Emotional atyachar of private schools: Chennai’s Bala Vidya Mandir is just playing on parents’ insecurities

How about a no-frills school? An enterprise where basic education comes at a base fare and for everything else — including a hot meal or on-board entertainment and games — you pay extra? If you are lucky enough, the owners might also hire some sassy school hostesses to tempt you to buy their paid products.

A Chennai school is currently facing flak for flirting with the fundamental that created a new category of flier: the low-cost guest. Its plan to carve out separate categories for low-cost students and those paying extra for premium seats has run into rough weather, prompting a war that has pitted students, parents, teachers and school staff on one side and the trustees on the other.

Representational image. AFP

According to newspaper reports, Chennai’s Bala Vidya Mandir (temple of education, ironically) has come up with an idea that could be best termed apartheid in education. It has issued a circular that asks parents to choose between two categories of schooling: one where children will study and go home and the other where apart from studying they would get access to many other facilities, including canteen, playground, a course on dealing with sexual harassment and abuse, the privilege of participating in extra co-curricular activities and annual function, for an additional fee, of course. (Read more here)

In essence: pay as you use, just like those Sulabh Complexes where you are charged on the basis of how you want to use the facility and for how long. (Incidentally, it is not clear if the school will charge students extra for using toilets).

The Chennai school is a classic example of the commercialisation of school education in India, the loot at pen-point of parents who have no other option but to get humiliated and cheated by institutes just because the state has abdicated its responsibility of running affordable centres of quality education.

Such is the mess in school education today that owners of private schools in India and parents of students have turned into ideological adversaries. They exist on the opposite ends of the ideological and commercial spectrums.

Parents feel school owners are philanthropic do-gooders devoted to the noble task of educating their children. They are stuck in a time warp, caught in the romantic notion that schools are like those ancient gurukuls where teachers have just one motive: of using every bit of their experience, knowledge, time and skill for producing a top-grade shishya.

But, schools are no longer ashrams where the guru wants just his dakshina or whatever little you can afford in return for his time and training. They are no longer reminders of the Indian ideal of a paathshala where everybody — from the proverbial Krishna to Sudama — is treated as an equal and taught as an equal.

Unfortunately, the mendicant guru has morphed into a mendacious trader. Most of the private schools today are commercial enterprises — just like shopping malls, multiplexes, private hospitals and airlines — where the owner looks at a student as a customer, somebody who can be sold his best, expensive services and charged the best possible rate for it. Seek ye wisdom, parents tell their children when they drop them at a school. Seek ye profit, the owners think every time they spot a student.

Naturally, fight between schools and parents — like the one going on at the Chennai school — have become routine. Every year, parents complain of exorbitant hikes in fees, hidden charges, overcharging for books, uniforms and other activities. In almost every state, there are cases in courts against schools raising fees exorbitantly every year. In several states, school owners get into confrontation with regulatory bodies that try to stop them from finding novel methods of fleecing parents.

In the case of Bala Vidya Mandir, the alleged categorisation of students is also a stratagem to find a way out of the government’s efforts to fix the fees. Its owners have found a way out by saying they are giving parents the choice of paying the fees fixed by the government. For extra services, they seem to argue, parents need to pay more.

This is standard emotional atyachar. School owners, like people who run hospitals, know that Indians overreach themselves when the education and life of their children are at stake. They know parents don’t want their children to feel they are deprived of facilities some of their friends are entitled to just because they cost more. Given a choice, parents would try to pay extra to ensure children do not feel discriminated against or do not feel inferior to their privileged friends.

An example would suffice: The management of a school I know sends costly tickets to an annual fair with students accompanied by a note that “parents who can’t afford them may return them with an application explaining their financial compulsion.” Till date, I haven’t heard of a single parent returning the fair tickets.

Our existing system is absurd. We send our children to private schools when they are young, but chase government-run institutions like IITs, IIMs, medical colleges and law universities for higher education. If only the state was competent enough to run institutions of better pedigree at the school level, parents would have perhaps preferred government over the private sector in school education. But the choice doesn’t exist.

As a result, education has become a business. And owners are taking off from where the likes of Vijay Mallya left.


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June 2015
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