Asian Insider

'Food before studies': School enrolment in India plunges as parents struggle to pay fees

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for the education of India's young. Switching to online classes is easier said than done in rural areas where there is hardly any internet coverage.

PATAUDI - At a school in Pataudi in India's Haryana state, a "welcome back to school" message is written on a whiteboard at the entrance.

But Mr Rashtriya Aman Mudgal, whose family started the private Navjivan Middle School, is not sure how many students he is welcoming back.

Senior schools, from Class 6 upwards, opened this month after a three-month break but Mr Mudgal estimated that up to 220 of its 300 students have left his school.

In the northern state of Haryana, the authorities have launched an investigation after finding that 1.25 million children have stopped attending private schools during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to government data at the end of June, only 1.73 million students were enrolled in private schools in Haryana, compared with nearly three million last year.

Haryana this month decided to reopen schools for Class 6 and above, as have some other states.

"I have no new enrolment this year. We are running the school on reserve funds. Never before have we seen a situation like this. They (parents) have to pay the fees, but they feel it is quite difficult to even earn enough for their daily needs," said Mr Mudgal.

He said 100 students had left to join government schools, which provide free education and a free midday meal, but can only speculate about the rest who, he feels, may have dropped out and are just sitting at home. "They (parents) say we want food first and then we can think of studies."

Across India, parents are fearful of sending their children to school during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, those parents whose children are still taking online classes are not convinced they are learning well.

Online classes also mean having Internet connectivity and a smartphone for the parents. And if the family has more than one child, it becomes a bigger challenge.

The pandemic has reversed an earlier trend of rising enrolment in private schools, spurred by the belief that they offer a better education. Budget private schools offer education for the poor at lower rates, from as little as 500 rupees (S$9.10) a month.


Students at the private Sri Devki Kailash School in Pataudi, Haryana. ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

The Indian government ordered a drastic lockdown last year and a less stringent one this year during a devastating second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. Earnings, particularly in the informal sector where most of those with lower incomes work, were affected, impacting spending on education.

Muskaan Sharma, 13, said she has learnt little through online classes, which at her private school is nothing more than homework sent on WhatsApp.

"I don't want to study online," she said, smiling. Her father, a labourer, has hit pause on her education and that of her two siblings, aged 15 and 18.

It has been difficult for him to find work, so his wife has opened a hole-in-the-wall grocery shop to help tide the family over.


Muskaan Sharma (right) with her mother at their family's grocery shop. ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

Mr Kulbhushan Sharma, president of the National Independent Schools Association, a federation of state associations of budget private schools, said: "There is a loss on all sides. Parents don't have the money to buy a smartphone that costs 6,000 rupees and then pay school fees," said Mr Sharma.

Most of them work in the informal sector, where the average wage is 269 rupees per day.

"This is not just in Haryana, throughout the country there is the same situation."

India is known worldwide for its software engineers, doctors and scientists. But the country's education system remains patchy.

More than a million government schools are run by individual states which also set guidelines for the 400,000 private schools.

A survey of 37,000 children aged between four and eight in rural India, conducted in 2019 by a non-governmental organisation, the Pratham Education Foundation, found only 16 per cent of those in Class 1 could read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40 per cent could not even recognise the letters of the alphabet.

India had relatively high dropout rates even before the pandemic, with those at secondary level as high as 17 per cent. Poverty is a driving factor, as children leave school to work and help their families make ends meet.

"Prior to Covid-19, India had high enrolment rates for elementary school age children. But school closures (for almost 16 months) have led to severe disruptions," said Dr Rukmini Banerji, CEO of the foundation.

"Once schools reopen, substantial effort may be needed to bring back children whose families have been badly hit by the pandemic."

Despite these recent challenges, appetite for education has not weakened in India's increasingly aspirational society.

Atif Alam, 11, who goes to a government school in Gurgaon, a financial and technology hub in Haryana, has adapted to make the best of a difficult situation.

He starts studying online at 10pm every day after his father returns home from his job as an office helper, with the family's only smartphone.

The boy needs his father, who never went to school, to help him with his homework. But he needs the family smartphone to study. The problem is that till that hour the only smartphone owned by the family is with the father.

"I study from 10pm to 11pm. I sometimes watch the (recorded) classes on YouTube. But I always submit my homework," said Alam.

"I am not falling behind."