Class 4 student K Vipin reluctantly walks into an empty room in the Kozhikode district collectorate every day to attend classes, unsettled by the stopgap arrangement as his 104-year-old school shut down in May.
The government-aided Malaparamba AUP School where Vipin studied is among hundreds of schools that have either closed or on the verge of shutting down in Kerala, a sad end to institutions that propelled the state’s literacy rate to an enviable high.
But a systematic rot has set in, mostly in state-run, state-aided and government-approved schools. Low enrolment over the years has made these schools unsustainable. A Kerala education rule says any school can be called “uneconomic” when the number of students in a class falls below 20 students — essentially a tag that heralds the death knell.
Of 5,573 schools tagged uneconomic by the latest state economic review, as many as 2,586 are directly run by the government while 2,987 are state-aided institutions.
The stats also show that more than 200 schools are facing immediate closure and 500 are in the queue.
The reason assigned is shortage of students. But mostly, education campaigners alleged, the motive is to usurp the land of these untenable schools — often prime real estate that fetches millions of rupees.
In state-aided schools, owned by private proprietors but teachers are paid by the government, there is a rush to shut shop because of the property’s real estate value. The owners, known as managers, apparently discourage high enrolment deliberately so that the school closes down. The property is then sold off or used for commercial activities, the campaigners said.
The government is aware of such crafty motives, though there is no official record on how many schools were sold off already. “We will not allow conversion of schools into real estate ventures,” chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, vowing to protect “the temples of learning”.
Malaparamba school manager PK Padmarajan affirmed that he has no plan to sell his school, though he waged a 15-year-old legal battle to shut it down. His moves were scuttled by the government and residents until the Supreme Court ruled in his favour.
For his part, Padmarajan said he wouldn’t have closed the school if it had at least 100 students. “But only ten students enrolled in the past two years … we were suffering huge losses since 1996.”
His school had 44 students, eight teachers and two support staff. “I know most teachers are sending their children to English-medium schools. How can they oppose closure of an uneconomic, aided school?” he asked.
Parents prefer private schools because of the poor quality of teaching and infrastructure in government schools.
Besides, experts blamed the changing demographic pattern of Kerala, a greying state that has the lowest birth rate in the country. The state recorded a 4.9% population growth in the past decade, against the national rate of 17.6%. No doubt, school enrollment dropped from 52.46 lakh in 1999-2000 to 37.70 lakh in 2014-2015. This year it can go down to 37 lakh.
“Schools are not profit-making enterprises. They are factories to churn out good students. We are pinning much hope on the new government,” said T Thilakraj, president of the Kerala School Teachers’ Association.