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While I remain convinced that the covid crisis is going to completely disrupt the education system, there is reason to pause and consider the case for an intervention. Every intervention has a cost, and someone will have to pay. 

The disruption is here, and the first casualty has been the poor student who finds that those without electricity, internet, a personal device and a safe space to sit to listen and speak have not been able to access the bare bones continuity that was offered to the rich.  The first and most urgent payment is not the monthly fee – but the digital highway for all, and the collection of devices for those who cannot afford it. We will pay, taxes or community, or cross subsidised fees – we pay. 

Despite its hiccups, at least the rich schools and students had continuity of education. From there they can only get better in terms of learning outcomes. They are on the boat, poor students and their teachers are cobbling together rafts for themselves. We have had radio, television, megaphones, telephones, and other localised innovation. Policy intervention must create budgets for this. We will all pay. 

But boat or raft, we again have proved that we can live without certain things for education to continue, and more importantly, we cannot manage without others. Teachers, for example, should now feel more secure, because online learning still centres around them. Even with wonders such as AI, as graphics, virtual reality, augmented reality, automated lesson plans and so much more, the teacher remains central to holding the line of progress for their students. Friends, and cohorts continue to remain important. What we have learnt is less than critical are things like large school infrastructure, traditional examinations, synchronous learning. We do not need to all be at the same place at the same time doing the same things for education to progress. What we call a school has to change in order to survive. Schools cannot continue as they were, providing rote learning pathways to certification, some babysitting and a demonstration of attachment to content and curriculum. There is a transition, and someone will have to pay the way through the transition. 

 

Schools: Budget Private Schools and more

Already we have seen budget private schools across various states in India fall – and as participants in the marketplace, they should be allowed to fail if they did not manage learning or financial resources well. But here they are failing not because they did badly. But because they had to obey pandemic regulations. Presumably the dishonest ones would have resources stashed away and will be able to reopen in some way or the other, but the honest ones who priced themselves for the poor to access good learning would not have the reserves to sustain beyond a quarter, or at most half a year – without external support or regulatory intervention. Someone must pay to save the good, and sift out the bad ones. In any case, we will pay for the inability to tell one from another. 

Budget private schools have always been the runt of the lot, carrying neither the heft of the richer private schools that have resources, excellent learning outcomes, trained teachers and connected students; nor the scale of government schools that are protected by their ownership and patronage, and so barely subject to scrutiny and accountability. Budget private schools carry the baggage of stories of corrupt owners, or venal ownership that cares only for the cash this asset can deliver. It is a wonder that parents have been flocking to these schools with such baggage – but they have. With little trust and a great deal of faith, about a half of students in India now study in the private sector. This truly is a wonder, and this lies at the root of the current conflict between fee paying parents, and schools that are reeling from the impact of low collections in fees.

On the one hand you have schools that are struggling to collect revenues. With fee collections ranging between 5% and 35% of the normal, schools do not have enough to pay their teachers, or defray their base electricity bills, rents and other fixed expenses. Given that schools are such stable institutions in normal circumstances, very few of their expenses are variable expenses. In fact, most variable expenses have been charged out to parents already and are billed separately. Think of books, stationery, uniforms, sports equipment, costumes for events – parents pay that at cost anyway. A typical school’s variable expenses are few – chalk, tube-lights and fans, and possibly chai in the staffroom. Most teachers I know even get their own pens for marking notebooks. This means, even if a school is not running, most costs, being fixed costs, still need to be paid.

Of all the costs, the largest chunk of costs is salaries. This is true of both the government sector and the private sector. In fact, when the RTE Act mandated that teachers be paid in line with the pay commissions, it was received with a howl of pain by the affordable (and accessible) school sector. There was no way that both the class size limitation (40) and the teacher pay mandate could be met at the same time – and still leave enough of a surplus to pay rent and electricity (that too at commercial rates which are higher than the not-for-profit rates that they should be charged). Do the numbers – if school fees are affordable and are set at say, 800 per child, the school receives 40×800 = 32,000 pm per class. If the teacher needs to be paid 30,000 pm out of that, it leaves Rs. 2000 for rent, cleaning, water, electricity and so on. Of course, rumours abound on how private schools ‘adjust’ and play around with these numbers. But the fact remains that teacher pay and other costs do not leave a huge margin for fee reduction even in normal circumstances.

