New Delhi: Chaudhary Nathu Singh has been running Gandhi Memorial School, a budget private institute located at Dwarkapuri, Delhi, for 30 years, but this year has posed challenges he has never encountered before.
The school shutdown imposed in light of the Covid-19 lockdown has left the school’s finances in a shambles, he told ThePrint. “We have no funds left, since February our balance sheet reads zero,” he said. “We are a small private school with a fee of about Rs 800-1,000 a month. Parents say they have no funds to pay the fee.”
While Singh claims he has “somehow managed” to raise money to pay his school’s teachers, the authorities at many other budget private schools — left reeling by the pandemic and the lockdown — say they haven’t been able to do so.
The term private schools usually evokes an image of fancy institutions that charge high fees on the promise of holistic education for children. But the vast majority of private schools in India — by some estimates, nearly 80 per cent — are small-scale budget facilities that charge low fees but are seen by many parents as better alternatives to government schools.
According to the think-tank Centre for Civil Society (CCS), budget private schools “are a growing segment of private schools that cater to economically backward communities and are often run by individuals from their homes”.
“There are different ways to benchmark fee levels in private schools to identify budget schools. Some of the commonly used benchmarks include minimum daily wage, per-pupil expenditure in government schools or state per-capita GDP,” the CCS added in a 2018 report.
A report titled “State of the Sector — Private Schools in India“, released last month by the education-sector think-tank Central Square Foundation (CSF), said more than 70 per cent of Indian private school students pay less than Rs 1,000/month in fees, while 45 per cent pay less than Rs 500/month.
Since the pandemic and the lockdown ravaged the job market, resulting in shrunken economic prospects for many sections of the population, especially India’s large force of daily-wage labourers, several budget schools find themselves robbed of crucial fee income.
And the situation is grim, with the schools claiming an added challenge in the difficulties they are facing carrying out online classes.
‘End of the road’
Chaudhary Nathu Singh cited recurring expenses — rent, water, electricity charges — to say the school might not survive until the end of the year.
Chandrakanth Singh, general secretary of Private Lands Public School Trust, which runs an affordable private school called Ideal Radiant at Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, said, “If we talk about schools that have a monthly fee lower than Rs 1,500, 90 per cent of these schools haven’t been able to give salaries to their teachers.
“In July, 44 children paid their fees, and only 14 have paid so far in August. My school has 725 students. With such poor fee receipts, how do we generate enough funds to pay salaries?”
Chandrakanth said he has been handing out ration kits to teachers instead of money.
“I have about 40 teachers at my school. Giving ration kits will cost me about Rs 60,000-80,000, which is cheaper than the cumulative salaries,” he added. “Additionally, we are able to get food grains on credit from local food vendors based on the goodwill the school has created over the years.”
Hussain Abbas Junaidi, director of Scholar Model School in Hyderabad, is facing a similar problem. “It pains me to inform you that I haven’t been able to pay my teachers their salaries for the last four months. All our electricity and rent bills are due. School fee from parents has stopped coming in,” he said.
“The parents of our students are either daily-wagers, farmers or seasonal workers. Every year, we accommodate their requests and accept fees whenever they have funds. This year, when the school administration needed their help, parents haven’t thought about the condition of the school at all,” he added.
According to Junaidi, around 500 affordable private schools have shut down in Hyderabad owing to a shortage of funds.
Fee collection a challenge
A survey released in June sought to express the Covid-related fee conundrum of budget private schools in numbers. Conducted by the Indian School Finance Company, a non-banking financial company that funds education institutions, the survey involved 1,678 respondents, comprising owners and principals of private schools, colleges, and vocational training institutes, with budget private schools forming one segment of the report.
According to its results, 87.5 per cent of the respondents reported challenges in fee collection. The challenges cited were parents not having the income to pay fees due to the lockdown (55 per cent), parents not being able to come to school or bank premises to pay fees owing to the lockdown (24.5 per cent), parents receiving salaries late and unable to pay on time (12 per cent), and parents not keen to pay for online classes (8.5 per cent).
