A deadline for schools

Print edition : July 01, 2005

At the cramped entrance of a nursery school during the last academic year. - K.V. SRINIVASAN

The Tamil Nadu government extends the deadline it set for the closure of over 2,000 nursery and primary schools that have failed to conform to safety and infrastructure regulations.

UNCERTAINTY surrounds the fate of over one lakh nursery and primary schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu with the State government issuing on April 11 an order asking over 2,000 nursery and primary schools to close if they did not have or did not renew the Education Department's approval to function or failed to conform to safety and infrastructure norms by May 31. But on June 8, following an appeal made by the schools, this deadline was extended by three months.

As per the Nursery Code of 1991 (amended in 1993), which is being enforced strictly after the fire tragedy in a school in Kumbakonam in July 2004 (Frontline, August 13, 2004), schools need to get their approval renewed every year by getting certificates for building safety (under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings Licensing Act, 1965) and structural stability from the Public Works Department or a chartered engineer. The schools must also have sufficient classrooms, laboratories, furniture and sanitary facilities.

On the basis of this code, the Directorate of Elementary Education issued the order, which also directed that students of those schools be transferred to other institutions in the area.

On May 30, the order was challenged in the Madras High Court by the Tamil Nadu Nursery, Primary, Matriculation and Higher Secondary School Management (TNNPM) Association. According to its general secretary D. Christdas, the Nursery Code was not implemented strictly all these years leading to the mushrooming of nursery and primary schools in the State. But now the government is asking the schools to close down. According to him, moving children from unapproved schools to others can compound the problem. Approval for a school is given for a fixed student-and-teacher strength and based on the infrastructure. Now, if hundreds of students from unapproved institutions get transferred to an approved one, its strength would suddenly go up without any addition to the infrastructure. Moreover, thousands of teachers of the schools ordered closed would be thrown out of their jobs. He says that the government needs to consider these issues and give the institutions sufficient time to comply with the norms.

According to Christdas, the schools can be grouped into three: those that have applied for fresh approval, those seeking renewal, and those that have never applied for approval. He says: "We are not seeking any relief for unapproved schools, but only time to comply with the norms."

On May 31, Justice K. Raviraja Pandian stayed the operation of the order for a month in respect of schools whose renewal applications are pending with the authorities and those that are yet to renew their structural stability and fire safety certificates.

Meanwhile, the Elementary Education Department ordered district officials to compile a list of unapproved nursery and unaided primary schools, including those that have applied for recognition, and put them up at the District Elementary Education offices. According to the preliminary lists released on June 1, Chennai has 235 such schools, Madurai 220, Coimbatore 96, Tirunelveli 81, Tiruchi 130, Thanjavur 116, Thoothukudi 52, Nagercoil 241, Vellore 320, Kancheepuram 307 and Cuddalore 164. None of these schools has been ordered to close as the petition challenging the order was pending with the High Court.

In the meantime, 25 schools in the southern Madurai and Virudhunagar regions had got an interim stay of the order from the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on the grounds that their applications for renewal of approvals were pending with the government. Several unrecognised nursery schools in the State had also gone to the High Court against the implementation of the order.

Some schools that do not have the approval had closed suo motu. Following reports that some schools had reopened in the hope of getting their renewals later, the Education Department formed district-level flying squads to prepare a list of such schools.

According to the Education Department, there are about 2,600 unapproved nursery and primary schools in the State. But the TNNPM Association says that the figure is several times higher. A five-member team led by district elementary education officers along with officials from the departments of Health, Fire Service and Public Works is conducting surveys in every district to ascertain the number of such schools. According to informed sources, even the schools that have got approval are to be scrutinised for basic amenities and safety norms. Matriculation schools that have a nursery and kindergarten section are also asked to apply for approval.

IN the wake of the fire at the Sri Krishna High School in Kumbakonam, which killed 90 children when the thatched roof caught fire, educationists such as S.S. Rajagopalan asked the government to look into questions such as: 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) located 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 be run from one building? How have the schools, which are supposed to follow the norms in the Grant-in-Aid Code of the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, been escaping scrutiny?

