there were 13 teachers for every 30 students in 3,500 uneconomic schools. This works out to one teacher for every two students. The Right to Education (RTE) Act stipulates a Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 30 or less for schools with less than 200 enrolled students. Schools with greater enrollment should have a PTR of 40.
The study revealed there were 11 teachers for less than 20 students in 593 schools. On an average, there are 11 teachers to teach 16 students in these schools. There are average 15 teachers to teach 25 students in 517 schools and 17 teachers for every 35 students in 756 schools.
Economic experts have been suggesting closure of all uneconomic schools and retrenchment of surplus teachers. However, the successive governments have been sustaining them and paying teachers salary without doing any work.
“It does not make any economic sense to keep these schools opened for the sake of teachers. The closure of the uneconomic schools may not hurt the children since the state has sufficient schools to cater to all school going children,” says S Irudayarajan, a fellow with CDS.
Rajan, who has done several studies on population, said students from uneconomic schools can easily be relocated to nearby schools as the state had one lower primary school for every square kilometre and one high school for every 4 sq.km.
Economists and demographers see huge economic opportunity from the closure of the uneconomic schools. Zacharia feels that the state could solve the acute shortage of old age homes faced if the government allows uneconomic schools to be converted as old age homes.
“Old age homes currently available in the state are not sufficient to meet the growing demand. A substantial number of the aged are forced to move to old age homes as those who are supposed to support them are going away from the state in search of jobs,” says Zacharia.
Irudayarajan says the state could use the opportunity to improve the quality of education in the state. The standard of education in the state has been witnessing a steady decline over the years.
The study conducted at the instance of the Accountant General showed that five percent of the students in Std VII cannot identify alphabets. Thirty five percent of the students can’t read or write their mother tongue. Eighty five percent students are poor in basic science and 73 percent in mathematics.
The grasp of three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) was found very low among class four students as well. It showed that 47% students can’t write in Malayalam and 25% in English. The case with maths and science is worse. While 63% students are poor in mathematics, 73% do not have even basic knowledge in science.
State Education Secretary APM Mohammed Hanish does not agree with the experts regarding shut down of uneconomic schools. He told Firstpost that government and aided schools still had a major role to play in sustaining the achievements made by the state in the education sector.
He said that the government and aided schools were not getting adequate enrollment as parents were showing preference for private schools due to slide in the quality of teaching in government schools.
Hanish said that the government would address the problem by improving the infrastructure and quality of teaching in government and aided schools.