In 2013-2014, more than 1,000 schools in Punjab have seen their doors closing because of non-compliance with the Right To Education (RTE) Act - a phenomenon clearly heightened by the ending of the three year deadline (March 2014) that had been given to private schools to meet the necessary norms.
The blossoming sector of Budget Private School (BPS) has particularly made the news - it saw school management demonstrating publicly against lopsided RTE school closure norms and parents too publicly expressed their anger. It is not surprising that BPS would be the first to suffer.. Serving mostly the underprivileged sections of Indian students, charging low fees and managing with rather limited resources, being able to meet the infrastructure norms of the RTE appeared like a distant dream for school owners. Even if the media has captured some of these stories, there is still very little clarity on the actual number of impacted schools and their numbers could be much higher than presently estimated..
CCS' School Choice Campaign had identified Punjab as one of the key hot spots where the school closures are rampant. It eventually encouraged us, about a month ago, to start a more rigorous field study. This week our School Choice team visited Punjab again to research further the causes and impact of large-scale BPS closures. In the districts of Barnala and Mansa, we have been able to meet key stakeholders and conduct focus group discussions and interviews with school owners, teachers, parents and government officials at the block and district levels. Our aim was to understand better the dynamics and reasons for closing down of the supposedly non-compliant schools by Government and the corresponding effects of such closures on concerned stakeholders.
On the ground, identifying schools that shut down because of RTE appeared more difficult when we noticed the influence of both direct and indirect threats for the BPS of the state. On one hand, closures can follow a standard procedure where government officials issue a notice after inspection. However, the implementation remains arbitrary and often not respecting the steps prescribed by the Punjab State Rules (2011). Very few schools were given written notice of the withdrawal of their school recognition, neither were reports of inspection or specific warnings shared with schools. Yet, other cases show a subtle but equally significant impact of the RTE Act. Upon meeting with school owners, some explained that the general climate of fear had led them to pre-emptively close their schools. All these elements convey the growing vulnerability of BPS under the RTE Act regime.
For parents, school closures are also a source of worry and dissatisfaction. There are many explanations behind the sustained demand for private schooling from weaker segments of the Indian society among which the presence of the English and Hindi mediums are important ones, but not the only ones. In Punjab, parents confessed that after their children’s school closed down, the distance to other educational establishments was a factor and it involved additional costs. Then, what are the options for these families and children after their local school closes down? The answer to this question is relatively simple: find a new school or dropout! Among all the parents questioned, the choice between re-integrating their children into a government school and another private school still worked in favour of the latter - even if it involved higher fees than the ones previously paid. One of the parents explained, “My father worked hard for me to go to school. I too will work hard and want my children to get the best education that I can afford”.