Two systems, two diverse offerings

Growing public-private divergence in learning outcomes is fuelling lopsided enrolment

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:49 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2016 01:34 am IST - Vallakkotai/Chennai

‘No child left behind’ is the philosophy underpinning the governance of government schools in Tamil Nadu.

‘No child left behind’ is the philosophy underpinning the governance of government schools in Tamil Nadu.

For Ajay (7), his school in this remote corner of Kanchipuram district in Tamil Nadu is a lifeline to learning in an otherwise difficult life.

The youngest of three children, Ajay’s father abandoned them, leaving their mother to fend for the family, battling her own poor health.

Each day that Ajay attends Class III at the Panchayat Union Primary School here is a day he cannot help at home, or engage in some form of work, and the pressure on his family is enormous.

Yet when the troubles at home cause him to fall behind in learning the phonetics of the alphabet or basic addition skills using bead counting, he finds succour from his teachers who are patient and always willing to give him the extra attention that he may need in class.

Where inclusion comes first

This broadly inclusive approach, approximating the American maxim “No child left behind,” is the philosophy underpinning the governance of government schools in Tamil Nadu, and it extends beyond support to children such as Ajay, who are dropout risks owing to the economic circumstances their families.

The government school system in Tamil Nadu has also has excelled in implementing programmes for children who drop out owing to the migration of their parents, according to Pooja Kulkarni, State Project Director for Sarva Shiksha Abiyan (SSA), the vehicle for universalising elementary education, the promise of the Right to Education Act.

An example of tackling this problem of “migration dropouts,” Ms. Kulkarni explains, is the way education officers track migration to the cotton fields of Salem, where agricultural workers from Viluppuram and Thiruvannamalai districts go during the harvest season.

Corresponding to these migration patterns the governments then open non-residential schools in the vicinity of the cotton fields or construction sites, therein also catering to the education needs of out-of-state children coming from as far as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Jharkhand.

At each such education centre the typical practice is to engage a temporary “education volunteer” who would be an individual who has passed the Class 12 public examination and procure text books from respective states in a variety of relevant languages.

The public school system here has also made bold strides in pedagogy, moving away from the prior method of learning by rote.

Instead, in the years that neuroscience tells us are the most important for cognitive development primary school students engage with Activity Based Learning (ABL), a structured learning method based on a card-ladder system.

As Sashikumar, a training coordinator for SSA in Kanchipuram explains, there are ten competency milestones a child has to achieve per grade under ABL, and a series of activities is required to reach those milestones. These activities typically including conversations, story-telling, singing, or role-play activities, which are done in a “highly structured manner integrated into the main curriculum”

Notwithstanding these profound strides forward in expanding access to and the quality of primary education, the reach of the government school system competes with that of private schools, and the public system even leans on the private sector in some cases, whose presence is palpable in Vallakkottai, situated as it is, close to the Oragadam Industrial Corridor.

Fourteen gleaming black computers donated by Hyundai corporation stood were proudly displayed by school principal Shaik Mohammed, who also said that the clean, grassy, well-equipped playground on the school premises was set up and maintained by Apollo Tyres Corporation.

Private schools also appeared to be the bane of some school administrators. In a government middle school in nearby Eraiyur some teachers opined that parents tended to place their children in private schools swayed by their offer of school bus services, yet students who had moved back to the government schools from there complained of poor teaching, teachers who beat them, and a lack of learning materials including books.

Why then has Tamil Nadu, similar to numerous other Indian states, witnessed such a strong uptake in private school admissions across the board?

The lure of private schools

Nowhere is this trend stronger than in Chennai.

B. Vasanthi, who works in the maintenance department of a courier company says that her eight-year-old son studies in Class II in a CBSE private school in the locality.

Where she resides, in the slum clearance board apartments in T. Nagar, many parents like her have admitted their children to private schools in their locality.

“There are lots of extra-curricular activities and we feel that the children can develop better communication skills in english as well. We don't mind paying the high fees,” Vasanthi says, when asked about her choice of school.

With the number of private schools mushrooming in the state, the queues for LKG admissions outside its gates have been growing with every passing year.

Earlier this year, a reputed school in the city had made an announcement that admissions for LKG in their school had been closed till 2019. This meant that parents could seek admissions only from the year 2020, for children born in the year 2016.

Activists have however raised concerns about the fees charged by private schools in the state with respect to the infrastructure and quality provided, and K.R. Nandakumar, Tamil Nadu Matric, Higher Secondary and CBSE schools association said, “While Private schools are expected to follow the norms set by the State Government and the department, there is no other common government body that is evaluating them on the quality of holistic education provided.”

However, with the quality aspects gaining more focus, an increasing number of private schools in the state have begun to get certifications from the International Organisation for Standardisation.

A. Narayanan, who runs Change India, an NGO which recently carried out a study on a group of private schools in the city operating over ten branches said that the increasing number of private schools which had violated norms with regard to the minimum land required and other infrastructural facilities, presented a rather grim picture.

“There is a flagrant violation of rules in most of these institutions. Legal compliance should be the first issue which should be tackled followed by regulation of quality,” he observed.


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