`Removing thatched roofs is not the solution'

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, educationist.

Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, an educationist who has been a witness to the progressive deterioration of school education in Tamil Nadu over the last 55 years, believes that "removing thatched roofs of schools is no solution to the pitiable condition of the state of education in the State".

A teacher who quickly became headmaster - of Sarvajana School in Coimbatore - and remained one for 34 years (a record of sorts), Rajagopalan has been a member of several panels on school education including the S.V. Chittibabu Committee on Matriculation Education and the Children Load Committee of the State government. He prepared guidelines for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) project "Education for All" and drafted a new mathematics syllabus for the State School Education Department.

Having served in the District Board Services for 16 years, Rajagopalan is familiar with the state of public schools in the State's rural areas. For this "Best Teacher Award" winner in 1982, the primary concern, of which he talks with passion, is the dichotomy in school education - good quality one for the rich and a sub-standard fare for the low-income groups.

Rajagopalan, who is distressed at the government's apathy over the mushrooming of unrecognised English medium schools that have scant regard for student safety, spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on why the "teaching shops" came up in such large numbers. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you trace the history of English medium matriculation school education in Tamil Nadu? How did "teaching shops" proliferate in the State without any control?

Tamil Nadu had a history of providing good education to all. But not any longer. After Independence, Tamil Nadu had several programmes to bring education to all children; no other State had anything close to these. The idea was to make education available in the remotest areas. During British rule, education was completely free only for Scheduled Caste children, and that too only on the basis of income; for the backward classes, there was a 50 per cent fee concession also on the basis of income. Slowly, these concessions were extended; every year a concession was added and in every Budget some group of people were added to the list of people eligible for concessions. Thus, on April 1, 1964, education became totally tuition fee-free [not totally free, as there were other costs].

Thus, Tamil Nadu was the first State to provide tuition fee-free education to all up to the SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate] level. In 1978, this was extended to higher secondary education, but restricted to Tamil-medium schools. English-medium schools were heavily subsidised; students did not even bear 10 per cent of the expenses incurred on teachers' salaries.

In 1978, there were only 34 matriculation schools under the control of Madras University and Madurai Kamaraj University. But in 1978, the then Madras University Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Malcolm Adiseshaiah, decided that the university could not bear the responsibility of school education; that it had to focus on higher education and research. He felt that recognising, running, monitoring and conducting examinations for schools could not be the function of universities. Thus, he intimated all matriculation schools that from 1979 the university would not conduct the matriculation examination. He gave them the option of either affiliating themselves to the State or Central Boards, or to any other body such as the ICSE. And, if they are not willing to affiliate themselves to any of these boards, then they had the option of converting the schools into charitable institutions such as hospitals.

But the matriculation schools put a lot of pressure on the university to go back on this decision. I know this well as I was then a Senate member and privy to the goings-on. But Malcolm Adiseshaiah refused and stuck to the decision of the Syndicate and asked the schools to go their way or shut down. It was then that the Director of Public Instruction agreed to give them a separate identity. That is how the Matriculation Board came into existence. And, the regulations for matriculation schools were drawn up not by the government but by the matriculation school principals themselves. And therein lies the problem.

The regulations thus drawn up were very loose. Until then all schools were governed by the Madras Education Rules [or the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, as they are now called], which clearly lay down the conditions for opening schools; giving them recognition; the minimum infrastructure required; the space needed (five acres of playground and one acre of building space); the number of lavatory seats and urinal compartments; the space between two tables and so on. It is very detailed... and gender-wise as well [girl students required more lavatory seats and so on]. These rules were drawn up after much thought, addressing every detail and requirement of the student. This was applicable for government, aided and all recognised schools.

It is important to note that the government had never taken up the responsibility of providing schooling for children, right from British days. The only exceptions were two or three schools for minority Muslim women and those attached to the teachers' training schools, which were run as models. Otherwise, neither the British nor the Indian government started schools. Schools were the responsibility of local bodies and private agencies, which were aided. There was a liberal aid provision for these private agencies, which even made profits and ploughed them back into the school.

Thus, the system was running well. Even the District Board schools maintained high standards because children of local big-wigs studied there and these influential persons took personal interest in the running of such schools; all children in the villages, rich or poor, studied in these schools. Thus, it was "their" school and not just a "government" school.

