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A wake-up call: There is a crisis in India’s schools – columns

There is a crisis unfolding in India’s education sector that has barely got the attention of either the media or the government. Children, some younger than 10 years, are being thrown out of online classes at some of our poshest, most prestigious schools, as many parents struggle to pay the fees.

For the last two weeks, I have been tracking and chronicling the stories of these parents. In the Capital’s Delhi Public School (DPS) at Mathura Road, a group of parents have spent the last several days camping and protesting at the gates; they have been prevented from even entering. A couple who requested anonymity (“we fear our child will be embarrassed or punished by the school”) has been struggling with the coronavirus pandemic; the father tested positive. The last few months have been a period of enormous hardship. Both their daughters are students at DPS in Delhi. According to the parents, both children have been blocked from online classes and were thrown out summarily in front of the other students. They also say that at least 250 students were locked out of online classes and school WhatsApp forums over the issue of non-payment of fees.

Finally, the school proposed that a minimum of two months fees must be paid. Some managed, some dipped into their savings and others who still could not pay up had to face the trauma of their children not just being locked out online classes, but key internal exams as well. I have personally corroborated this by speaking to at least half a dozen parents.

DPS is not the only school where a serious battle is simmering between the parents and the school management. Vaibhav Garg in Uttar Pradesh lost his job in May and received his last salary up until the end of March. His wife is self-employed in a small business that barely has any earnings. He has been requesting his children’s private school to charge only the tuition fees and not the full package, but to no avail. He told me that they are able to manage at the moment because of the moratorium on EMI payments. Once that lifts, there is no way he can pay full school fees and repay his loans. With no jobs in the market, he considers himself blessed that the household already owned two laptops for his children’s online classes. “If I needed to purchase a laptop, I don’t have the money today.”

His story is a grim reminder that only 11% of homes in India have any computing devices. The digital divide is only being compounded by the contracting economy.

For many parents, coming out and speaking about the struggle to pay their children’s fees is difficult. They feel embarrassed to admit that they may have had their salaries cut or lost their jobs altogether. Most, however, worry more for their children than their own standing. My inbox is flooded with plaintive pleas from parents, most of whom requested anonymity. They worry that if they go on the record, the school management will take it out on their children and they will lose any wiggle room for a compromise.

School managements argue that full fees are necessary because they have to maintain the upkeep of infrastructure for a post-Covid-19 time. They also say that teachers, all of whom have had to unlearn and relearn skills in this online era, need to be valued and paid. No parent is disagreeing with that. But the irony is that multiple teachers have also reached out to me to say that they have faced salary cuts, or in some institutes, not been paid at all.

This lack of transparency is what is worrying. Parents say when they try and organise themselves into parent-teacher association groups that can negotiate with school managements, these are not given any official recognition by the executives. Even in the prestigious Mayo College, this battle is raging with parents’ forums unable to get any access to the school management.

I am sure schools have their own struggles. But the perception that most private schools are often owned by business barons and influential groups has only added to the disbelief that they are struggling to pay their staff. Their silence is only adding to the confusion and chaos. Making matters worse is that every state has its own rules on whether children can be blocked from online classes over the non-payment of fees.

But just like governments stepped in to cap the fees private hospitals could charge, a similar move might be needed for schools.

I’m not a big fan of government interference in most matters. But when children start getting hurled out of classrooms, we should all be alarmed.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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