news Wednesday, June 03, 2015 - 05:30
  For quite sometime in Tamil Nadu now, private schools owners have been angry, parents unhappy and students left in a lurch. And what happened recently at Bala Vidya Mandir is a direct fall out of the chaotic disarray that is the Tamil Nadu schooling system. Following the enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2011, with the TN Schools (Regulation of collection of fee) Act having been enacted in 2009, private schools in state erupted in protest. Several petitions have been filed by private schools in the Madras High Court and Supreme Court, resulting in judgments running into several hundred pages. There are several government notifications governing school education. Further, the state government has so far formed three committees headed by former judges to regulate fee in private schools. In TN, the fee of each and every private school in the state is fixed by a committee, called the Fee Fixation Committee, headed by former judge. The TNSRCF Act 2009 is the backbone of the process, and each school is evaluated individually, fee fixed for each grade separately. As one can imagine, understanding the various rules and regulations of the Tamil Nadu schooling system is like walking through a maze blindfolded. The News Minute has spoken to several parents, teachers, school owners and activists regarding the ongoing controversy and the history behind it. There are two things relevant to the ongoing controversy which emerge. One, parental choice and demand for extra-curricular activities in schools is increasing every year, and two, government’s fee-fixation system is wreaking havoc in the education system. “Extra-curricular activities cost more” Different parents want different things for their children. Parents who can afford expensive education want the best for their child, even if at higher costs. “If a school has to provide just the basic tuition for children, it can do so with the fee which has been fixed by the committee. But parents are asking for more. For instance, professionals are brought in to teach Carnatic Music, and students who learn music want the best teachers. Schools pay them more. How can schools not charge extra for that?” asks S Nathan, the former CEO of the BVM group of schools, talking about the overall situation in Tamil Nadu. In the exhaustive list of “advanced learning and extra-curricular activities” released by the school, not one have to do with the main curricular activities of the school for which the fee has been fixed by the government-appointed committee. “All those activites cost us extra, and some parents demand them. They are optional, so we had to charge more from students who want them. But the way it was done was very insensitive. The school management should have addressed this issue better,” says a teacher on condition of anonymity. Nathan was the school principal for 22 years before taking charge as the CEO of the group, and has been terminated after the controversy broke out. He refuses to answer any question specific to the BVM issue since the matter is subjudice. But here is the surprise: the Madras High Court has actually allowed CBSE schools to charge more for extra-curricular activities. The legal outcome of a case against Kavi Bharathi Vidyalaya in Tamil Nadu speaks for itself. Parents of the school had gone to court stating that the school was charging more than the committee-fixed fee in the name of extra-curricular activities. After interventions by the CBSE and Singaravelan committee, a two-judge bench ruled in the matter, “When extra-curricular activities are conducted by private unaided schools beyond school hours and when they are wholly unconnected with the course of study, the same cannot be interfered with by the State or by the School Fee Determination Committee on the assumption that those extra-curricular activities are connected with curriculum or academic activities. The State Government/Committee has power to interfere with the activities only when those activities are conducted during the course of study and made as part of the curriculum or integral component of students performance. State Government cannot interfere with those extra-curricular activities, merely because, they are conducted by the unaided educational institutions in the school premises.” (sic) The court however added a caveat that the fee collected towards such activities should be “workable, viable and non-burdensome” to the parents and students. What remains to be investigated in the BVM issue is if the school has violated any of the caveats issued by the High Court. The chaos that is fee-fixation The case of the Kavi Bharathi Vidyalaya, or several other schools for that matter, is also illustrative of the arbitrary manner in which school fees are being fixed in Tamil Nadu. “Govindarajan committee first fixed our yearly school fee at Rs. 5000 for LKG. The next committee headed by Justice Raviraja Pandian revised it to Rs. 12,300 for tuition fee and allowed us to charge more for technology-based education. Now the last committee has fixed the fee at Rs. 12,000 inclusive of everything. How can we run schools with such unpredictability?” asks ATB Bose, Secretary of Kavi Bharathi Vidayala. The judiciary has jumped in with their set of guidelines for fixing fees too. In 2011, hearing a petition by matriculation schools, Justice Bhanumati and Justice Vimala gave an exhaustive set of guidelines on how schools should fix their fee for students. In a judgment running into nearly 24000 words, almost every aspect of schooling, from student-strength to cost of scavengers was factored in and parameters set. What’s more, the judge allowed several exemptions for minority institutions. While in non-minority schools salaries of teachers are controlled by the government, it is not so for minority institutions. Teacher-student ratio is strictly regulated in non-minority institutions, but not for minority schools. Minority institutions, it is stated, have their own distinct cultural and social identity, and are thus allowed to spend more on Christmas gifts, but no such freedom is given to non-minority schools. The judgment even goes into how much must be charged for each kilometre of school transport provided to the child, while minority schools are exempt from such interventions, and their audited statements are to be accepted by the fee committee without questions. Minority schools are even allowed to charge more than non-minority schools as ‘surplus’ fees for development. The communalisation of the fee structure has further angered many private school owners. According to the government of Tamil Nadu, it spends anywhere between Rs. 21,000 to Rs. 29,000 per child for students in different grades. In contrast, according to government statistics, the average fee fixed by the committee for private schools is Rs 5000 to Rs 6000 per child per year. Government owes dues to the private schools In 2012, while dismissing a petition from CBSE schools seeking exemption from fee regulation act of Tamil Nadu, Justice Bhanumati and Subbiah said, “The expenditure incurred by the Schools for providing free and compulsory education to those students of weaker sections and disadvantaged group shall be reimbursed by the State as per Rule 9 of Tamil Nadu Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Rules. When such being the situation, the State Government should have right to regulate the collection of fee by the State.” (sic) Here is the catch, no reimbursement has been made by the government to a single private school in Tamil Nadu till date. "We have taken losses for three years now. It is getting difficult for schools to function," Dr. C Satish, Director, Paavai Group of Schools in Tamil Nadu, had told TNM earlier. In a scenario where parents who can afford better schooling are pressing school authorities for more extra-curricular activities, and the government orders private schools to take in 25% students from economically weaker sections for free education, the state government is setting bare minimum amounts as fees for private schools, and the central government is refusing to disburse funds promised to them. S Nathan of BVM, Chennai puts it with sobriety, “The only solution is that both the government and parents have to be honest about how much it costs to give good education to a child.”   The writer has worked with India Institute in the past. Correction: There was an calculation and typological error in this article earlier which has been explained here. The error is regretted.