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SC verdict on school fee

While the government should enforce the Supreme Court’s order in the case of private schools’ fee, it must not lose sight of the bigger picture.

As has been rightly pointed out by several education policy experts and academics, the verdict in question concerns schools charging Rs5,000 and above. These schools cater to the education needs of elite- and upwardly-mobile middle income households. The rot in the education system of the country is much deeper, and requires proactive measures if relief has to be provided to households surviving on, or just above poverty wages. Ultimately, the public sector will have to be revived by enhancing quality and capacity of education institutions.

Tuition fee hikes in elite private schools first surfaced in 2015 when a prominent chain of private schools arbitrarily raised the fee. Soon, parents of students enrolled in that and other schools raised their voices, and the matter landed in courts. Verdicts by the Lahore High Court (LHC) and the Sindh High Court restraining schools from collecting fee for summer vacations failed to make much difference. Parents’ outcry subsided, however their concerns once again got to the limelight when the Supreme Court took up the issue in March last year, and after multiple hearings, and examining audit reports of a few schools’ funds, the Supreme Court announced an interim order on December 13 last year whose detailed version has now been released.

The detailed judgment addresses the concerns of affected families as in the wake of the short order, schools reportedly started withdrawing classroom facilities to compensate for revenues cuts.

In what seemed to be an action supportive of schools, Punjab School Education Minister Dr Murad Raas maintained that his department would take action against the violators of the Supreme Court judgement only after February 12.

Other reports suggested that several schools were passing on stationery charges to students and cutting down extra-curricular activities. A famous franchise was quoted in the media as having told parents to forget the facility of air-conditioned classrooms. Teachers faced salary cuts and the increased strength of students in classroom. Many schools also went for retrenchment of teachers. The detailed judgement has addressed these issues. The top court has warned schools against downsizing of staff or salary cuts of any of the teachers employed at the time of the interim order. Other incentives such as stationary, scholarships or fee concessions in place on December 13 also should not be affected, according to the order.

Exorbitant tuition fee at private schools is not the only ill affecting the education sector. The shortage of professional and trained teachers is helping tutors and after-the-school academies to mint money. Ideally, classroom coaching should be enough for children to understand basic concepts of curriculum. In many cases, we have left our children with teachers who have flawed concepts. And such an education system is just producing a lot devoid of critical thinking.

Out-of-school children and dropouts are another issue. Before the government diverts its resources to bring out-of-school children and dropouts to classroom, there should be teachers in place to welcome them in student-centered classrooms.

To meet these daunting tasks, schools should also be supported. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) should be stopped from hounding school owners. Instead of involving executive agencies like the FIA or the police, a permanent solution needs to be evolved, involving establishment of a regulatory authority for private education institutions. The state will have to acknowledge that the failure of public schools helped private schools mushroom in the last three decades. At the end of the day, good quality public schools will be the solution to our school education woes.  *

Published in Daily Times, January 18th 2019.