Innovation in regular times falls in the bucket of “nice to have” and has to face stiff competition from the “must-haves” bucket for attention and funding. But that gets flipped during a crisis. Overnight, some of them shed the label of superfluous and become central to survival, like the vaccine research has become right now to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.
Tired of complaining about the broken state of education in government schools, educators and social entrepreneurs had started such an innovative revolution two decades ago triggering a remarkable expansion of grassroots low-cost private schools in India.
The realization at the bottom of the pyramid that good education is the only way out of poverty made parents want quality education for their children. They understood that public education might be free, but their children are not learning in government schools. Unwilling to acquiesce to the mediocrity of government schools, they looked for low-cost alternatives. Budget private schools (BPS) grew out of this demand.
BPSs are privately-run schools that charge affordable fees between Rs. 50-300 per month, and operate among the weaker sections of the society in urban slums, tier II and III towns and rural India. They are typically crammed into small premises, often rented. Informal estimates suggest that there are approximately 90 million children from low-income households attending 400,000 budget private schools. That is 30 per cent of all school-aged children, a substantial number that goes unobserved, not finding a place in newspaper headlines.
Part of a highly fragmented landscape BPSs are the silent horses of the Indian education system delivering quality schooling to millions of children yet, instead of encouraging them and facilitating a better environment for them to function in, the government is cracking down on these schools. The massive regulatory burdens under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which stipulates minimal infrastructure and teacher-pupil ratio norms, deliberately target them.
Dr. Amit Chandra, education policy specialist and activist, finds the RTE provisions unreasonable. “It makes education more centralized, standardized and politically controlled whereas educationists all over the world recommend the education to be decentralized, and personalized,” he said. “The outcome of RTE implementation of a decade is exactly the opposite of the goal, declining learning level than improving, schools closing down than improving, schooling becoming expensive than being affordable.”
With the lockdown, some of the state governments have further issued orders that affect the BPSs adversely. They have asked the schools not to make payment of fees mandatory while paying their teachers’ full salary. Many are on the verge of closing doors because of the financial strain they are facing. Dr. Chandra said, “The orders being impractical might cause financial imbalance and further friction among the stakeholder, parents, teachers, and education officials.”
Despite the looming financial challenges, the ones still operational are coming up with micro innovations to continue teaching.
Technology and online-learning once looked upon with skepticism and considered the Trojan horse for its ability to disrupt the traditional education establishment, has now become crucial for its continuity and budget private schools are using them to continue teaching post lockdown.
A private school in Ambala, Haryana, is using WhatsApp for junior classes and Microsoft teams for senior levels. A school in south Delhi is conducting online courses using Zoom. Krishna Malik, who runs a school in Kalyana, Maharashtra, has entirely converted his school into a digital school using Microsoft technology.
Initiatives are being led by citizens individually as well. Anshu, a young teacher in Delhi was concerned about her students not being able to learn because of the school closings. She soon found out that most of her students’ families came for their ration to her family-run store and started including worksheets for the students along with their family’s ration supply.
While online learning is a stop-gap arrangement, not all budget private schools can afford the online curriculum. Remote or distance learning is an option for them. UP has already dedicated radio channels for remote learning. Jammu and Kashmir has announced that they are going to start teleclasses on radio and television.
Meeta Sengupta, the founder of a Delhi based think tank that builds bridges between policy and practice for educators and institutions, mentions in her blog, “Whether it is remote or just online learning, we are working in crisis mode. And crisis learning is not the same as normal learning.” With physical distancing and the derailment of the examination cycles, there has come about a shift in priorities among teachers and students. Instead of worrying about grades and synchronous learning, the emphasis has moved to feel connected and joyful.
Technology will continue to play an essential role in education even after the easing of the lockdown. In the past few weeks, learning coalitions with diverse stakeholders like governments, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom network operators are taking shape. Educational innovation is receiving attention beyond the typical government-funded or non-profit-backed social project. We see greater interest and investment coming from the private sector in education solutions from Microsoft and Google in the U.S. to Samsung in Korea. Corporations are comprehending the necessity of filling the education gap created by the crisis. Such investments can solve the problem of the majority of Indian students who don’t have access to devices and internet connection.
While students and parents are still adjusting to the abrupt transitions brought about by the pandemic and are anxious about what might happen in the future, Sengupta looks at it as an opportunity. According to her, the crisis has exposed the fault lines in real learning in India. It has revealed that education is ‘not equitable’, ‘synchronous’, and traditional pedagogies don’t transfer well to online and remote learning formats. Dr Chandra agrees to this line of thinking. He believes that this is a chance to reimagine the education delivery model.
It’s time the state governments acknowledged the importance of BPS and saw them as allies instead of competition for India can use as much help as possible in educating its children in such turbulent times.