Following the passage through Parliament of the Right to Free & Compulsory Education Act 2009, aka Right to Education Act (RTE), which came into force on April 1, the Tamil Nadu state government has commenced a statewide drive to enrol out-of-school children and drop-outs aged six-14 into school. The state government has legislated its own Uniform System of School Education Act 2010, prescribing a common syllabus for all 52,303 government and aided primary-secondary schools, and 4,400 private Matriculation board schools (200 CBSE and 52 CISCE schools excepted) in the state. This legislation has had the beneficial fallout of schools competing with each other to retain existing students and enrol more, because government grants are doled out to school managements on the basis of number of registered students.
In this new and unusual race, the Chennai Municipal Corporation, after renaming its 282 corporation schools as ‘Chennai Schools’ on April 8, is a front- runner. A series of initiatives have been announced to enhance the popularity of corporation schools which have an aggregate enrolment of 105,580 students and 4,062 teachers. These initiatives include development of one primary-secondary in each of the city’s ten zones into a ‘school of excellence’; providing libraries to 67 high and higher secon-dary schools; and starting six community colleges and employment information centres for corporation school students. In addition, the provision of free uniforms, bags, shoes, geometry boxes etc to students of classes I to XII has been extended to cover 2,100 kindergarten children as well.
However, monitors of the education scene in this southern port city are sceptical about the success of the corporation’s school enrolment drive. Over the past several decades government and corporation primary-secondaries have acquired a notorious reputation for infrastructure neglect, teacher absenteeism and abysmal learning outcomes.
A recent study commissioned by the Chennai Municipal Corporation and conducted by student teams from the outreach department of the government-aided Loyola College, which studied 19 corporation schools with low enrolment, found that all of them have dirty, unhygienic toilets with some schools lacking even teachers’ toilets. Moreover maintenance of buildings is poor, and drinking water facilities and adequate security are woefully lacking. Teachers interviewed by Loyola students complained that they cannot concentrate on teaching as they are assigned numerous tasks such as conducting surveys and election duty. Parents interviewed also expressed dissatis-faction about teacher absenteeism, poor learning outcomes and lack of co-curricular activities.
“Poor parents who send their children to corporation schools are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of learning outcomes. Unfortunately not much learning happens in corporation schools because of teacher absenteeism and lack of discipline. Moreover government and corporation schools insist upon teaching in the Tamil medium until class V when there’s a huge and growing demand for English medium education. Unless these basic issues are addressed by the state government, the enrolment drive of corporation schools won’t succeed and the flight to private schools won’t stop,” says Father Xavier Vedam, vice principal, Loyola College and director of the outreach programme.
Moreover there are few takers for government and corporation schools because although unacknowledged, there are thousands of low-cost ‘unrecognised’ private schools in the city which offer children from poor households flexible, outcomes-oriented education including English language curriculums. Currently an estimated 2.5 million children are enroled in low-cost private primaries across Tamil Nadu. Under the provisions of the RTE Act, low-cost ‘unrecognised’ private schools which do not meet the infrastructure norms specified by the Act within three years, will be shut down.
This provision of the Act offers the only hope for government and corporation schools succeeding in their enrolment drive.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)