The Right to Education (RTE) Act gets presidential assent in 2009 and is notified a law – “The Children’s Right to Free and Compulsory Education”. Six years have elapsed, but what’s the ground reality. Does every child receive free education, is every child compulsorily admitted to school? Is the child really learning or is it just a numbers game? Is education only the prerogative of those who can afford it? Is education becoming a commercial venture? Mr. Firoze Hirjikaka’s article questions the core ethos of school education.
Parents of kids in Mumbai who go to private schools – and they are rapidly constituting a majority – are up in arms against the frequent fee hikes they are subjected to; not to mention regular “voluntary” contributions towards building funds, school picnics and the like. The agitated group is now holding dharnas in front of the state Education Minister to do something about it.
Schools in Business!
The parents of kids in private schools are basically battling an ingrained Indian trait : greed. One wishes them well but they are unlikely to succeed. The people who run these schools – with a few notable exceptions – consider profit as their top priority; education comes second. For them, education is a business; not a vocation. The Maharashtra government may keep giving false assurances to the disturbed parents but, in reality, there is not much they can do.
Private enterprises, including schools – especially if they do not take any grants from the state – are legally and constitutionally outside the government’s control. Unless these schools commit a felony by, for example, not paying taxes or other statutory dues in time; or do not meet state prescribed norms, the government cannot interfere. If the state does take some pre-emptive action, the schools can challenge the government in a court of law – and they would probably win. It is easy for the Education Commissioner to placate the parents with insincere assurances because, after all, our government officials are adept at making promises they have no intention of keeping. The parents are unfortunately caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to keep giving in to the schools’ demands, no matter how outrageous, because they have no alternative.
Plight of Municipal Schools
Actually, there is an alternative, but it is so dismal that it is shunned even by many parents from the lowest strata of society. I am talking, of course, about our municipal schools which are regarded as the last resort of the desperate. The situation is so pathetic that the BMC (Municipal Corporation of Mumbai) literally has to bribe students with freebies like notebooks, pencil boxes and other sundry items just to get them to stay in school. Some come just for the free lunch, as unappetizing as it is. The desperate parents who are forced by economic circumstances to send their children to these schools do not expect them to get a good education; and the BMC does not disappoint them.
That is why even parents with a meagre income scrimp and save to enroll their kids in a convent or other private school. They realize that this is the only hope of their children doing better in life than themselves. To their credit, although there are some convent schools catering to the reasonably well off, who charge substantial fees, there are several in lower middle class localities who keep their fees at a reasonable level. They have not entirely abandoned their original purpose of mission.
Our Conscience does not bite
It is the private operators who take full advantage of the mismatch between demand and supply – with too many students chasing too few seats – who need to examine their conscience (I can’t believe I just said “conscience” in the same breath). To them, the schools are a business, rather than a social service. And if the parent of a child becomes a nuisance, the child can be shunted out without qualms, because there are a dozen more eager to take his place. I am not talking about elite schools like Cathedral and Ambani, nor the “International” and IB schools that seem to be sprouting all over the city. The parents there are paying not just for quality education but a certain snob appeal – and they can afford it. Incidentally, the IB schools who tout the Baccalaureate certificate as the ultimate in educational certification, are doing a bit of a snow job. The reality is that an IB qualification has real value only if the parents are planning to send their laadla sons and daughters to colleges abroad. Indian colleges do not give it any special prominence.
So that is the situation. On the one hand, you have school promoters who try to milk their investment or every rupee they can get. Then there are the politicians shedding crocodile tears, which is a bit rich considering that many of them run colleges and other educational institutions where flouting the norms of good practice is the rule rather than the exception. Caught in the middle are the hapless parents who can only vent their frustration without any genuine hope of redressal.
Mr. Firoze Hirjikaka is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to FF Digital. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
From FF Digital : Freedom First had published a series of articles on the Right to Education in its issues between 2012 and 2014. The articles authored by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma have been compiled into a booklet entitled “On the Right to Education Act – A Commentary” and is available at our office. You can write, e-mail or telephone us and we shall post you a copy.