A price on schools

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Kozhikode Collector N. Prasanth leading pupils of the Malaparamba Aided Upper Primary School, which was closed after a court battle, to a temporary facility within the building housing the Collectorate on June 8. Photo: K. RAGESH

People preventing the Assistant Educational Officer and police authorities from entering the Thiruvannur Palatt Nagar AUP School in Kozhikode, which was listed as one of the uneconomic schools, for closure. Photo: K. RAGESH

Kerala’s education system is following the path of its once-acclaimed health-care system, where basic facilities and quality are now available only at a high price, beyond the reach of most people.

The beginning of the academic year in Kerala has been marked by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government’s much-lauded decision to offer compensation and take over four private, aided schools that were closed down a few days earlier on the basis of court directives obtained by the school managements using certain indistinct provisions in the State’s education laws.

The government has also decided to amend the Kerala Education Act, a politically sensitive law that is testimony to many aborted attempts to reform the State’s education sector, so as to make it difficult for aided school managements to close down schools in future on the pretext that they attract insufficient number of students and are hence “uneconomic”.

But more and more school managers seem to have their eyes set on the real estate value of their institutions —a bad sign that Kerala’s education system is following the path of its once-acclaimed health-care system, where basic facilities even, and quality, are now most often available only at high prices that the majority of the people cannot afford. Government and “aided” private schools have for long acted as a great leveller in Kerala society and, along with State-run hospitals, have been the basis of Kerala’s development achievements right from the early part of the 19th century.

Despite a large number of them falling into neglect and disuse and losing students to the mushrooming CBSE/ICSE English-medium schools in recent decades, the need for and the sanctity attached to government-funded schools by Kerala society has been in evidence wherever they were sought to be closed down by aided-school managements on one pretext or the other.

Malaparamba school

A typical case is that of the 140-year-old Malaparamba Aided Upper Primary (AUP) School in Kozhikode district. Though it was allowed to be shut down by the previous Congress-led coalition government in May 2014 on the basis of the school manager’s claim that it had become “uneconomic” and failed to attract the required number of at least 25 students on an average in each class for several years, intense public protests had thwarted all attempts to lock up the school until this year.

An attempt by the manager to demolish the school building was foiled as a result of protests by a “school protection committee” comprising parents, local people, teachers and politicians. The building, which was partially demolished, was rebuilt with money collected from local people, and the school reopened in June 2014, with teachers too contributing a share from their salary for the upkeep of the school since then. But still, according to the school manager who approached the Kerala High Court in 2015 seeking closure, the school failed to attract sufficient number of students.

The High Court rejected the government’s argument that under the Right to Education Act, a Central law that insists on neighbourhood schools within walking distance of every child’s residence, the continuance of the school was necessary in public interest. It said that the right of the manager to close down an aided school was not affected by the provisions of the RTE Act and Rules “either on account of it not applying for recognition or on account of it not complying with the provisions of the Act”. The court said that since in this case the school did not have recognition under the RTE Act (because the manager did not apply for it), “the right of the manager to close down the school, as obtained under the Kerala Education Act and Rules, was absolute and could not be interfered with” by the government.

Vague provisions

The provisions of the Kerala Education Act and the rules based on it are rather vague on the issue of closure of aided schools. They merely say that “no manager shall close down any school unless one year’s notice, expiring with the 31st May of any year, of his intention to do so, has been given to the officer authorised by the government in this behalf”. The Act then requires the manager, in the event of a school being closed down, merely “to hand over all records and accounts of the school to the officer authorised by the government”.

By inference, once an aided school is closed down on the basis of an year’s notice given by the manager, the building and property of the school will revert to the management—that is, if the government does not, under other provisions of the Act, “take over the management of the school” for a period “not exceeding five years” by paying a rent prevailing in the locality for similar properties or does not “acquire” the school “in public interest” by paying a compensation to the management based on the market value in the area.

Although a Division Bench of the High Court, too, upheld the decision of a single judge of the High Court, protests by local residents and the staff of the school prevented government officials from locking up the school.

But things came to a head when the manager approached the High Court again and the court directed that the school must be closed down by June 8 even if it meant arresting and removing the protesters by force. The court also expressed displeasure over the non-implementation of its repeated orders.

The agitation by over 350 local residents demanding the continuance of the school, which had only 45-odd students from Classes I to VII, eight teachers and two support staff, was more than two months old by then. The court, however, said the [previous United Democratic Front] government failed to file an appeal against its original directive despite having enough time to do so.

In the wake of the Supreme Court, too, rejecting the Special Leave Petition filed by the LDF government against the Division Bench’s order, the authorities had no other option than to seal the school premises and shift the classes to a temporary facility within the building housing the District Collectorate.

Three other schools—Thiruvannur Palatt Nagar AUPS, Kiralur Parasurama Memorial LPS and Mangattumury LPS, in Kozhikode, Thrissur and Malappuram districts respectively—have also been closed down under similar circumstances and are to be taken over by the government, Education Minister Prof. C. Ravindranath said. The LDF government had tried to argue before the apex court that the rules framed under the RTE Act would override the right of the manager to close down a school under the Kerala Education Rules, but the court took the position that since the school had not applied for recognition under the RTE Act within the required timeframe, it could not be allowed to function.

