While many parents have been asked to pay up the fees for the upcoming academic year, schools claim to be dependent on fee revenue to pay its staff.

Fee collection row in TN Parents and private schools blame govt for lack of planningImage for representation/www.picxy.com
Coronavirus Education Tuesday, May 26, 2020 - 15:31

It has been a tough time for Rakesh*, a Chennai-based working professional and a parent to a five-year-old. Amid the uncertainty in jobs and salaries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rakesh has been getting reminder messages from his daughter’s school to pay up the fees for the first term of upper kindergarten.

Many renowned private schools in Tamil Nadu have informed parents to pay the fee for the first term of the academic year 2020-21. The first term in an academic year normally begins in June and ends in September. Many schools have also announced that they will be starting online classes for students from June first week.

This is despite the government of Tamil Nadu’s order on April 20, directing private schools and colleges in the state to not compel parents to pay the fee for the upcoming academic year or the dues related to the previous years. The order, which was passed under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, also stated that no penalties shall be levied for late payment of fee during the lockdown period.

However, private schools in Tamil Nadu continue to compel parents to pay up, with many sending messages and reminders through SMS, WhatsApp and emails to the parents about the first-term fee.

While parents are asking why private schools are demanding fees for online classes and miscellaneous expenses during the lockdown, schools are, in turn, criticising the state government for its lack of planning while passing the order. According to schools, it has not been able to pay salaries to its staff.

Parents yield to pressure from schools

In many cases, parents have already paid anywhere upwards of Rs 30,000 for the first term, because the schools kept sending them reminders.

Priya* is a working professional who has admitted her 18-month-old son in one of the popular playschools in Chennai. She recently paid Rs 75,000 as first term fee after the school told her to via emails.

“Why should a child aged between 18 and 30 months have online classes at this point? This is ridiculous. They told us to pay the fees and now we don’t know what to do,” said Priya.

Though the messages sent by the schools do not actively compel parents to pay the fees, linking it to children’s education always works in favour of the schools.

Another major bone of contention between the parents and the schools is that the schools expect the parents to pay up extra fees, including transport and uniform. This has left many parents wondering why schools are charging when the students are not physically going to their classrooms.

“Isn’t it fair that these charges are reduced from the overall school fee since the students are not benefiting from these services? In fact, this is an added burden on the parents since they now have to make arrangements for a dedicated gadget for their ward to attend online classes and also have enough bandwidth for this,” another parent from Coimbatore said.

Meanwhile, Dheeraj Kumar, Principal Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government (school education department), told TNM that the state government is in the process of devising guidelines for online education for schools. “We have set up a committee that will study the modalities of it and issue guidelines. The schools shall wait for that to come out,” he said.

He also noted that telling parents to pay fees during the lockdown is illegal during COVID-19 lockdown. Urging parents to file an official complaint with the respective District Education Officer (DEO), he also said that strict action will be taken against the erring institutions.

The rush for online classes

The announcement to start online classes for students has taken parents and experts by surprise as they feel that the core idea of schooling is lost in an online medium.

BS Rishikesh, Associate Professor at Azim Premji University’s School of Education, said that encouraging online education will drive inequality among the children further.

“I am not in favour of online education since it puts more pressure on the parents to secure infrastructure for their children. It drives inequity among the students due to the lack of accessibility to infrastructure,” he said.

Adding that schooling is not just about academics but also about socialising, Rishikesh said that an online learning environment does not facilitate that. “Whatever developmental aspects needed for children at the kindergarten level can mostly be developed at home. What is the necessity to go online for these classes?” he asked. 

According to Rishikesh, the best way to keep students across classes in touch with their curriculum during the pandemic would be to rope in the State Councils for Education Research and Training (SCERTs), which can come up with small modules of content.

“Monthly plans can be developed by SCERTS to keep the minds of young students active so that once schools reopen, they are ready to work harder. ‘Completing the syllabus’ should not be the thought process,” he explained.

Pulapre Balakrishnan, Professor for Economics, Ashoka University, too, does not support online mode of education for children.

“Schools are supposed to help children mingle and bond with each other,” he said, adding that instead of shifting to the internet, the governments can think about starting this academic year a little late and have a lighter syllabus, but definitely start it.

Schools struggle for funds amid lockdown

It has been a rough end to the academic year for the schools in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the cancellation of classes and exams. Normally, the private schools in the state tell the parents to pay the pending dues just before the year-end examinations. But since the state government cancelled the year-end exams for classes 1 to 9, schools are staring a lack of funds.

Schools not being able to collect pending fees has, in turn, affected the salaries of teachers and other support staff. Private schools generally pay vacation salaries to their teachers during summer holidays (April-May) as most of them ask teachers to come to school on a rotational basis for preparation for the next academic year. These teachers take care of the distribution of books, prepare timetables for the next academic year and engage in other administrative work related to academics.

A teacher who works for a private school in Coimbatore district spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity. “Usually, we get a month’s salary even during vacation. But in March this year, we received a 15-day salary since the schools were ordered to shut by then due to COVID-19. During the vacation, we have not been paid because we were at home. It is unprecedented and surely not what we had hoped for,” said the teacher. 

Speaking to TNM, KR Nandhakumar, State Secretary, Tamil Nadu Nursery Primary Matriculation Higher Secondary and CBSE Schools Association, said that most private schools are running in losses because of this order.

“The government should have helped schools with funds — we still have outstanding amounts pending from the government with respect to the seats surrendered under the Right To Education (RTE). They could have paid that to us. Alternatively, the government could have given us interest-free loans to tide over the crisis. Without helping us find means to raise funds, how can the government tell us to pay full salaries to teachers?” he asked.

He also added that the government is not foregoing any amount payable to it —  it has not provided any discount in taxes schools have to pay to the government, the schools are still liable to pay full charges for electricity, school buses need to renew its fitness certificate and insurance. The government is expecting schools to deal with the crisis themselves, he added.

“Most private schools in Tamil Nadu have only paid 50% salaries to the teachers. It is because they do not have money to pay them. Usually, we tell the parents to pay the pending fee before the annual exams and use that amount to pay salaries. But this year, annual exams were cancelled and there is no way we can even get the pending dues from parents,” rued Nandhakumar, who is also a lawyer.

Government’s lack of foresight?

These issues raise a pertinent question: Had the school education been fully public, could these issues have been avoided?

Balakrishnan said that though this would help on a theoretical basis, practically, it is tough to accomplish. “States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu have an enormous presence of the private sector in school education. Hence, it is difficult to make school education fully public in these states,” he said.

He also added that the Tamil Nadu government should have thought about the repercussions of passing an order prohibiting private schools from collecting fees.

“Ethically, the government should have planned ways for the schools to pay their teachers when passing that order. That is how it should have been done. They cannot put a stop on the ways schools get revenue and still tell schools to compensate its staff members fully,” Balakrishnan pointed out.

Apart from criticising the state government for lacking foresight while passing orders, Balakrishnan also urged it to use the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen the infrastructure in government schools. “Tamil Nadu should rethink its funding priorities for school education. It is high time the state reevaluates its freebie policy and instead allocate more money to upgrade school infrastructure. There are still many schools that lack water and sanitation. This is the right time to rethink its priorities and amp up the school system in the state.”

(*Names changed on request)