The findings are in line with those of the aforementioned “State of the Sector — Private Schools in India” report compiled by the CSF. A section of the report that sought to analyse the “Impact of Covid-19 on Private Schools” included findings of a three-week-long study that involved interviews with “over 90 stakeholders” — 30 school leaders, 24 teachers, 24 parents and 18 service providers.
Low-fee schools, the report stated, have seen a significant impact on revenue due to school closures, examination postponement, and widespread non-payment of fees for this period”.
“A lot of low-fee private schools told us that no fee was collected during lockdown and, because of this, many teachers were not paid,” said CSF Managing Director Bikkrama Daulet Singh.
“The timing of the pandemic was such that it affected schools badly (all schools were shut down by mid-March). It’s the time when schools are starting their new session and fees is to be paid. Many schools, in fact, told us that they were not even able to collect last session’s fee from some students,” Singh added.
“There is no immediate solution to this problem because the government cannot intervene as these are private schools,” he said. “Unless things take their natural course and the pandemic-related problems ease out, there seems to be no immediate solution in sight.”
Anil Swarup, former secretary with the government of India who served a stint in the Human Resource Development Ministry (renamed Education Ministry), said these are “unprecedented times” and solutions must come directly from the stakeholders.
“The central government or even the state government… cannot solve this problem. You cannot force parents to pay the fee or you cannot instruct schools to mandatorily collect fee,” he added.
Noting that stakeholders are trying their best to solve the problem organically, he added, “There are affordable schools that are using various means to overcome this problem. Some have collaborated with parents associations and deferred payments, some have delayed the fee collection process and some are raising funds together.”
Online classes another challenge
Apart from the money problems, the schools are also struggling to conduct online classes, which remain the primary mode of tuition as educational institutes remain shut down on account of the pandemic.
“Since the children who attend our school are from the low- and middle-income groups, they do not have access to laptops, cellphones or (mobile) data in their home,” said Aparna Sharma, CEO of the Bareilly-based Girish Prasad Memorial College. “This means limited video sessions.”
Junaidi of Scholar Model School noted similar concerns, but signed off with praise for the “grit and determination that teachers have shown in these difficult times”.
“Despite not getting their salaries, teachers continue to teach students. With reduced sources of income, they do not have access to a lot of data, but they still make sure that they send lessons and give feedback on time,” he said. “I have taken note of the fact that teachers are now borrowing Wi-Fi passwords from their neighbours and buying small data packs to ensure that the process of learning continues.”
Efforts to make model more sustainable
NGOs working in the education sector say they are trying to help budget private schools come up with alternative sources of income to weather such storms.
“After talking to several private schools in the city, we realised that they were facing several issues, most of which boiled down to financial troubles,” said Saumya Aggarwal, cofounder and director of Barefoot Edu Foundation, a four-year-old NGO based in Mumbai.
“What was shocking to know was that teachers in pre-primary grades were planning to quit. The schools usually pay them anywhere between Rs 3,000 and 7,000… With this income gone, they planned to rely on other means. To overcome this, we are launching ‘Rehnuma’ — an incubation programme for school leaders,” she said. “Here, they will be taught fundraising, identify alternative sources of revenue and create annual plans for schools.”
Mumbai-based 321 Foundation, an eight-year-old organisation, has also started a programme to cater to such schools.
“What we have made is a cost-free offering for affordable private schools. We provide content-rich lesson plans so that teachers can teach them on WhatsApp,” said founder Gaurav Singh.
“This massively simplified lesson plan can easily be shared on WhatsApp… These plans end with an activity that they can send to their teacher in the form of images.”
According to Gaurav, 700 schools have so far registered with them. “Teachers feel relieved that they do not have to spend their time and internet on creating content but can instead focus on student-teacher interaction to ensure learning,” he added.