The Action Committee representing recognised private schools made an appeal to the Supreme Court to challenge the high court order asking them to seek prior approval from the Delhi government before increasing school fees. The apex court upheld the Delhi High Court decision in keeping with such a provision in the Delhi School Act.
While the SC verdict sends a clear and welcome message that education is a “not-for-profit” enterprise, the issue of strict State control over schools requires close examination. It is first important to understand that there exist several kinds of private schools in Delhi, and across the country.
The court order pertains to “unaided private schools” that have been set up on government land. That these schools are by obligation and law accountable to the state government is not a matter of debate. It is therefore rational to expect that well-crafted regulatory mechanisms when instituted can strengthen private schools to assist the government in providing quality education equitably.
Seeking approval from the state government before increasing school fees sounds a fair measure for holding private schools accountable. However, this measure in itself cannot ensure that private schools remain committed to the provision of equitable education as mandated by the RTE Act, and in lieu of being granted land for the purpose.
It does however have the potential to not only increase bureaucratic hurdles but also encourage rent seeking. The key would therefore be to institute measures that can ensure a participatory and transparent system of decision-making, including hiking of fees. Less opaque systemic measures are likely to increase parental and teacher involvement, thereby creating collective methods of checks and balance.
In the absence of such mechanisms a blanket court order is likely to create a culture of mistrust, and hurdles for those who are committed to providing quality education; while inadvertently encouraging others to use unfair means of circumventing bureaucratic procedures.
It is worth engaging with the outcome of another Supreme Court ruling on retaining the provision of reservation for children from EWS (economically weaker section) families in the RTE Act. While private schools have no option but to admit children from EWS families, as per the Act, several schools are known to have found ways to circumvent their commitment to this provision. Researches have revealed that some schools actively discriminate against children from EWS families, often denying them the time and facilities required for academic support and co-curricular activities. To ensure that this and other provisions of the Act are followed in letter and spirit ought to be the primary concern of the government.
To assume that the “SC verdict on private schools is ‘historic’ and a wake-up call for educational establishments which need to focus on teaching rather than making education a business”, as claimed by Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, is like missing the woods for the trees.
The greater challenge before state governments is the large scale commercialisation of school education via the proliferation of private schools set up with the purpose of “making profit” with consistent advocacy support from global networks.
Scholars have drawn attention to the proliferation of such schools that openly violate the RTE norms in terms of infrastructure, teacher qualifications and remuneration. The larger problem of commercialisation and profiteering from education requires several measures to be taken simultaneously, including bringing the large number of unrecognised private schools into the fold of rigorous regulation.
The question therefore is: Isn’t the state complicit in encouraging privatisation of schools that are advocated as sites of business, offering minimalistic teaching-learning facilities in the name of quality education?
Poonam Batra teaches at the Department of Education, University of Delhi
The views expressed are personal