Is India’s government giving the people what they want? Are we truly a democracy in practice? When it comes to education, the answers might surprise you.

Although India’s government runs one-third of schools, only a little more than half of all students attend government schools. Budget Private Schools are a growing segment of private schools that cater to economically backward communities. They charge a minimal fee and provide regular and quality education to nearly 92 million children in India. 

Times of India reported that nearly 12 crore students in India are enrolled in private schools. When we look at the numbers, the enrollment in government schools has dropped from 74.1% in 1998 to 52% in 2017. However, private schools still have a long way to go in terms of achieving desired learning outcomes. A report by the Central Square Foundation shows us that 35% of rural private school students in Class V can’t read basic class II level text. The report also showed that 45.5% students in private schools pay less than Rs 1000 a month as fees and yet the sector contributes approximately Rs 1.75 lakh crores to the economy. This shows us that the middle and lower-middle-class population of India would rather pay some of their hard-earned money to budget private schools who work hard and innovate to ensure education, rather than sending their children to government schools for free.

Recently, I embarked upon a journey to explore innovative initiatives of schools in Himachal Pradesh. What I found indeed reaffirmed my belief that parents have more faith in their community private schools than in government schools.

Goodwill and passion of school leader 

In Himachal Pradesh, I met Mr Roop Ram Sharma, Chairman, Himachal Academic School, Solan. Mr Ram started his career as a government school teacher and was the principal of various senior secondary schools. He recalls and shares his experience, “My entire life I was into the teaching but I didn’t see education becoming interesting. I tried to contribute to various schools that I was the principal of. I always had a dream that I will change the education system at least through my own initiatives. When I retired, I immediately opened my budget private school in this village so that I could do all the innovations with students” he said. 

The day I met him, he picked his students up from their homes and took them to the ground where they all gathered to study. Students gathered in groups of five, wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other. It was interesting to see Mr Ram using measuring tapes and other educational props to teach the students. The students were very friendly with him, calling him “Principal” instead of “Principal Sir”. I was genuinely impressed by his efforts to ensure that every child enrolled in his schools gets educated.

I asked Mr Ram, “Did you get paid during the COVID-19 pandemic? I assume the school was shut?” He smiled and said, “Nahi sabne nahi diyeh, par mera dharma to bachhon ko sikshya dena hai, uskeliyeh jo bhi saving hai mai laga dunga, aur kuch parents to fee bhi de rahen hai (Not all are paying the fees, but my duty is to give these children education, and I will spend every last penny of my saving if required. But some parents appreciated my hard work and they are coming to pay the fee.)”

I soon asked him another question: “You wish to impart education in a way that children can comprehend easily. Do you recall an incident where your way of education brought appreciation?”

He smiled again and said, “Yes, last time when I met with a parent, he shared an incident with me. He had hired a mason to build two-rooms. While the mason was calculating the area, his child also took the measuring tape, measured the room and started to calculate the area. His child found around five thousand rupees extra incurred against the mason’s calculation. That was the award for me; when my student’s action gets appreciation by the parents. Education should come in handy in daily life, and that’s what quality education is about. If the child can survive in mainstream life with dignity, that’s what real education is”.  Click here to see the video.

If you see the challenges of COVID-19, you’ll find the data around it shocking. According to a survey conducted by Central Square Foundation, nearly 50% of teachers surveyed had not received their salary for March 2020, the month when all schools nationwide were shut. More than 50% schools surveyed had uncollected dues ranging from 13% to 80% of their annual revenue, compared to the previous financial year. 

But during my visits to these schools when I interacted with teachers, students and parents, I learnt that these schools paid all their teachers. However, most of the parents could not pay the school because they had lost their jobs. School leaders were running into huge losses but they were determined to spend every last penny they had in their pocket. They started this school to see their students learn differently and they wanted to bring a change in the education system. The pandemic was not going to stop them. 