According to Rajagopalan, Tamil Nadu had one of the most comprehensive sets of rules - the Grant-in-Aid Code under the Madras Education Rules (now, the Tamil Nadu Education Rules) - framed as far back as 1956, for setting up a school. The Code sets norms not just for the building but also for sanitation, hygiene and general safety (Frontline, July 13, 2004).

The Tamil Nadu Education Rules state: "The competent authority can withdraw the recognition given to any school permanently if the school authority violates any one of the conditions stipulated for recognition."

Under the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, which applies to all schools in the State, 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.

According to Rajagopalan, matriculation schools drafted their own Rules in 1978. The Code of Regulations prescribed for matriculation schools says: "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 with the expression "sufficient" not defined in the Code, managements took advantage of this loophole and set up schools without any playground, adequate space or proper infrastructure. Schools have come up in thatched sheds, in tall buildings with poor access and in cramped spaces. In several instances, more than one school - aided, unaided and English medium primary section - is run on the same premises.

According to Rajagopalan, unrecognised nursery and primary schools have mushroomed in the past 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. Under the Act, primary education shall be only in the Tamil medium. Thus, the matriculation schools needed English medium primary schools to feed them with pupils. This led to the mushrooming of private nursery and primary schools - some even in one room of a small apartment.

The government set up the S.V. Chittibabu Commission in 1993 to study the proliferation of unrecognised primary schools in the State. It prepared a code for nursery and primary schools, which had no statutory backing. According to Rajagopalan, even this code was practised more in the breach. 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.

The government, after the Kumbakonam tragedy last year, had been asking schools that do not comply with norms to do so. According to Rajagopalan, the government did not pursue this seriously all these years for want of public schools to accommodate the rising demand for nursery and primary education in the English medium. According to him, there are today over 4,000 private matriculation schools outside government control. The number of nursery and primary schools would be over 20,000. The government, in a bid to free itself from the responsibility of providing schooling for all, encouraged such private schools to begin with.

THE latest State government move to close down unapproved nursery and primary schools has set off panic among parents who have paid donations and fees for their wards in the unapproved schools. This is accentuated with other schools closing admissions. Several schools awaiting renewal of approval have all but laid siege to the Directorate of Primary Education.

On June 3, the Directorate of Primary Education issued a circular to all nursery and primary schools seeking government approval to submit on time documents such as building ownership details, sanitary certificate, and the no-objection certificate from the Fire and Rescue Departments. The 14-point circular says that the number of students should not exceed the limit mentioned in the register, no other unapproved building should exist in the premises, and no combustible material should be present on the campus. It insists that the kindergarten classes must be conducted on the ground floor, there should be separate toilets for girls and boys, and the playground ownership certificate from the Sub-Registrar must be sent to the Education Department.

On June 5, Christdas, on behalf of the nursery and primary schools, appealed to the government to extend the time limit to get the approval and also to relax certain norms such as allowing the Chennai Corporation's playgrounds to be used by matriculation and nursery schools. He made it clear that the association would not help schools that flouted norms deliberately.

On June 8, responding to the appeal, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa extended the time till the end of August for the nursery and primary schools to comply with the norms. "This," Jayalalithaa said in a statement, "was to obviate any hardship and dislocation to the children and parents." She also said that adequate time had been given to schools to comply with requirements such as ensuring the stability of buildings and replacing thatched structures with non-inflammable materials. In April 2005, the managements had been asked to comply with the norms and get the necessary approvals before the schools reopened. Yet, some institutions had not taken the necessary steps, she said. She added: "Ignoring such regulations will seriously compromise the safety of the children who are admitted in these schools. This is totally unacceptable." According to her, most schools have now realised the importance of complying with regulations and are taking concrete steps.

On June 9, following the three-month extension given by the government, the Madras High Court dismissed a batch of petitions filed by the unapproved nursery and primary schools against the implementation of the order to close all such schools.

There is no doubt that schools without the required basic minimum safety norms and infrastructure need to be closed. But the government has to ensure that children from such schools are accommodated in other schools. According to educationists, the government should also see an opportunity in this and set up more quality public schools.

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