But, in 1958, when District Boards were abolished, the elementary schools were transferred to panchayat unions. But high schools were left in the lurch until 1970; they were first managed by District Collectors and, later, by the Divisional Inspector of Schools. The latter exercised the powers of the president of the District Boards.

In 1970, the government took over the District Board [High] schools [The primary schools were taken over in 1981]. That was the first blunder. In fact, the then Education Secretary, R.A. Gopalaswamy, said clearly that the department could not take over the schools. He warned that the manager and the inspector could not be one and the same. For the government would not find fault with the functioning of the schools as it would also be managing it. And, eventually, standards would deteriorate, including infrastructure. These were prophetic words.

But the then Director of Public Instruction, N.D. Sundaravadivelu, prevailed upon the government and the schools were taken over. In 1978, the 34 matriculation schools were also taken over by the government.

But after 1978, the government's thinking changed. It thought why the government should give aid to private schools and decided to let them function as matriculation schools. Thus, today there are over 4,000 private matriculation schools outside government control. And the government, in a bid to free itself from the responsibility of providing schooling for all, encouraged such private schools. In fact, from my own experience, when a Panchayat Board President came to the Director and said that he had put up 10 pucca classrooms, a mandatory requirement to set up schools then, and asked the government to run a school in his panchayat, the official said: "After spending the panchayat money to construct 10 pucca class rooms, why do you want to hand it over to the government and go through all the hassles associated with it? Run it yourself. I shall give you permission."

Thus, private schools came up in large numbers. And for them to survive, it was made sure that the government and aided schools did not function properly. Thus, the government school framework rapidly deteriorated, teacher vacancies were never filled; it took me over two years to fill the vacancy of a chemistry teacher.

But why did the government encourage private schools?

Primarily to reduce its financial commitment; it had always wanted to cut down on its commitment to education. Thus, the Budget allocation for education by the State government has come down substantially since the 1950s.

The government stopped funds for its schools. And, in the 1960s, PTAs [parent-teacher associations] were started primarily to strengthen the relationship between schools and parents and to give children better education. But, slowly, the PTAs became influential. They are being given the function of providing infrastructure for the schools, even the powers to appoint teachers, collect donations, and so on.

Now, in every government school, money [donation] is paid to the PTA president or treasurer. And, only after a "chit" of that payment is shown does the student get admission. No academic criteria or any other consideration need to be fulfilled for admission - only the PTA payment receipt. This is so in aided schools too.

But, according to a recent Government Order, no aided school shall collect donation at the time of admission. For obtaining donation, they must give a proposal to the Education Department and only after the latter's approval can it be collected. But seeing even government schools collect donations, aided schools have started doing blatantly, without any fear. The government is also looking the other way; it is happy so long as aided schools do not ask for additional teachers or funds. That seems to be the policy of the government.

What is the education policy of the State government?

The problem is that there is no perspective planning. There are several documents and reports on school education - I myself prepared a report. But nothing has happened.

What do the rules stipulate about infrastructure requirements in schools?

The problem is that there are different rules. The MER [Madras Education Rules] lays down one set of conditions. But now no one knows whether the MER is in force or has become defunct. Recently, a committee under the chairmanship of A. Muthukrishnan [former Director of School Education] was appointed to review the MER. He submitted the report in September 2003. But no one has heard about it since.

Another set of rules is in the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, 1975. This is the only statutory provision; all others are non-statutory and governed by executive directions with no legal sanction. Thus, if matriculation schools commit any wrong, no legal action can be taken against them.

The other set of rules are laid down by the Board of Matriculation Schools. As it was drafted by the principals themselves, the rules cleverly say "sufficient infrastructure". But "sufficient" has not been defined. Thus, matriculation schools took advantage of this and set up schools without any playground, adequate space or proper infrastructure. Schools have come up in thatched sheds, in high-rise buildings and cooped spaces.

As a member of the S.V. Chittibabu Committee on Matriculation Schools, I went to the southern districts. The schools there are in shameful conditions. At one place, two classes functioned in a 10 feet by 10 feet room with children huddled together. And, when we questioned this, the correspondent said: "Show me the authority where the dimensions of a classroom is prescribed."

From when has there been a proliferation of "teaching shops" in Tamil Nadu? Why did it happen?