Hypothetically, a school that has received, say 10% of it’s revenues and has paid 50% of teacher salaries, or has had to lay off a few teachers has already dipped into their savings. Remember, these are regulated too, and will not be able to sustain more than 2-3 months of expenses. There is a possibility that in a country like India the numbers are not what they seem, and this is where the lack of trust begins to fester. Without transparency, there cannot be trust.

It makes me wonder, of course, if parents have actually thought this through. Not just the numbers. There is no aggregate of school budgets that can be said to be standard for the country (nor would such a study be safe to conduct, believe me, I have been thinking of it for a decade). Nor is there a standard type of school – each has its own cost structure and requirements. But it can be safely said that for each school, of the monthly fees collected as revenue, between half and two thirds at the very minimum goes towards staff fees. Other costs take up at least another five to ten percent. Margins and reserves are not high in normal schools.

The owner is an entrepreneur, and like every start up, they seek multiples on their investment. They do not get it. While schools may be a cash continuity business, it is not necessarily a high profit business, certainly not for the affordable schools sector, or the middle range fees sector. A school owner who has opened a school or two to do good, and share their competence is very likely to have left a corporate job that could pay them four times as much. These are the very people who will teach your children how to progress in life, how to make choices for money and for good. Your child is placed in trust with them each day. It is a matter of deep wonder for me – parents trust their children’s minds and hearts, handing them over to these schools – to be schooled any way the owner chooses. But the same owner is not trusted to be honourable in handling money. If you cannot trust them with your money, how do you trust them with your children everyday? I wonder if parents have thought this through.

Schools cannot survive for months on end if school fees are not paid. This is because schools have to be held in limbo. We assume and hope that there is an old normal to which we will revert. We hope, because our children miss their friends, they lose out on social and emotional learning, and good or bad, the learning outcomes were certainly better than the crisis learning that we are working with currently. But can we ever go back to the old normal, or have we already transitioned to the new normal?

This current protest is the start of a grand manthan for schools. We have to make a choice. We need to make a policy choice – both as a government, and as a people. Do we wait for the past to return? Or do we accept the new normal is being designed?

If we want the past to come back, we must pay to keep it in limbo. There is a cost, it must be borne. How governments intervene to save school capacity, how they reduce the burden on parents and how they support schools to survive is the business of the governments and education ministries of the day.

If we want to move ahead to the new normal, and evolve into an unknown but planned future of the education world, we have to invest in it. This again means a cost, but we may allocate our costs elsewhere. If your schools are maintaining continuity for your students, are working towards holding up learning standards (even if it’s not great now, but if they are listening and improving), and if your schools are providing the care and community that you feel you can support – then pay them for it.

Schools have a whole bunch of new expenses to budget for – retraining teachers (it will not remain free for ever), networking sites (they too will start charging soon), upgrades to bandwidth, investments in Virtual Reality and Augmented reality software, remote safety devices and actions, completely new ERPs – and a whole other type of governance architecture. Their physical infrastructure will have to be repurposed, their digital infrastructure will need investment. Choose whether you will stay with them during this journey, and if you will, then pay them to make it happen.

But if you choose to not trust your schools, then you will have to find your own way through this evolution. You can pay other providers, build your own portfolio of learning. Some will be mistakes (you’ll pay), and some will be brilliant (and you’ll still pay).

There are many ways of homeschooling, (though in the grey zone in India due to the RTE Act). As I have said before – you do not need schools. Dance, music, sport, languages – were all being learnt outside school hours for most in India. Most children had some tutors after school hours for academic work. Most worked with professionals for preparation for competitive examinations anyway. With online learning opening up, including MOOCs, certifications, private and organised learning pathways – there are loads of ways for our scholars to learn what they choose and get certified. The downside of course is that no one will be in charge – for as a parent, you are not a trained educator.

The choice is ours – do we support the professionals in the evolution to the next level of education, and help them to achieve greater learning outcomes with our children? Or do we do this alone, each of us working in a fragmented way to help our children move forward?

The choice is ours. Both choices have payments to be made, and costs to be borne.

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