Ganjam: When the project primary school in Baunshiapada village in Humma Panchayat of Odisha’s Ganjam district was closed in 2016 due to low-enrollment, many parents shifted their children to a nearby private school.
Subashini Nayak’s daughter, a single mother, also enrolled her son in a private school, knowing that it would be a financial burden. “Initially, we wanted to enroll him in a merger school. But over the past few years, state-run schools do not provide quality education. So, we preferred a private school,” said Subashini, adding that a majority of her daughter’s salary is spent on her grandson’s education. As the grandson moves to higher classes, the financial burden will only increase, she says.
In small towns, lack of quality state-run schools forces most parents to enroll their children in private schools. There are instances of parents taking loans to admit their children to private schools.
In tribal districts, after government primary schools were closed, children join residential schools or drop out entirely. In the coastal districts, parents prefer low-cost private schools.
Why private schools are preferred
Shankar Sahoo, 42, a shop owner in the Humma panchayat, said, “Initially I enrolled my children in a state-run primary school. When they didn’t perform well, I chose to shift them to a private school.”
Even though this means an increased financial burden, Sahoo says private school teacher are more dedicated and give special attention to students. This, he says, improves the students’ performance.
Some parents also enroll their children in low-cost English medium schools. “If my son reads and speaks English, he can get a better job,” said Rashmi Kanta Mahanta, an auto driver. Annually, it costs him nearly Rs 20,000. In two years, his younger son will also join the school. “I will borrow money, but I want to send them to good school. In state-run schools there is no emphasis on education and lack of infrastructure,” he says.
Ravindra Reddy, head master of a private school in Humma panchayat, says the school has nearly 400 students. Every year, the enrolment is increasing. “We take only Rs 150 per month from students as ‘guru dakshina’ to meet all administrative and development expenditure. Parents are preferring private schools because of teachers’ dedication,” he said.
However, some parents, requesting anonymity, said they teachers force them to send their children for extra tuition to improve performance. They said, “Teachers threaten us, saying if the child does not perform better, we will have to find other schools.”
Marginalised and girl students suffer
Some parents, though aware of the abysmal conditions of state-run schools, are unable to afford private schools. After the project primary school in Podapadar slum in Chhatrapur was closed, five students walk 2.5-3 km everyday to attend school. When the children return home, they are tired and have little time to revise what they learnt.
In 1990, after the Rushikulya river flood, the government rehabilitated few villagers of Podapadar in this slum and later built a school. As villagers started migrating to other places for livelihood, the population of the slum declined, as did the students in the school. Due to low enrolment, the school was forced to close.
“The merger school is only 1 km away, but the children have to cross a national highway,” said Phula Das, who drops and picks up her two grandchildren from school daily. If she is not well or has other engagements, the children stay at home.
When The Wire visited the slum, there were three other children who hadn’t attended school that day because their parents had left for work. “You cannot send children alone on that narrow pathway. Somebody has to accompany them,” said Phula. She said she cannot afford a private school, though they provide transportation facilities.
Malati Nayak is a single mother and a domestic worker. She has enrolled her son in a private school. She hopes it will improve his results. But her daughter attends a state-run school. “With my meagre income, I cannot afford to send both children to private schools. My daughter will get married soon and I need to save money for it,” she says.
A government school teacher said that parents think it is not important to spend money on girls’ education.
Why quality of education deteriorating
Headmaster Narayan Nahak of Gopal Krushna Nodal High School agrees that parents prefer private schools because their children will receive special attention. He said the shortage of teachers in state-run schools and the burden of operational or clerical work prevent government teachers from doing the same.
“In government schools teachers are needed for election duty, survey work and supervision of mid-day meal, apart from teaching,” said Jawaharlal Nayak, a government school teacher.
“Most of our time is spent on supervision of mid-day meal scheme, which demotivates us,” said Lingaraj Mahankuda in-charge head master of Gadahumma primary school. “Private school teachers do not have operational work and devote more time on students,” he said, adding that the teacher to student ratio is also better in private schools.
Some teachers also said the government’s focus is on different schemes to retain students than to improve quality of education. “In Odisha, 82% of children still attend government schools. The state needs to increase its education budget and focus on providing quality education. Before closing primary schools citing low enrollment, the government should understand why parents do not prefer state-run schools,” said Ambarish Rai, national convenor, RTE Forum.
School closure and state’s apathy
According to the Odisha government, there were 50,526 elementary schools in 2017-18. In 2014-15, the number was 53,455. The number decreased because of either mergers or closures. During this period, the number of private recognised and unrecognised schools has increased. In 2014-15 there were 5,088 private schools. In 2017-18, it increased to 6,547. This 17% increase shows there is a market for them.
This status report also reveals the abysmal condition of government-run schools in Odisha. Out of 67,961 elementary and secondary schools, only 50,065 schools have toilets. Just 52,253 schools have drinking water facilities. There are 306 state-run schools running without buildings, 2,205 schools with just one classroom and 1,176 schools with just one teacher.
“Without providing sufficient teachers and infrastructure, closing primary schools is the result of the government’s apathy,” said Ambarish Rai.
Anil Pradhan, convenor of the Odisha RTE Forum, said, “If the government enforce schools to comply with the RTE norms, things will improve. Even after eight years after the RTE Act, only 6% of schools in the state comply with the norms.”
He adds, “In Odisha, closure of schools is a big problem. Over 2,000 schools have been closed and the government plans to close 10,000 schools more with low enrolment. The government is closing those schools based on reports by the Boston Consultancy Firm and Piramal to NITI Ayog. They do not understand the ground issues of poor and marginalised people.”
Rakhi Ghosh works as a freelance journalist in Odisha and is based in Bhubaneswar.