In breach of norms

Print edition : August 13, 2004

There is no dearth of rules to ensure that quality education is provided in safe surroundings. What is lacking is the political will to enforce them.

A PRELIMINARY survey by the Tamil Nadu government after the July 16 fire at the Sri Krishna High School in Kumbakonam shows that of the nearly 62,000 private schools in the State, 16,000 function under thatched roofs. According to some educationists, just removing the thatched roofs will not make a difference to the poor quality of infrastructure in these schools. They ask more basic questions: Why are nursery and primary classes conducted on the first and second floors? Why are kitchens (of the noon-meal centres or of the school) situated close to the thatched roof of a school? How are primary schools allowed to function without a playground and without ensuring proper safety, sanitation and hygiene? How can three or four schools run from one building? How have the schools, which are supposed to follow the Grant-in-Aid Code of the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, been escaping scrutiny?

At the only entrance to a primary school in Chennai.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

According to a retired teacher, most schools are run with a profit motive and their managements are "well-connected". "If recognition is refused by the authorities, within hours the owners of the schools manage to get a note from some influential person to grant them permission," says an educationist who retired after a 55-year stint in the State education service. "What can the authorities do in such a situation?" he asks. Tamil Nadu had one of the most comprehensive rules as early as 1956 for setting up a school - the Grant-in-Aid Code under the Madras Education Rules (now Tamil Nadu Education Rules). The Code sets norms not just for the building, but also for sanitation, hygiene and general safety.

Until 1978, the 34 private matriculation schools in the State came under the University of Madras or Madurai-Kamaraj University and followed the Rules scrupulously. But in 1978 they acquired an independent status and began to function under the Matriculation Board, which framed its own set of rules. Eventually, they ignored the Rules.

Now, the Tamil Nadu Education Rules applies to all schools recognised by the Education Department and under it they are required to follow the Grant-in-Aid Code. The Rules states that "the competent authority can withdraw the recognition given to the school permanently if the school authority violates any one of the conditions stipulated for recognition". Evidence from all over the State points to large-scale flouting of these rules by schools, but until now not one school has had its recognition withdrawn.

According to the Madras Education Rules, elementary schools shall be established on a minimum of three acres and on five acres if the student strength exceeds 800. In case the school building has more than the ground floor and if the length of the school is less than 70 feet (21 metres), there shall be two stairways. If the length of the building is 100 feet (30 m), it shall have three - one at either end and one at the centre. The stairways shall be so designed that all students from the upper floors can reach the ground level in two minutes in case of an accident.

The Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, which applies to all the schools in the State, also recommends the Grant-in-Aid Code. But even recognised schools seem to be in breach of them. There are also several other provisions such as the Chennai Municipal Corporation Act, the National Building Code and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority Rules, which prohibit the use of inflammable materials in the construction of public buildings, including schools. For instance, under the Corporation Act, "No external roof, verandah, pandal or wall of a building and no shed or fence shall be constructed or reconstructed of cloth, grass, leaves, mats or other inflammable material except with the permission of the Commissioner." The Act stipulates that even if permission is granted for such construction (this applies mainly for public functions), it can be only temporary and valid for no more than one year.

Matriculation schools drafted their own rules in 1978. According to the Code of Regulations prescribed for matriculation schools, one of the conditions for securing recognition was: "The Educational Agency must satisfy... that it has sufficient buildings, classrooms, laboratories, furniture, sanitary facilities and adequate playground for physical training activities" (Chapter II Section 10C). But the expression "sufficient" has not been defined in the Code. The school managements took advantage of this lacuna and set up schools without any playground, adequate space or proper infrastructure. Schools have come up in thatched sheds, in high-rise buildings and in cramped spaces. In several instances, more than one school - aided, unaided and English medium - is run within the same premises. There are now over 31,000 private, English-medium matriculation schools with an enrolment of some 70 lakh children - practically without any control. Their number in 1978 was 34.

Unrecognised nursery and primary schools have mushroomed in the last decade, primarily driven by the demand generated by the proliferation of matriculation schools. The Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Act does not permit primary education in the English medium. Primary education, under the Act, shall be only in the Tamil medium. Thus, the matriculation schools needed English medium primary schools to feed them with pupils. The infrastructure in these schools is, if anything, worse. Since there was no need to register or secure approval or recognition for these schools, they mushroomed. The government set up the S.V. Chittibabu Commission in the 1990s to study the proliferation of unrecognised primary schools in the State. This committee prepared a code for nursery and primary schools, but this code had no statutory backing. When schools were asked to register under the code, most of them simply refused to do so saying that they did not want to be monitored.

According to the report of the Committee on Matriculation Schools in Tamil Nadu, also headed by Chittibabu, there are some 3,000 matriculation schools in the State. They are required to adopt English as the medium of instruction. The report notes a proliferation of such private schools over the last two decades. From 5 per cent of all schools in the mid-1980s, matriculation schools now added up to 35 per cent.

Of the 1,635 schools that responded to the committee's questionnaire, a fourth were unrecognised. Over 65 per cent of the schools (from LKG to the 12th standard) functioned on less than one acre (0.4 hectare), most without a playground. While only a fifth of the schools had a building area of more than 10,000 sq ft, 10 per cent of the schools functioned in buildings with an area of less than 1,000 sq ft. Some 19 per cent of the boys and 28 per cent of the girls did not have access to "suitable" toilet facilities. Nearly a fourth of the schools were in kutcha buildings with "small classrooms". About 60 per cent of the teachers were untrained and a similar percentage of teachers had less than two years' experience. Nearly a third of the teachers were paid less than Rs.1,000 a month; 67 per cent got less than Rs.2,000.

This report was submitted to the government in March 2003, but little is known of any action taken.

Under the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, the PWD or a chartered engineer has to issue a "structural fitness certificate". But as every builder is a chartered engineer, the schools get the fitness certificate from the one who built the school. Thus, in some sense, it is self-certification that is happening.

All along the "building fitness" or "structural safety" certificate needed for a school to obtain recognition was issued by the local authorities, but in December last year the Director of Primary Education came out with a set of guidelines governing the inspection of school structures by local bodies. This move came after a school building in Tirunelveli collapsed in heavy rain. The Kumbakonam school fire tragedy is, in some sense, an indictment of the local authorities, such as the District Education Officers, for their failure to monitor the safety of school structures.

The role of teachers in such accidents has also come to the fore after the Kumbakonam tragedy. Says a retired school headmaster: "As a teacher I am ashamed of the way the teachers of the school behaved. But one should not lose sight of the fact that these teachers are paid a pittance and are, mostly, not trained ones. What kind of responsibility can you expect from such teachers?"

One way of dealing with the situation, many argue, is to entrust to the local bodies, such as panchayats, once again the responsibility of approving and monitoring schools. The local bodies had been administering, under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Act, 1920, schools under their jurisdiction until 1981, when the government entrusted this responsibility to the Directorate of School Education.

There is clearly no dearth of norms or rules to provide good quality education in safe surroundings. What is required is the political will to enforce the rules and implement them scrupulously.

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