Recognition for the bravehearts

As I learn more and more about India’s school education sector, I have to say I am happy not to be directly a part of it. In the last four years, I have met several people involved in attempting to run better quality schools across the country and I am constantly amazed at how thankless a task it is. It’s almost as if the authorities are determined to make sure someone trying to deliver quality in the budget private school (BPS) space can’t.

India’s ideological intransigence is at its peak when one looks at the elementary and secondary school education sector. Although education in India remains not for profit, it is common knowledge that one of the businesses quickest to break-even or start making money is running a school. The sheer number of schools that the country has added and continues to add every year is an evidence of how profitable this business is and can be. This also explains why some of the biggest names in business now run schools in India, ostensibly not for profit.

What is interesting is that BPS can be as profitable as an elite school almost from day one. But running a BPS in India, trying to offer quality and expand slowly across states is not everyone’s cup of tea and can be quite a headache as I am slowly learning.

Most BPS schools start without recognition from the official authorities and then apply for it since doing it the other way round could mean never getting off the ground. But applying for recognition and actually getting it are two very different things. Of course, many continue to operate without official recognition as that’s just easier and mostly nobody keeps track anyway.

Now someone I know is currently in the process of trying to get recognition and I got chatting with him the other day.As he described what all he needs to produce to convince the municipal corporation that his school ought to exist, I listened nonplussed.

To start with, the authorities want all teachers to have a diploma in education and a central teacher eligibility test (CTET) certificate. This is rather absurd since most teachers at BPS are usually housewives who just want to get out of the house for a few hours everyday and teaching is something their families don’t object to as they don’t interfere with all their other duties as wife, mother, daughter-in-law and so on. Many, however, have both the aptitude and temperament to do the job efficiently and some even excel and are better than their more qualified counterparts in nearby government schools.

Then, for some odd reason, male teachers cannot be over 30 years of age when joining the school and female teachers cannot be over 40. What sense does this make? I don’t see any harm in employing teachers who are even over 60 years. What if I have retired and don’t mind teaching everyday at a local neighbourhood school ? What about the wisdom and wealth of experience only age can bring? And why pray the difference between men and women?

Moreover, a BPS promoter is expected to pay teachers at the same absurd rate as the government pays its own teachers to not teach and, at times, to not even show up, making it one of the most coveted jobs in the country. That too by cheque — something almost all schools flout. In reality, BPS teachers earn between Rs 7000 and 15,000, far lower than any government teacher. No BPS can make money if it adopts and adheres to government pay scales with its regular pay commission revisions.

In an era where most rent leases are for 11 months, the authorities need evidence of a lease agreement for 20 years, no less! Even with a 200 yard space, you need to provide proof of a playground (it appears basement playgrounds are permissible). To top it all, the school needs to produce a certificate that it is harvesting rainwater on its premises!

Requirements are fairly open to interpretation. For instance a school applying for recognition needs to provide a certificate from the corporation that it is “safe to run classrooms” and that the “health facilities are adequate”. But the latter is if and when one manages to prise the health certificate form from the corporation. One has to submit seven documents to get hold of the form: The map of the building and site plan, a structural stability certificate, a fire NOC, a staff medical report from an MBBS holder, a lease agreement, a water test report along with all details of staff and children with details of toilets, rooms and so on.

By asking for this plethora of documents and placing absurd conditions, the authorities ensure a few things. One, entry into the space is tough. Two, running the operation cleanly is almost impossible. And last but probably why things are designed the way they are: It opens up plenty of avenues to earn a quick buck (read: petty bribes).

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