School students also started developing health issues while taking online classes for long hours. It was tough for schools nationwide to impart education as they used to do in the classroom. When it comes to community schools, the accountability of teachers and schools lies more towards the community, since the community ensures the goodwill, fame and business of the school. The survival of community schools depends on the amount of love and faith they receive from the parents and teachers, and to win the communities’ heart is not an easy task for schools. 

The driving motivation of community schools is to impart quality education. Even if you talk to small edupreneurs, they have a vision and to see it through they have to ensure their outcomes. They have a commitment towards the growth of their schools and growth is possible only if they get more enrolments of students. To do that they need to produce students with high success rates in the community and need to keep the promises they have been making. Only then the community’s hearts and arms will open to embrace these budget private schools. 

I also got a chance to spend an afternoon with Ms Sushma, General Secretary of B.L Central Public School, Kunihar, Solan, Himachal Pradesh. With a welcoming and smiling face, she said, “I didn’t have any vision of opening schools, but I got married to the school founder and gradually started getting involved in the school. Suddenly, a sense of accountability and responsibility towards the community children emerged within me. I promised myself that the community has immense trust in us, so it’s my responsibility to churn out a great student. 

I asked her, “Do you have any scholarship programs for students?” It was as if she was waiting for this question and said, “Many scholarship programs are available, in fact, it has only become possible because some good people are contributing from their personal salary. We give scholarships to those students who score eighty per cent marks.” In this conversation, she also shared that, “one student got a job at Facebook, and another student in Amazon and their annual salaries are more than a crore. In addition, one student got enrolment in MBBS and these students received free education from our school which makes me proud.” 

It was interesting to separately meet with the students in their community to understand their learning experience during this pandemic. I found that both students and parents appreciated the efforts that the teachers and schools were taking. They were very friendly, frank and expressed their feelings, indicating their positive relationship with their teachers, school and community.  

During the conversation with Ms Sushma, she addressed the challenge that, “Most of the parents are not giving fees and some parents didn’t have mobile phones to continue online classes of children. Thus, we provided them with phones, didn’t take fees from them and still paid the full salary to the teachers because we believe that we have also earned from them, so it’s our chance to give back from whatever we have. We shouldn’t forget that we started our school to provide a good education to our Kunihar children. They are our community’s pride, and it’s worth it to help the community whenever they need it. We want all the children of our community to get a good education in our school and we will do that till the last penny remains with us. This year is our silver jubilee and we are celebrating with a “not taking fee” moto.  

It’s interesting to know the views of the students of these schools. They believe in their teachers more because they are giving extra time and less burden to the students. They treat them well, and school leaders also believe in learning through activities rather than rote learning. This makes the students learn while having fun. I met with students Chahat, Sneha and many others. 

In these schools, they all complained that their eyes and head hurt when they use mobile for a longer time period. Moreover, they’re not able to understand concepts clearly, and thus they miss their school more. 

To know more: See the video B.L Central Public School 

Demands of budget private schools 

When the Right to Education Act 2009 came into force with lots of formalities and norms, it brought mandatory compliances for all the schools across the nation. An interesting part of these compliances is that they don’t talk much about ensuring the quality of education but put more emphasis on the physical inputs. For instance; the guidelines focus on how big a playground should be, rather than focusing on the real learning outcomes of the students. 

Thus, the government needs to make child-centric norms focused on learning outcomes rather than inputs so that schools can focus on ensuring quality education rather than submerging and spending most of their resources on fulfilling RTE formalities and compliances.  

Key findings: 

  1. The middle & lower-middle-class population prefers budget private schools over free government schools
  2. Budget private schools are community schools 
  3. Budget private schools are required as they constantly perform better in order to survive.
  4. They are implementing many micro innovations to ensure quality education for children.
  5. COVID-19 has brought survival challenges 
  6. Students’ concepts are not being cleared on online classes and they also have to deal with health problems 
  7. The government needs to change norms for budget private schools 

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