Unrecognised nursery and primary schools have come up in large numbers in the past decade or so, primarily owing to the demand generated by the proliferation of matriculation schools. When matriculation schools were set up in large numbers, they needed English-medium primary schools to feed them with students. So, unrecognised nursery and primary schools were set up in large numbers, primarily as feeder schools to the matriculation schools.

The Elementary Education Act does not permit primary education in the English medium. Primary education, according to the Act, shall be only in Tamil. There is only one aided English-medium primary school in the whole of Tamil Nadu.

Since there was no need to register or get approval or recognition for these schools, they mushroomed. That is why the government set up the Chittibabu Committee a decade ago to study the mushrooming of unrecognised primary schools in the State. This committee prepared a code for nursery and primary schools, though without statutory backing. When schools were asked to register under the code, most simply refused, saying that if they did that they would be monitored. It was not even obtaining recognition, only approval. That is, they would take cognisance of the existence of the school. But even these they refused. For all this the conditions were diluted. But even that the primary schools refused to adhere to.

In the early 1990s, they were asked to register under the Directorate of Matriculation Schools. Initially, some 3,000 schools of the over 20,000 functioning at that time registered. Today, the numbers would be much more - no one knows how many.

There are different rules and different codes. But none of them seems to be applicable to these private schools that function with scant regard even for the safety of its students. What is the way out?

My answer would be to bring all schools under the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act. For infrastructure and other basic provisions let all schools come under one system.

The Chittibabu Committee has carried forward only one provision from this Act. That is, the building should have a licence under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings Licensing Act, 1965. This Act was passed in 1948, whereby the government had the powers to take over any building for public purposes. In 1965, the government started implementing this Act, in the wake of a tragedy in Madurai where the roof of a school collapsed and 35 children died.

The government stipulated that every school should obtain a licence issued by a Tahsildar on a certificate given by the PWD [Public Works Department] or a chartered engineer. The matriculation schools took advantage of this provision. They never approached the PWD to certify the building for two reasons: The PWD would be strict and it charged an inspection fee of 1 per cent [of the construction cost]. Thus, the schools got their buildings certified by chartered engineers. As every builder is a chartered engineer, practically the builder of the school building was himself certifying his construction.

Is there a way to impose some kind of regulations on these schools now?

The primary issue is why there should be so many streams of education - matriculation, SSLC, OSLC, ASLC, CBSE, ICSE, and now, international certifications - that makes regulation cumbersome and complex. In all other States there is only one stream of schooling up to Class X. Why should we have four types of State schools? Two of the Kothari Commission's recommendations are very valid. One, there should be a common school system with the same core curriculum, where all children get good quality education. And, two, there should be a neighbourhood school system, where every child has the right to get admission into a school close to her/his house and it is the duty of every school to admit the child first in its immediate neighbourhood. But vested interests never let this take off, though it is an excellent no-cost recommendation.

On the other hand, the City Corporations have not started a single school in the last 25 years. The government appears to have completely shed its responsibility of providing free public education to children. Government and aided schools are now patronised only by the poorest of the poor.

The government has ordered all thatched roofs removed in schools in the wake of the Kumbakonam tragedy. Will that stop similar tragedies from occurring in the future?

Removing thatched roofs is not the solution. Millions live in thatched huts. Most schools function under thatched roofs - Kalakshetra in Chennai and Santiniketan in Kolkata function under thatched roofs for better light and ventilation. But all of them are at ground level with lots of space all around; they are not on first and second floors. If the kitchen of the noon meal centre functions close to the thatched roof of a school, then one should look at the setting up of the noon meal centre there.

So many hut tenements catch fire every summer. But no casualties are reported. That is because all huts are at ground level and people are out in the open in no time.

There are a whole lot of other infrastructural parameters that ought to be looked into. The Kumbakonam accident has given the government a good opportunity to look into all these issues. But it is harping only on removing thatched roofs and sheds in order to avoid facing a whole lot of other issues.

First, how can primary classes function in the first floor? Also, there are norms that say that if the length of the building is 70 feet (21 metre), then it should have two staircases; and if the length is over 100 feet (30 m), then there should be three - two on either side and one in the centre. And, the staircases should be built in such a way that all children from the first and second floors can come down in two minutes. It was believed that the children would not be afflicted with danger within two minutes of a fire. There is no dearth of rules. Only, they need to be enforced.

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