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The untold tragedy of India's budget schools

A student walks in through an entrance decorated with balloons during the partial reopening of a school that remained closed due to the coronavirus pandemic at Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, in Mumbai. (Photo: AP)Premium
A student walks in through an entrance decorated with balloons during the partial reopening of a school that remained closed due to the coronavirus pandemic at Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, in Mumbai. (Photo: AP)

  • The low-cost private school ecosystem is collapsing. What happens to the millions of children who rely on them?
  • Cases of dual dropout—those who fall out of private and public education systems—are already emerging in some regions. Private budget schools warn that the actual figure could be in millions.

Roughly seven years ago, Mahendra Pratap took a huge leap of faith. He moved from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi along with his family. A better life and better schooling for his two kids were the top-most priorities. An electrical supervisor by profession, Pratap quickly got his children enrolled in a private English-medium school “so that they could get a good education and speak English".

But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into those plans. The family income dried up, schools got shut, and the monthly fee for a less-than-satisfactory remote learning experience began to bite into other necessary household expenses. Right after the second wave of covid-19 in 2021, Pratap withdrew his children from the private school and got them enrolled in a nearby “free" government school in Badarpur, a neighbourhood located in southeast Delhi.

“My son’s (private) school became almost non-functional," said Pratap. “And my financial condition does not allow me to seek a larger private school where the fees may be much higher."

Several others in Pratap’s neighbourhood have a similar story. Mahendra Pratap’s neighbour Santosh Kumar said that the monthly school fee of 2,800 for his two kids was the equivalent to 20% of his earnings even under “normal" circumstances. “On top of this, there are recurring expenses on books, internet and school uniforms, which were a bit too much during the pandemic," Kumar said. The government school made the decision to shift rather easy by admitting his children even without a transfer certificate, he added.

Kumar is hopeful that the public schooling system will be on par. But he doesn’t know for sure and, more importantly, doesn’t have much of a choice. Effectively, the low-cost private school ecosystem has lost families such as Pratap’s and Kumar’s for the time being. And it might stay that way for several years to come.

Nearly 850 kilometres away from Delhi, in Pipraich, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Amit Srivastava is worried. His Lotus Public School has seen the number of students enrolled fall from 350 in early 2020 to 125 now. The staff strength has also come down by 50% and the survival of the private school is on the line.

“It’s an existential emergency for low-cost private schools," said Srivastava, the owner and principal of the school. He argued that budget schools have suffered the worst as students left, the income required to pay staff and rent dried up, and there is still no fixed timeline on when things might become normal.

Among the many sectors that bore the brunt of the disruptions caused by covid-19, the plight of the private budget schools is perhaps one of the least recognized. Of the over 1.5 million schools spread across India, private schools account for a little over 400,000.

Contrary to popular belief, the private school sector is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite. Of these 400,000-plus private schools, a bulk—over 320,000—are actually affordable private schools (those that charge a fee of less than 2,000 per month). School entrepreneurs claim that tens of thousands of these budget schools have now either permanently shut or are on the verge of shutting down.

The 1 trillion ecosystem

What is at stake is the future of a 1 trillion affordable school market. “Speaking from the lens of socio-economic conditions, with the pandemic and the ensuing hardship, aspiration has taken a back seat," said Parth J. Shah, an economist and founder of the New Delhi-based policy think tank Centre for Civil Society.

“The crisis is real and serious," Shah said. “We have seen private school teachers and promoters committing suicide. This is because budget private schools depend on fees for their survival and that has gotten impacted severely. People have lost their jobs, the income even from non-salaried work has gone down, and many have gone back home from cities, thus, losing their school fee-paying capacity. It’s a difficult cycle," Shah added.

Santosh Maurya, a budget school promoter in Chauri Chaura, a rural town in Uttar Pradesh, concurred with Shah’s views. While Maurya’s school charges 300 per month, Srivastava’s school charges around 500 per month. Contrary to the popular perception of a private school as an institution that’s all about high fees, swanky buildings and a ready physical-digital infrastructure that could take care of any eventuality, the low-cost budget school is often run with bare minimum facilities.

“(Until now,) the growth in the private (schooling) sector has actually been powered by a wave of low- and middle-income families (who are) seeking better education for their children. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that 45% of all private school students pay less than 500 per month," Ashish Dhawan, founder of Central Square Foundation, an education think-tank, said in a recent report.

According to Central Square Foundation, at least 90 million children—or 75% of all private school students—are enrolled in private unaided schools. And around 70% of the students in private schools pay less than 1,000 per month in fees and 45% pay less than 500 per month in India, according to the Union ministry of statistics.

The cascading crisis

“The loss of budget schools is not just a financial crisis confined to the promoters, but it has a cascading impact on the entire ecosystem," said Kulbhushan Sharma, head of a private budget schools’ association in Haryana and the owner of a low-cost school in Ambala. The National Independent Schools Alliance estimates that in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, private budget schools will be facing an annual loss of 77,000 crore.

