On pain of repetition, Covid-19 is to 21st century what the two World Wars were to the past century. The upheaval, the destruction, and the havoc wreaked by the virus are the stuff of a dystopian nightmare.
But for the hopelessly sanguine, the crisis has a silver lining: The emergence of the State-run schools as a popular alternative to private institutions.
The admissions to classes I, VI, and IX began at the government primary, middle, and high schools on August 17.
However, by August 20, P Jayanthi had already welcomed 59 students from private schools to the Corporation Primary School in Tiruchy, where she is the Headmistress.
The school saw 102 fresh admissions to Standard I, which Assistant Headmistress H Pushpalatha touts as the highest for a single class among government schools.
Pushpalatha credits the karate classes, skating rings, Silambam training, among other curricular and infrastructure offerings for the newfound interest among the parents.
The situation at Government Kurumbapalayam High School in Coimbatore district is similar. According to the headmaster, P Balan, “As per data, 70 students were admitted to classes VI and IX last year. The figure stands at 113 students this year. Among them, 51 are from government schools and 62 from private schools. The migration from private schools to government institutions owes largely to the pandemic. Many parents told me that private schools have been forcing them to pay fees. As many have lost jobs, they preferred making their wards switch to government schools.”
These are not isolated schools, but the representative figures of a paradigm shift wrought about by a pandemic coupled with an economic slump.
Probably this is the reason why the School Education Department officials are optimistic that admissions this season would trump last year’s.
While School Education Minister K A Sengottaiyan had said that over 10 lakh students had sought admissions to government schools, officials estimated the figure to approach 15 lakh by September 30, marking a 25 per cent increase as compared to last year.
The admissions have soared but are the State-run institutions equipped to handle the stress on their infrastructure? K R Nandhakumar of TN Matriculation, Higher Secondary, and CBSE Schools Association replies in the negative.
“While there has been a significant migration from private to government schools, State-run institutions may not have the infrastructure to accommodate the fresh intake. I doubt that enough government schools have adequate classrooms, toilets, tables, chairs, computers, or other infrastructure facilities. Many schools do not even have drinking water or drainage facilities,” he said, adding that there might be a reverse migration to private schools once they reopen.
Spending with elan
When we talk about the State-run schools being light on pocket, an oft-ignored facet remains the investment made by the government in ensuring each student gets the best deal.
While there is a price tag on everything at private schools, did you know that the government spends somewhere in the vicinity of Rs 25,000 on each child every year?
Speaking to TNIE, Madurai District High School and Higher Secondary School Headmasters/Headmistresses Association’s Treasurer C Thenkarai Muthupillai says the government shells out Rs 25,000 on every student to provide them free education, books, uniform, bags, slippers, learning aids, qualified teachers, good lab, and infrastructure.
For parents reeling under financial strain, the switch to State-run institutions ensures affordable (nearly free) education without compromising on their wards’ future preparedness.
Muthupillai is the Headmaster of Government Vedarpudur Higher Secondary School, where new admissions have risen from the 150 last year to the 210 now.
And what motivates the government schools more is the fact that the admission season would last till September 30, by which time they expect the education officers’ predictions to come true.
In Madurai, as per August 31 statistics, over 30,000 students have joined government schools. This is a 20 per cent spike when compared to last year.
Done the homework
When it came to preparing the generation next, private schools were considered eons ahead of their State-run counterparts. But the catch was that the parents had to pay with an arm and a leg for getting their wards the coveted tag of a private school product.
Then came the pandemic, forcing the common Indian to revisit their budget.
A cut here or a chop there was not sufficient. Strife for existence trumped exuberance. Practicality demanded that the education expenses undergo haircut. This proved to be the windfall for those government schools that had done their homework.
Take Corporation Middle School in Piratiyur (Tiruchy) for instance. It witnessed 100 fresh faces joining its fold between classes LKG and VIII. Of the 100, 60 were from private schools. Among them were the son and the daughter of S Vasuki.
“After the pandemic, there was no way I could afford a private school. Then there was this school. I thought it was Tamil medium but soon realised it was English medium. Moreover, the administration’s choice of uniform (violet and white checked tops with solid violet trousers) struck a chord with me. My inquiries revealed that the school had a rich repertoire of extracurricular activities and modern facilities like smart classes.” The school also offers martial arts and yoga training, besides Hindi classes funded by the donors.
