AT long last, the government seems serious about the long-overdue private school reform. The new government directive for the regulation of the 8,000-odd private schools in the country is exacting: schools will have to undertake tough measures like significantly cutting down on the weight of schoolbags children ferry to schools and considerably increasing the size of existing classrooms. Private schools have long been criticized for unnecessarily burdening young students by forcing them to lug hefty books to and fro from school every day. The new directive caps the maximum weight of schoolbag for students in grades 1-5 at four kgs. Likewise, the directive provides for spacious classrooms, with each comfortably sitting at least 33 students. The new regulations also cover school playgrounds and other vital school infrastructure, all aimed at making school-going pleasant and enriching experience for students. Girls in particular have plenty of reasons to cheer, as they will get separate toilets equipped with sanitary boxes.
In fact the new guideline offers a near-perfect plan to improve the quality of education as well as infrastructure of private schools, in addition to negating the possibility of private schools extorting unsuspecting parents. For instance, from now on private schools will be forced to stick with the textbooks prescribed by the government, which is expected to curb the unhealthy practice of schools colluding with various publishers to extract hefty commissions, which they do by prescribing students expensive and unnecessary books. But can all (or even most of) the provisions in the guideline be enforced? It will not be easy. It is estimated that 90 percent of the 8,000 private schools operating in the country will not be able to meet its requirements in the near future. This is the reason the government plans to gradually phase-in the reform measures. The guideline also precludes the possibility of any new school opening up since they will struggle to meet all requirements. Understandably, private school operators are unhappy with this ‘draconian’ initiative to impose government will on private schools, even while government schools have been left off the hook. Moreover, there are other important concerns.
First, there is great suspicion over whether the government plan to ‘phase in’ the new regulations is the best way to go about it. Such a provision of gradual implementation, it is suspected, will allow even the schools that are most egregiously flouting the norms to escape regulation. But the government caution can also be seen in a positive light, as it gives private schools enough time to implement vital reforms. It is clear that only through a collective effort of private school bodies and relevant government agencies can the reforms be effectively implemented. But this is not the first reform program of its kind. Similar past plans were never implemented. We are afraid that the file of the latest reform initiative could also end up in dusty drawers at the Ministry of Education. Only a proactive government initiative can preclude such an eventuality. We also hope that the renewed focus on private schools does not take away from the equally important task of introducing vital reforms in government-run schools, which, in most cases, are in a much-much worse shape.