Sharma, who also heads the National Independent Schools Alliance, argued that the monetary estimate doesn’t even begin to account for the level of learning loss among students and job loss among teachers and support staff.

“I lost my job twice in the past 18 months. And when I joined a school in September 2020, they offered me 50% of my previous salary," said a teacher in Rewari, Haryana, who requested anonymity since he is not authorized to speak to the press. “School promoters exploited the teaching staff like never before. Low-cost schools sacked teachers saying that they are not able to collect fees… the workload doubled. The teacher-student ratio is no more a consideration in the realm of digital education," the teacher cited above added.

The Rewari-based teacher said that digital education in a low-cost private school is essentially education via WhatsApp as learning management systems and digital solutions are largely absent.

But those who do have a teaching job—even one that comes with a steep pay cut—are the lucky ones. Devendra Singh, 53, a teacher from Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh, said that low-cost private school teachers are now earning as little as 5,000-10,000 a month. Post pandemic, teacher salaries have dropped steeply—between 30-65%—and there is no surety that the salary will be credited by the end of the month.

“After working as a teacher for over 30 years, I have now realized that social respect and ‘namaskar’ from students is what I have earned. Financially, we were not (doing) great and after covid-19, the suffering is unspeakable," said Singh, the sole breadwinner of a five-member family.

Antony Thomas, a country coordinator with the National Independent Schools Alliance, said the pain due to the crisis within the low-cost school ecosystem is not limited to just the teachers but also includes support staff such as bus drivers, security personnel and sanitation workers. “Since fee income is the key for these institutions to survive, a drop in the fee payment rate by 50-80% has created a financial crisis, which is impacting every single person in the ecosystem," Thomas explained.

Fixed earnings have disappeared but fixed expenses, including loans, have accumulated, explained Shah of the Centre for Civil Society.

Shah argued that central and state governments “could have treated private budget schools as MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and given (some) relaxation on loan interest repayment and the repayment time frame, apart from other operational concessions. But alas, it did not happen".

The learning loss

While some believe that the closure and demise of these budget schools may be a good development since it would push students into government schools, Shah said that what remains unknown is whether these children who are coming from English-medium schools will be able to quickly adapt to a vernacular school. “There might be learning and understanding issues, which might trigger a bigger dropout," he said.

“An English-medium student won’t understand the nuances of a vernacular medium book. It amounts to a crisis of coping in the classroom," Shah added.

Such instances of dual dropout—those who fall out of both the private and the public systems—are already being recorded in some parts of the country. “People in (the) cities are thinking that students are migrating to government schools from private schools, and it’s an achievement. But remember, it’s largely untrue," said Maurya from Uttar Pradesh’s Chauri Chaura town. “They are dropping out," he added.

So far, there is no official data regarding the number of students who have dropped out due to the upheavals caused by the pandemic. But an early estimate received from the states by the Union education ministry shows that as of 5 July, states and union territories have identified 350,021 students in elementary and 104,650 in secondary schools for mainstreaming (meaning, these many students might need to be brought back to the schools immediately).

During off-the-record conversations, however, authorities concede that the real figure could be 8-12 times larger than the preliminary July estimate. Private budget schools have argued that the dropout figure could be in the millions and have demanded an unbiased survey at the national level to arrive at a clearer picture. The claim made by private school associations does not sound implausible, given the fact that Uttar Pradesh education authorities recently informed a parliamentary standing committee that “efforts to track 550,00 out-of-school children are currently ongoing". Other state-level authorities are on a similar quest to find “missing" children, who have completely dropped off the education map.

Ultimately, this lost year of education could easily turn into a lost decade, at least for some. And the fall of the budget school would be an important contributing factor if that eventuality were to materialize.

If anything, the pandemic has clearly shown that digital education doesn’t necessarily work for the people who were supposedly the best targets for online outreach—the poor and the marginalized who have limited access to good physical infrastructure. “Parents and students from poorer households really found it difficult to adapt to the new normal," said a New Delhi-based teacher who requested anonymity. And this loss of learning has left behind a measurable cognitive decline.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published in September by the non-profit Pratham shows how students in rural Karnataka have slipped further behind in the learning curve. In rural Karnataka, only 33.6% of children in Class 5 were able to read a Class 2 level text in 2020 as against 46% in the pre-pandemic year of 2018. Among younger students, the report noted that only 9.8% of students in Class 3 could read the textbook of a student one year junior to them in 2020. In 2018, 19.2% of the same cohort could read a Class 2 level text.

The Parliamentary standing committee on education had in a report to the government in August underlined that the learning deficit is likely to impair the cognitive capabilities of students. “This might have been a debilitating effect on vulnerable sections of the society like poor and rural students (sic), marginalized sections of society and young women who might have been unable to connect to any form of digital education during the pandemic."

“The learning loss will take five years to recover even though the financial loss may recover in the next two to three years," said Sharma, president of the National Independent Schools Alliance.

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