Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

Will the budget private school sector survive the pandemic?

By Aditi Nangia July 2021

The impact of pandemic-induced school closures in India since March 2020 has had an unprecedented impact on the school-going children, especially students from low-income households enrolled in non-elite private schools and teachers employed by these schools. While some private schools switched to online learning and have managed to stay afloat, others have had to shut down. Reliable data on school closures doesn’t exist in India as yet, but preliminary indicators from one state suggest that over 3000 low-fee private schools have shut down in the last one year[1]. Uncertainty, low revenues, and learning loss loom large over the private school sector with no respite in the near future.

The private school sector received little support to move to a new normal

Prolonged school closures due to COVID-19 has devastating long term impacts on learning levels across the board, but especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, most of whom attend either government schools or low-fee private schools. A study conducted by Central Square Foundation and Omidyar Network India across 1124 parents, school leaders and teachers found acute challenges faced by low-fee private schools in delivering online learning and staying afloat during the COVID19 pandemic[2]. Studies conducted by the UNICEF, Oxfam India, Global Schools Forum and ASER Centre echo the same findings.

“The private school sector was left in a lurch, we had to fend for ourselves. For the last few months, we’ve been doing regular online classes for all grades. Unlike big private schools we took some time, almost 3 months, to graduate to Zoom live classes after the lockdown was imposed,” says Rajesh Malhotra who runs Sainath school in Delhi’s Tigri extension area. The school caters to 250 students across grades 1-8 in a low income community, with 25% students enrolled through RTE 12(1)(C). The school's revenue has dropped over the last year due to a host of reasons. While enrolments haven’t increased, 15% of the already enrolled students didn’t re-enroll in 2020-21, and for the remaining, at least 10% school-fee remains uncollected.

With closures announced in the first/ second week of March 2020 and government directives to promote all students in grades 1-9 to the next grade, private schools were left in the dark with uncertainty looming around their finances for the previous and next academic year, since thousands of families migrated back to their hometowns during the lockdown[4]. To add to the schools’ woes, many state governments announced fee caps and restrictions on the types of fees that schools could collect, further dissuading parents from paying fees on time.

Key insights from our study of how the pandemic impacted the low-fee private school sector:
  • At-home learning: not as seamless

    Nearly half the parents reported disruptions in work because they had to help their child with online classes and nearly a third found that their child was not attentive during classes. The pandemic brought home, literally and metaphorically, the realities of their child’s day-to-day education and nearly 40% of parents expressed their inability to help with academics. Even as teachers struggled to teach online, parents were dissatisfied with the quality of teaching. Over 90% schools conducted some form of online training for their teachers, yet, barriers to effective online learning include the lack of resources, connectivity and reduced teacher support in virtual classes.

  • Students struggling with mental health

    Schools adapted to keep their customers happy and continued to provide them with visible learning markers such as tests, competitions, extra curriculars, etc. Almost 70% of schools conducted online assessments and 45% teachers connected with their students through phone calls. To encourage higher engagement levels from students and parents, nearly 50% of schools conducted online extracurricular activities(cultural events, virtual games, etc.). In the absence of in-person play time and social interactions with peers, students’ felt lonely and this might have reduced productivity during learning time. Online learning was challenging due to poor connectivity, low device penetration, and lack of technical know-how among teachers Despite various efforts, parents felt that online learning is less effective with only 18% reporting that online learning will have a positive impact on their child in the long-term.

  • Reduced pay and lack of resources for teachers

    Teachers learnt how to teach online and manage a class whilst navigating screens and content. Nearly 70% teachers used their own devices to teach, and troubleshooting technological issues was one of the top four challenges faced by schools. While most teachers received some form of training, only 50-60% of teachers received technical training to make online videos, pre-record content and share content. Private schools’ capacity to use paid apps has been low and “parent demand for English-medium content does not allow schools to depend on state-run TV and radio programmes, since they are often only in regional languages”, says Mohd. Shafi who runs Monarch High School in Hyderabad’s Madannapet area. Mr. Malhotra adds, “Small schools that don’t have the know-how to train their teachers could benefit from state-run teacher training programs.”

  • Financial challenges

    “We've been able to convince teachers for half-salary for the last 12 months, but our building rent (70,000 per month) has been the same for the last one year”, says Mohd. Shafi, and adds that building owners have been keen to let go of schools and repurpose the building to a residential complex or a hospital. Despite their move to online learning, schools like Monarch have kept their rented premises to avoid the hassle of shifting their furniture to a godown during the pandemic, with the hope that in-person classes will resume soon.

    School fees decreased by 20-50% and over 50% of parents didn’t pay school fees. With their only source of revenue falling, schools couldn't pay their teachers and nearly 40% teachers’ salaries were held up for at least 3 months. Both Monarch and Sainath schools didn’t lay-off any of their teachers due to COVID-19, but they couldn’t pay full salaries either. As a response to teachers’ woes, Telangana announced a cash transfer to teachers in private schools. Of the 12 staff in Monarch school, 11 teachers received the benefit and the gap is due to inconsistencies in the U-DISE data for the COVID-19 school year.

Recovering from the impact of COVID-19

To offset the learning loss and financial instability caused due to the indefinite school closures, relief measures will be needed.

  • Short term efforts can include:

    • Ensuring that private schools have access to State-led efforts on online-education and remediation programs is imperative
    • Easing credit availability to private schools through relief packages with similar benefits as provided to Micro, Small, or Medium enterprises (MSMEs)
  • Medium term efforts to improve quality in private schools would require structural changes in private school regulations that build resilience and encourage innovation and quality. These include:

    • NEP 2020’s recommendations on inclusion of private schools in census assessments in grades 3, 5 and 8 to measure quality of learning, and
    • Development of a pragmatic accreditation framework that focuses on learning outcomes and child safety

Action is critical to allow the sector to recover from the pandemic and ensure continued education for over 12 Crore children who are serviced by the private schools in India, most (70%) of whom are from lower and middle income families that pay less than Rs. 1000 per month school fees.

Watch: State of the Private School Sector in India

References

[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/low-cost-private-schools-in-india-struggle-to-survive-in-pandemic-as-parents-default

[2] Note: For the purpose of this study, we define low fee private schools as those charging less than ₹ 800 per month as course fee.The cutoff for low fee and high fee classification was determined as per the NSSO data which suggests that ~50% of students in private schools pay less than ₹800 a month as fees. Schools that were surveyed were sourced from online databases since COVID-19 limited the scope of in-person sourcing of school contact information and necessitated online sample collection. Therefore, estimates are likely to be biased upwards- the learning crisis and school finances are likely to be worse in lower fee schools.

[3] Note: For the purpose of this study, we define low fee private schools as those charging less than ₹ 800 per month as course fee.The cutoff for low fee and high fee classification was determined as per the NSSO data which suggests that ~50% of students in private schools pay less than ₹800 a month as fees. Schools that were surveyed were sourced from online databases since COVID-19 limited the scope of in-person sourcing of school contact information and necessitated online sample collection. Therefore, estimates are likely to be biased upwards- the learning crisis and school finances are likely to be worse in lower fee schools.

[4] How Crisis Proof are Private Schools?

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Aditi Nangia

Aditi Nangia

Aditi Nangia is a part of the Private Governance team at CSF