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Schools lacking nod stir closure debate

Crucial service

New Delhi, June 23: India has over 21,000 unrecognised private elementary schools, about four in five of them in eastern India, a government report has revealed.

But academics and NGOs are opposed to these schools being closed, as the law says they should be. They argue that these schools are in no way inferior to the recognised government schools and provide crucial service to the rural poor.

Government schools are deemed automatically recognised whenever they are opened but educationists say most of them fail to meet the norms for recognition.

Elementary schools teach pupils from Class I to VIII. When the Right To Education (RTE) Act came into force on April 2010, it set all private elementary schools a March 2013 deadline to gain recognition on pain of being shut down by their state governments.

No state is likely to act without a clear signal from the Centre on what can be a politically sensitive issue. Sources in the Union human resource development ministry said no decision had yet been taken.

The latest figures, which describe the situation till September 30 last year, feature in a report by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration. It’s titled the Elementary Education in India Progress Towards UEE (universal elementary education), 2013-14.

It counts 21,351 unrecognised private elementary schools, about 16,500 of them in the east. Assam accounts for the highest number (7,009) followed by Jharkhand (3,185), Bihar (3,066), Kerala (1,755), Bengal (1,700) and Odisha (1,539).

Arun C. Mehta, the academic who led the research behind the report, said the figures had been collated from data provided by the state governments.

When the apex Central Advisory Board of Education discussed the subject in April last year after the RTE deadline had passed, then human resource development minister M.M. Pallam Raju had taken a nuanced view.

He had said the state governments should act against schools that “have not moved an inch” to try and meet the RTE norms but should be lenient towards the rest.

The RTE Act lays down nine infrastructure-related criteria for recognition, one of them being the pupil-teacher ratio, which should be 30:1 in primary classes (I to V) and 35:1 in the upper primary (VI to VIII).

J.S. Rajput, academic and former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, said “90 per cent” of government schools did not meet these norms.

“The government has no business closing any school down unless it sets its own house in order,” Rajput said. He added that if these private schools were shut down, their pupils might drop out of the school system entirely.

These rural private schools charge a small fee as opposed to the free government schools, but many parents consider them better than government schools. Besides, there aren’t enough government schools to teach all the children in every rural area.

Ashish Dhawan, chief executive of the Central Square Foundation, an NGO working in education, stressed these private schools’ importance to today’s rural schooling system.

He said the RTE’s “input-based” (infrastructure-related) norms were anyway not as good a marker of school quality as the “output-based” criterion of learning outcomes.

“The recognition process should give more weight to learning outcomes; the input-based norms should be specified only to the extent necessary to ensure the children’s safety and well-being,” Dhawan said.