Strangely, just as the State’s Education Act, 1958, ignores the plight of students left to fend for themselves when an aided school is closed down by the management on a year’s notice, the recent court orders also have not bothered to take into account the lack of alternative avenues nearby for students or the spirit of the RTE Act itself while upholding the right of managers to shut down their schools.

The Supreme Court, too, concurred with the High Court Division Bench’s order and dismissed the State’s plea that students should not be made to suffer because a manager failed to make a self-declaration or apply for recognition under the RTE law—thus leaving the door open for more aided-school managements to close down their institutions, reportedly, in many such cases, in order to make a profit in the real estate market.

But the case of the four aided schools is just the tip of the iceberg, so to say, and is merely the symptom of a deeper malaise affecting Kerala’s public education system (“Kerala’s lessons”, Frontline, July 15, 2011). Government and aided schools have witnessed a severe fall in the enrolment of students mainly because of (i) the sharp decline in fertility rates (“Shades of grey”, Frontline, August 24, 2012); (ii) an exciting curriculum reform programme, which, despite its many strengths, failed to gain the trust of the people (“Abandoning a reform measure”, Frontline, August 3, 2003); and (iii) the increasing flow of students to a highly commercialised stream of unaided, English-medium schools teaching the CBSE/ICSE syllabus.

Successive (especially UDF) governments have shown an eagerness to offer no-objection certificates (NOCs) to CBSE/ICSE schools (a requirement for recognition from Central education boards). For instance, in 2001-06, the UDF government decided to give NOCs to 600 such private schools; the LDF government that followed it, for 42 schools; and the last UDF administration, reportedly, for over 500 more—when ironically, government and aided schools were increasingly being stamped as “uneconomic” and so ready for closure.

All this created a widespread impression that private provisioning and high cost of education offer better quality of education as a corollary—a perception that forces even parents from poor backgrounds to send their children to CBSE/ICSE schools at unreasonable costs. But it is a theory that falls in the face of several disappointing examples in the private CBSE/ICSE sector and inspiring examples of government schools that coexist with them and continue to top the charts in terms of popularity, infrastructure facilities, rush for admissions and learning achievements of its wards.

Exceptional example

The case of the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School for Girls (GVHSS) at Nadakkavu in Kozhikode, not far from the Malaparamba AUP School, is an exceptional example of what a government school run well can achieve. The facilities that the school provides, through a special fund-rising initiative anchored by local MLA A. Pradeep Kumar, can compete with the best of exclusive private schools in India. Several other well-known government schools in Kerala too have much better infrastructural and learning achievements than their counterparts in the private sector.

However, it is true that the government’s quality improvement programmes have not benefited all public sector schools in the State equally. Even parents from low-income backgrounds are reluctant to send their children to schools that have failed to keep up, and there are many such, especially, in the rural and semi-urban areas of Kerala. The Economic Review 2015 published by the State Planning Board reports that there were 5,573 “uneconomic schools” in Kerala in 2014-15, an increase of 161 such schools than in the previous year. Of these, 2,586 were government schools and 2,987 were aided schools. Some estimates have pointed to the disturbing parallel development that, for instance, between 1990-91 and 2002-03, enrolment in government schools fell by 25.6 per cent whereas it increased by 71 per cent in private, unaided schools—a trend that has obviously gained more strength in later years.

Moreover, while there were 52.49 lakh students in government and aided schools in 1999-2000, the number had declined to 37.70 lakh in 2015-16. The latest headcount, undertaken on the sixth working day of every academic year in government and aided schools, shows that, compared with last year, the number of students has come down further by 61,592.

Seen in this context, in an already cash-strapped State, the government’s recent policy decision to take over the four unaided schools by paying adequate compensation seems to be easier said than done. The decision is still open to legal challenges and will place a huge financial burden on the government and does not really prevent the managements of other aided, “uneconomic” schools, especially in prime locations, from seeking closure or real estate gains. The move to revise the Kerala Education Act and Rules, historically a sensitive issue in Kerala, too is fraught with possible legal hurdles.

Already, despite the heartening view expressed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the Education Minister that in no circumstances would schools be allowed to close down, the contrary opinion too is gaining ground. But those who argue for the closure of all “uneconomic” schools fail to see the tremendous “non-economic” advantages that public provisioning of education had offered Kerala throughout its history—including being the basis of its human development achievements; an effective instrument against caste, gender and class discrimination; and a tool that helped the spread of mass literacy, women’s education and democracy and improved equity, health and social conditions.

Most of all, the State’s public education system has remained free, open to all, secular and unifying—a boon for poor students, who will be the most affected if the government does not tread carefully, as the clamour rises for more and more CBSE schools and for the closure of more and more “uneconomic” schools.