SOS: Save Our Schools

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The LDF is trying to salvage many government-aided schools on the verge of closure despite a Supreme Court ruling allowing it. What ails the education system of this most literate state of India? 

By Naveen R Nair in Thiruvananthapuram


The new LDF government in Kerala is facing a challenge in the education sector. In an unprecedented cabinet decision early this month, it announced that it would take over all government-aided schools making a loss and which were on the verge of closure and run them itself.

Out of a total of 12,615 schools in the state, which include government-run, aided and private schools, a staggering 5,573 are reported to be uneconomical as per the Economic Review 2015. According to the Kerala Education Act & Rules 1958/59, any school that has less than 25 students per standard would be declared uneconomical, exceptions being Sanskrit and Arabic schools.

DIRE SITUATION

Four such aided schools have already shut down, while another 25 have served closure notice to the government. It is these schools that the state government will take over if the court permits. If undertaken, it would put an additional burden on the exchequer. This is the last resort and a face-saving measure for the Pinarayi Vijayan government following a Supreme Court ruling this month which permitted the manager (they are often the owners of the land on which the school stands) of an aided school in Kozhikode to shut shop in spite of the government opposing it tooth and nail.

District collector of Kozhikode Prashanth N gives lessons to students of Malaparamba School in the collectorate
District collector of Kozhikode Prashanth N gives lessons to students of Malaparamba School in the collectorate

Education minister Prof C Raveendranath said: “The government is very clear on this issue. It is a policy decision. We are not worried about the economic viability. The viability here is a social one and we are trying to protect the public education system in Kerala which has gone down drastically.”

It all began when the manager of the Malaparamba Aided Upper Primary School in Kozhikode approached the Kerala High Court to obtain permission to shut it down on May 29 this year. He said that with the dwindling number of students every year, it had become uneconomical to run the school. The very building itself was falling apart and with the management unable to sustain it, it had no option but to shut it down.

Source: Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad
Source: Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad

The High Court observed that the manager was well within his right to do so as per the Kerala Education Act and Rules 1958 which clearly said: “No manager shall close down any school unless one year’s notice expiring with the 31st May of any year, of his intention so to do, has been given to the officer as may be authorized by the government in this behalf.’’

UDF GOVERNMENT

The decision to shut down the school by the manager was taken in 2013 and he had filed an application for closure but the previous UDF government had sat on it. If at all there was any hue and cry, it was raised by the Parent Teachers Association and a few local residents.

Police presence at Malaparamba School after protesters resisted its closure
Police presence at Malaparamba School after protesters resisted its closure

Though the present government challenged it in the apex court, the verdict once again went in favor of the manager. The state, terming the act of closure “illegal”, argued in court that the move would violate the “Right to Education Act” prevalent in the country. But the Supreme Court came down heavily on the state government. “How is this action illegal? Did your school apply for recognition under Right to Education (RTE) within the time prescribed by law? RTE Act does not allow you to run a school when you don’t have the right to run it,’’ the Supreme Court told Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand who appeared for the state.

Source: Economic Review 2015
Source: Economic Review 2015

Even though the government told the Court that the issue at Malaparamba had become a social one with parents, teachers and students raising a protest for reinstating the school, it dismissed the petition.

 Following Malaparamba, four more schools have pulled down the shutters with the help of the judiciary and 25 more are waiting in the wings to do so. It is in this context that the government has now decided to play the Good Samaritan.

COLLECTOR PITCHES IN

In the meantime, with Malaparamba School shut, the classes shifted to the district collectorate at Kozhikode. The collector himself stepped in to take classes, much to the surprise of the students. The government decided to carry on with the classes there till a final solution was reached and informed the High Court of its decision to take over the Malaparamba School. The Court, however, asked the government to first shut it down and then start the process of takeover.

However, matters won’t be easy for the state when it comes to taking over the rest of the schools. For Malaparamba alone, the state government would have to shell out Rs. 6 crore compensation as per present land prices in the market. For a state that is running a debt of more than Rs. 150 crore, it would be difficult to find funds to take over every aided school on the verge of bankruptcy.

While Kerala may wear the badge of total literacy with aplomb, when it comes to public schools, the standard of instruction has seen a downhill trend. This, educationists say, is the root of the problem that has forced the government to take desperate measures. Educationists point out that successive governments have done little to protect the public education system in the state. Failure to ensure that textbooks reach students on time, not having enough teachers in schools and not conducting training courses for teachers on a regular basis have literally broken the backbone of the state’s once-prided educational system.

Eminent educationist Prof RVG Menon said: “There has been a huge deterioration in the quality of instruction in the public schools and that is reflected in the minds of the parents. In the last 20-25 years, there has been a growing trend not just in the upper middle class but even among the poor to send children to unaided or private schools as they feel these will give proper education. This is unfortunate.’’

DECLINING STUDENT NUMBERS

A study by the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, a literary movement, has shown that a decade ago, only 20 percent of incoming students every year opted for private schools. That has now gone above 40 percent, a testimony to the falling standards.

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The ineptness of the previous UDF government in handing the education department also strengthened this perception. Not only did textbooks fail to reach the students till the middle of the academic year, the results of Class X were declared erroneously by the then education minister. All this contributed to making the public school sector an unwanted place for a majority of Kerala’s youngsters. This resulted in lesser intake in government-aided schools and indirectly contributed to making the schools economically unviable.

Though lack of students per class is cited as the main reason for economic unviability, there is an element of greed, too, in the whole issue.

Most aided schools function out of buildings sitting on private property. Over the years, as the land prices soared, schools were made to look economically unsustainable. In many cases, managements purposely refrained from doing annual maintenance to ensure that the schools were in a dilapidated condition to accelerate their case for closure.

In most of the panchayats, managements functioned hand-in-glove with local politicians to ensure that aid from the government is siphoned off. Though there exist stringent norms on paper regarding appointment of teachers, it’s an open secret across Kerala that managements levy hefty bribes for every appointment. All this has made Kerala’s public education sector sick.

 The CPM-led LDF government now says that it hopes to root out all these evils by introducing stringent reforms. The government is all set to amend the 1958 Kerala Education Act and Rules by which it hopes to instill more social accountability in those who run aided schools. While the present Act allows the manager of a school to shut it provided he gives a year’s notice, the present government hopes to amend it so that the management is held accountable for its smooth functioning.

This would secure the future of Kerala’s students.