By Rohan Joshi and Divya Aggarwal
Closure of private unaided schools continues to attract attention of researchers and educators in India after nearly 6 years of introduction of RTE, 2009. Centre for Civil Society (CCS) and National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA) have highlighted the challenge (Report) of school closures created largely by school recognition norms under Section 18 and 19 of RTE, 2009. Media reports from across the country have consistently carried reports of closure faced by various types of schools. More recently, Azim Premji Foundation (APF) and The National Coalition for Education (NCE) have published research reports which attempt to look deeper into the issue of School Closures. Of these, APF’s research challenges the notion of closures itself and goes on to conclude that large scale school closures is not a real phenomena. (Report) The NCE research looks into various trends in closure of both private unaided and government schools, and observes that the schools closed so far are likely to be unrecognized private schools. The report holds back from making a definitive comment on large-scale closure of recognized private schools, owing to lack of access to reliable and consistent data. (Report)
The challenge of asymmetry of data
Among the contrasting research observations on the issue of school closures, there are some common limitations faced by researchers irrespective of their choice of research methodology. Broadly summarizing methodologies adapted by researchers, APF bases their findings on discussions with government officers in a few randomly selected districts that the foundation operates in. NCE uses U-DISE data, 2012-14 and RTI queries filed with all state departments in addition to field visits in two states. CCS supports its secondary research and analysis of media reports with field studies in four states carried out through focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews with parents, government officers and school owners. Additionally, CCS looks closely at school closure notices issued by state education departments in four states and subsequent litigation initiated by private unaided school associations in two states.
The most important limitation in all three studies is access to reliable data on closures. It is understood that none of the sources used by researchers for data collection help in comprehensively estimating actual number of schools closed down and number of children impacted. At best, the sources point at indicative number which require authentication to be able to make a definitive comment on the scale of impact of school closures. This should not lead us to the hasty conclusion that school closures do not amount to a real policy challenge.
In fact, to better understand how to improve access to quality education of choice, we should look into the nuances of closures to cover the policy gaps that can potentially impact millions of school-going children in the country.
Interference of Bureaucracy
A second limitation is in terms of understanding the process of closures itself. RTE, 2009 while providing for closure of schools in case of non-compliance of norms under Section 18 and 19, does not define a standard process of school closures. This leaves the term ‘school closures’, open to interpretation. Government schools have been closed in large numbers in a few states, as observed by the NCE study, not for non-compliance with RTE norms, but for various administrative reasons such as poor enrollments. In fact, RTE norms under Section 18 and 19 do not explicitly mention that government schools need to obtain recognition prior to their commencement unlike in case of private schools. Similarly, the punishment for non-compliance, which includes fines and closure under the same sections of RTE, does not apply to government schools.
Media reports create a sense that school closures are drastic events where hundreds of schools are evicted overnight. Yet closures do not seem to follow any standard path across states, either in terms of causes or implementation. In Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh closure notices are duly issued by state education department whereas in Delhi and Karnataka, Education Ministers have publicly announced their intent to close a specific number of private schools that do not adhere to prescribed RTE rules. (Report) In Assam, closure notices are issued to unaided private schools under existing state education law for reasons entirely different than violation of norms under Section 18 and 19 of RTE.
The Haryana High Court stayed closure of 1396 schools initiated by the Department of Education, observing that government cannot take a straightjacket approach to closures by issuing standard orders to multiple schools at the same time. The Court indicated that closure must follow due process, looking individually into every case of non-compliance and defining the penalty for each accordingly. (Report Here) In Gautam Budh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, the process of closure of approximately 200 unrecognized private schools was initiated by the Basic Shiksha Adhikari (BSA). One of the schools (coincidentally run by a lawyer) moved the courts to obtain a stay order, which allowed the concerned school to continue operating until the end of ongoing academic year. Some of these schools which did not reach out of legal intervention, did in fact close down.
In Punjab, school closure notices were issued to over 1100 schools under Section 12 (1) (C) of the RTE Act, which does not have any provision of closure in the event of non-compliance. Large number of schools closed down in response to these notices as reported in a study on school closures taken up by CCS in two districts of Punjab. (Report) NISA filed a PIL in Punjab High Court challenging the process of closures, which was turned down with the court stating the issue oflocus standi. NISA further approached SCPCR, Punjab, which did not respond the plea. In Delhi, the Minister of Education made a public announcement of closure of 300 schools followed by publishing names of these schools through the Department of Education. However, to the best of our knowledge, actual process of closures was never initiated.
In all of the above cases government had ordered private schools, which were supposed to be closed, to reallocate their students in nearby schools. This is contrary to the provision under Section 18 and 19 of RTE which assigns the responsibility of reallocation of children in nearby schools to the government.
Why is closing down of unrecognised schools important to note?
Closure of unrecognized schools is an issue of particular significance from both research and policy point of view. Children studying in these schools broadly come from two categories: One, children who are enrolled in nearby government schools but attend classes in unrecognized private schools. Two, children who are not enrolled in any other school. In states such as U.P., Haryana and Delhi, significant number of schools are at varying stages of long and complex recognition process.
As part of the closure process these schools sometimes get shut down, in some cases with a threat of or actual police intervention. In its initial report of Gautam Budh Nagar, UP, CCS observes based on anecdotal evidence that police action was initiated against unrecognized schools forcing them to shut down in the middle of the academic session. There were nearly 200 such schools which came under scanner of BSA. There was no provision made for children enrolled in these schools to be appropriated to nearby schools. Here the violation of RTE provisions was on both parts, schools that were operating without recognition and an education department which forced schools to close down without finding alternative arrangements for children studying in those schools. Such a phenomenon only hurts the interests of students from socioeconomically weaker sections, who are meant to be the core beneficiaries of RTE, 2009.
Since unrecognized schools are not on any records and their actual number is unknown, it is difficult to estimate the number of closures as well as of children impacted. Here, the best source of information is associations of private schools operating in specific regions. NISA uses this data to counter check against closure numbers published by regional newspapers. (Report) Some of the researchers while questioning the validity of data presented based on news reports go on to question the closure of unrecognized schools as an issue worthy of public debate. It is important to pay attention to the challenge of data which is closely linked with complex and cumbersome RTE recognition norms and the general status of poor governance in school education. Local education officers do not seem to keep a count of unrecognized schools or of children studying in these schools. Hence any data on closures collected from these officers through verbal interviews is as valid or invalid as data collected from school associations and media reports.
How do we proceed further?
Our attempt here has been to understand the nuances of school closures, and avoid oversimplification of a serious policy issue with the potential of impacting access to education for millions of children studying in unaided private schools. NCE report acknowledges the issue of inadequate data on school closures and expresses the need for more careful investigation in the issue of closures and more rigorous data collection. APF report too expresses the challenge of lack of data.
It is important that further research in this domain takes into consideration the nuances of school closures mentioned in this note and adapts robust data collection strategies to capture a comprehensive status of closures.
Rohan Joshi is the Associate Director, Research at Centre for Civil Society. He also has a long experience of working in Education and Skill Development sectors with wide variety of organizations ranging from NGOs, Private companies to Government Departments.
Divya Aggarwal is a Research Associate at Centre for Civil Society. She has completed her B.A, L.L.B from Symbiosis Law School, Pune. After a brief stint in the Legal department of TATA AIG, she has made the switch to CCS owing to a keen interest in public policy and law.
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