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RTE deadline: Unrecognised schools to shut down, not erring govt schools?

New Delhi: The president of an association of private schools in Delhi offers to tell a joke when asked why he believed the government wasn’t justified in shutting down schools that don’t meet the minimum quality standards that have been prescribed by the Right to Education Act.

Relating what turns out to be an improvised version of a popular tale attributed to French revolution history, Jain ridicules the government but in doing so exposes the double-standards of a society that believes that when it comes to the poor sub-standard quality of education is inevitable and acceptable.

“Let me tell you a joke. A French queen came to India. When she saw people crying, she asked why they were crying. She was told they were hungry and didn’t have bread to eat. So the French queen said, ‘Why can’t they have butter?’” says Jain before proceeding to make his point. “In the name of quality education, you cannot shut down schools…People who make laws inside closed doors, don’t know the ground realities. These schools are a social necessity.” Jain is the president of the Delhi State Public Schools’ Management Association.

Jain is referring to 1593 unrecognised schools in Delhi (as per a Municipal Corporation of Delhi survey quoted in a 2012 education report) which, should the government keep its promise not to extend the three-year RTE deadline which expires in March 2013, will have to shut-down or face a one-time fine of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 10,000 for every additional day. As per the MCD survey, 1.64 lakh children study in these unrecognised schools.

Jitendra K Jha is a founder and principal of one such school that is situated in Sant Nagar, an unauthorized residential colony in Burari in North Delhi.

Premier Public School, which now runs classes upto Class VII, started as a three-room structure in 2001. Its application in 2007 for recognition was rejected because it failed to satisfy the minimum land requirements. The school is built on 200 square metre (which used to be the norm), but in 2007 the minimum land requirement for running a primary school was increased to 800 square metre.

A decade after it was started, Premier Public School with its poorly built two-storey structure whose courtyard doubles up as a playground is unlikely to get an education officer’s nod for meeting infrastructure and building standards of Right to Education (RTE) Act. But Jha insists that other than the land shortfall, his school meets RTE quality standards.

“We are holding talks with the government to give us recognition. We met the education minister on Thursday (January 17). They have asked us to wait for another two weeks,” says an optimistic Jha. He is yet to inform parents of the 250 students who study in his school that it might shut down soon because it is unrecognised.

Premier Public School a private school is to be shut down soon. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Schools such as Premier Public School cater to parents who don’t want to send their children to government schools but at the same time are not able to afford established private schools. Premier Public School charges a monthly fee between Rs 250 and Rs 400.

Unrecognised schools are not without serious problems. “One, unrecognised schools operate in small bastis out of one- two- and three-room houses. Their teachers are not all qualified, the schools are not open to inspection. And how will children from these schools gain admission in a recognized school or take their board exam?” says Saurabh Sharma of Joint Action for Social Help (JOSH), a voluntary organization that runs an RTE public awareness project in a resettlement colony in East Delhi.

Recognized private schools refuse to admit children from unrecognised schools because they do not have a valid school certificate. This is a problem the Premier Public School’s principal too admits to. “Parents do find it difficult to get admission in recognized private schools because they ask for a certificate.”

Senior lawyer and well-known right to education activist, Ashok Agarwal had filed a PIL in 2006 seeking the closure of unrecognised schools in Delhi. “The High Court in its judgment made it clear that unauthorized schools have no right to exist. And they were given six months to either fall in line or shut down. If they satisfy the norms, they are welcome to carry on,” says Agarwal.

Expressing disappointment at the government’s failure to decisively clamp down on unrecognised schools even after three years of the RTE Act, Agarwal says: “For the first time a school has been defined by law. And if the government is going to permit these so-called schools to continue it means they are degrading the definition of a school.”

When parents are asked why they send their children to an unrecongised school such as Premier Public School, the most common response is proximity of the school. But do they know that the school is unauthorized and that their child will be at a disadvantage when he or she applies to another school?

Says Dilip Kumar, a parent, “Even if we know that the school is unrecognised, what choice do we have? We don’t have an option of a school that provides better facilities in this neighbourhood.”

Angered by the government’s move to shut the school down, Kumar says, “Does the government school have any amenities at all? Whatever little we have, the government wants to ruin. If this private school is shut down, what will we gain from going to the government school? I would rather keep my children at home and teach them a trade.”

While parents are keen on quality of education for their children they find themselves compelled to opt for what is available.

Shiv Chandra Jha, another parent, says he approves of minimum quality standards for running schools: “These norms are good. But none of the private schools here adhere to them. They are small schools with limited space, they don’t have playgrounds and other such facilities.”

Asked what they will do if the school shuts down, they say they will apply to other private schools. The government school located about a kilometre away simply doesn’t figure as an option.

Two toilets for 250 children. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Says Mamta Chauhan, whose two children go to Premier Public School, “We will try and put our children in another private school. It is not a question of how much the fees is. We want a good education for our children. The main thing is discipline, which is absent in government schools. Teachers themselves are missing in government schools.” She adds: “Our children’s future is unsafe in a government school. Not only is it far away, I feel no one is serious about education there. We are happy here. My children have been studying here for three years now.”

But not all parents who send their children to the 1000-odd unrecognised schools in Delhi will be able to afford sending their children to an expensive recognized private school. They will be left with no option but to apply in the nearest government school. And that is where the big problem is.

The government, say activists, has utterly failed to open new schools or even upgrade its infrastructure in existing schools to meet standards of quality the RTE Act makes compulsory.

“When the RTE Act came into force, it was said that unrecognised schools would have to shut down because they don’t satisfy RTE standards – in terms of having playground, toilets, student-teacher ratio and so on. It was also said the government will open new schools. But the problem is that while the process of shutting down has begun, the government has made no arrangement for the transfer of these children. Not only have they not opened new schools they have not even upgraded existing schools so that children can be absorbed into them,” says Sharma of JOSH.

Can the government guarantee the right to education of child that is going to an unrecognised school? The prospect looks bleak. Especially, when government schools are already facing a crisis of over-crowding.

Take for example, the Nigam Prathmik Bal/Balika Vidyalay (municipal corporation primary school) in Sant Nagar, located about a kilometer from the Premier Public School. It has reportedly seen a five-fold increase in the number of students in the last ten years. But its infrastructure hasn’t kept up the massive increase in student strength.

The school runs in two shifts – a morning shift for girls with 2000-odd students and an afternoon shift for boys with 1300-odd students. It is ten teachers short of meeting the requisite student-teacher ratio prescribed by the RTE Act. Its classrooms are in a state of disrepair with broken benches strewn around.

“The government’s infrastructure as of now is inadequate to absorb the children from unrecognised schools. So in the event that more children will have to be re-admitted urgently, we will face a shortfall of adequate infrastructure,” warns Ajay Kumar, project coordinator-complaints, RTE division, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

Is then the immediate shutting down of unrecognised schools in the best interest of children? “Closing down the schools is in the interest of children provided we have adequate infrastructure in schools were they can be admitted immediately. In case we don’t have the support, if children’s rights are getting affected that doesn’t go in the interest of child,” says Kumar.

Holding the government responsible for children being trapped in a non-formal system of education, Kumar says: “First of all, unrecognised schools shouldn’t have come into existence. These schools developed because the government failed in its duty to create the necessary infrastructure – schools in every neighbourhood, standards in terms imparting education, faculty and curriculum."