NEET quota is the catalyst?
Apart from the relief from the financial burden, the migration could also point towards a tactical move on the part of the parents to further the chances of their wards in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).
A top office bearer of the Tamil Nadu Government School Teachers Association (TNGSTA), PK Ilamaran, says the government’s promise to provide reservation to government school students in NEET could have tilted the balance in favour of State-run institutions.
“The State attracted many students to government schools by introducing LKG and UKG, and English medium sections. Similarly, the decision to introduce reservation in NEET is a major incentive for students to join government schools,” he says.
Attributing the pandemic as the sole driver behind this migration oversimplifies matters. For instance, Manachanallur Government Model Higher Secondary School Headmaster S Anbusekaran believes that augmented infrastructure, better academic training and the resultant performance, and the testimony of parents of the existing wards too have played a role.
Anbusekaran’s school has had 270 fresh student admissions, of whom 230 have migrated from private institutions.
An anecdote that Anbusekaran shared with TNIE is both instructive and enlightening insofar as gaining admissions are concerned.
“We had instructed the security personnel of school to note down the contact details of parents enquiring about admissions during the lockdown. Later, we followed up on those leads and kept in touch with the parents. This led to a sizeable conversion rate,” he adds.
While all the schools mentioned so far are English medium, Government M Kalathur Primary School near Thottiyam bucks the trend.
A Tamil medium institution that offers English lessons, it managed to hold its own against private schools, and even English medium government institutions.
Its Headmaster R Gurumurthy says they reached out to the prospective students and shared learning materials with them. This soft advertisement led to some sizeable conversion.
Kumar admitted his son and daughter (Standards I and III) to Government M Kalathur Primary School.
A lorry driver, Kumar had no source of income during the lockdown, prompting the shift.
“The school offers excellent spoken English training. I have seen students speak and read both Tamil and English better than they could before,” he answers when asked about the reason for the switch.
Manikandam Block Education Officer (BEO) Maruthanayagam believes that the spike in admissions have a lot to do with reverse migration in the wake of job loss in the cities.
“In my block, most schools experienced a spike in admissions owing to the emigrant families returning home after losing jobs in cities.”
While agreeing to the notion that pandemic is the driving force behind the student migration, Tiruchy Chief Educational Officer S Santhi tells TNIE: “The quality of education is improving with each passing year. Performance also is a factor in parents choosing State-run institutions... The schools in the district have got around 250 smart classrooms. It means there is one smart classroom for almost every high and higher secondary government school in the district.”
Dedicated campaign in coimbatore
Door-to-door campaigns to explain the benefits of admitting wards to government schools were conducted in Coimbatore as well.
The results are there for everyone to see. Coimbatore’s admission tally has already overtaken last year’s numbers.
Coimbatore Chief Educational Officer (CEO) P Usha says, “Compared to last year, student admission rate has increased in government schools here. Many students have moved from private schools to government institutions. We have beaten last year’s number in roughly a week. We do not have a concrete number now, but are hopeful that the strength would only increase in the coming days.”
Moreover, teachers too are chipping in their bit. Take Jasmine Victoria for instance. She teaches Tamil at Government Semmandampalayam High School. She admitted her son to class VI in Panchayat Union Middle School at Aathupalayam.
“My son studied up to class V at a private school. For long, I wanted to admit my son to a government school. After discussing with my family, I admitted my son to a government school. If government teachers and staff admit their wards to government schools, the public would be motivated to follow suit,” she says.
An aberration in Chennai
The admission rate in Chennai is still lower compared to other districts. While the capital city recorded nearly 40,000 new school admissions until September 3, only about 15,000 were reported from government schools.
However, of the 15,000, 7,600 were students migrating from private and CBSE schools, said Chennai’s Chief Educational Officer A Anitha.
According to her, the slow enrolment rate is due to parents returning to their hometowns during the pandemic.
“When schools reopen, they may either continue in the same place or we might see a sharp surge in enrolment in Chennai when parents come back for work here,” she said.
(Inputs from Aadhithya MS @ Tiruchy, Sushmitha Ramakrishnan @ Chennai, Jeyalakshmi Ramanujam @ Madurai, & N Dhamotharan @ Coimbatore)