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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Härmä

Covid’s threat to high-fee private schools: Parents finding out how teachers actually teach

There is much talk these days about the threat to education and child safety from the shut-down resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Questions swirl regarding how best to ensure that children’s education is not totally derailed, with the most pressing issues concerning the food security of those children who rely on school for one or even two meals per day, and the health – emotional and physical – of vulnerable children living with absent, neglectful or abusive parents. Different countries are coming up with different types of solutions (or not) to these problems, with probably the hottest topic being online or remote teaching and learning. Countries like Nigeria have started using online resources, radio and television to relay recorded lessons and more. More advantaged countries or schools within countries are starting to use apps like Zoom to deliver teaching in a way that allows for interaction between teachers and students, with varying levels of success, depending how strong internet signals are, and how available suitable devices are.

Turning to my own area of greatest familiarity, private schooling for the poor, many schools and parents are struggling to determine what can be done when internet signals are weak and smartphone ownership not yet universal. Yet things are much worse than this in many places. In Nigeria, hit hard by the eye-watering fall in the price of oil (which has gone into the negative for the first time in history), parents are not just turning to the low-fee private schools they have used for years to help their child’s learning continue, but to help them find food for their families. Sustainable Education and Enterprise Development (SEED), an organisation more used to devising ways for schools to increase the quality of their teaching, has branched out to helping these schools to support their hard-hit clienteles with vital food supplies.

During my career so far I have not expended much time or energy on private schools used by the middle classes and elites, as I have always considered the issues they face to be trivial in comparison to such issues as are faced by the poor who are now even food insecure in locations as diverse as Lagos and Liverpool. My greatest involvement with any middle-class school (after my own school days) has been with the one attended by my niece and nephew in Gurgaon, St _______. I had pretty much made up my mind about the school when I entered to see written in large letters on one wall of the entrance foyer ‘nobody’s perfect, but if you are a St ______an, you’re pretty close’. Had I been a prospective parent, I would have beaten a hasty retreat at first sight of this, pausing only long enough to remonstrate with the head teacher about what message they are sending to their privileged students. However, out of love for my niece and nephew I have gritted my teeth through parent-teacher conferences, sporting events and Christmas carol-singing competitions (competition being injected into even this most unlikely activity). I have checked my niece’s French exercise book to find incorrect work ticked as correct, and I have listened as teachers talked to her parents about the need to drive up exam scores, or else suffer the fate of being cut from arts and music. Having attended a Steiner school for 14 years myself, I found this round of discussions with teachers, at which I was a mere bystander, dismaying.

The last part of the picture, not peculiar in the slightest to St ______, is the relentless examination pressure. This academic year I was visiting in Gurgaon for a few days at the time my nephew in primary 2 was sitting his first exams, and I observed the beginning of the effect this would have on him, and I recalled how Indian adults my age still suffer exam nightmares as common anxiety dreams. The final exam-related insult came when the school held examinations on the Monday before Holi, which fell on a Tuesday this year. The Monday examination meant that this Jesuit school stopped families from spending this important festival with family outside of the city.

To send his children to this school, my brother-in-law pays Rs13,000 per month, in comparison to perhaps Rs 500-1,000 at a low-fee private school in greater Delhi. Despite being a confirmed middle class professional in a city with hundreds if not thousands of schooling options, one of the key draws of this school is that it happens to be directly across the street (an advantage not to be discounted too greatly in light of the usual, pre-shutdown traffic situation in the city) – proximity to home being a major pull in poor and rich countries (and families) alike. In addition, the middle-class schooling situation in greater Delhi (in which I include Noida, across the state border to the east in Uttar Pradesh as well as Gurgaon, across the state border to the south-west in Haryana) is a jungle. Parents are frantic to get admission for their children in the best school that they can, drawing on personal networks and word-of-mouth, seemingly struggling and failing to discern the true quality of education on offer, or failing to find a school that manages to live up to their hopes. Again, rich and poor parents alike struggle to make choices in the absence of objective information on school quality; for wealthier parents, getting a parent whose children already attend a school to put in a good word is something much sought-after.

During the current shutdown, fleets of fancy, air-conditioned and school name-branded yellow buses have ceased to ferry middle-class and elite children to-and-fro from their homes to the many private schools in the city. Everything has moved online now, and just last week classes have resumed, with children receiving streamed teaching in their respective classes, right there in their homes. On top of this, the parents paying the fees are also locked down and so are, for the first time for many, getting a close-up view of what it is that they are paying through the nose for, wherein may lie the first significant threat to these schools.

There is a fair bit of writing on the subject of whether higher fees tend to mean higher achievement for students at private schools, i.e. are much more expensive schools worth the significant extra cost? And even at the relatively lower end, are somewhat higher fees worth it through greater learning amongst children (controlling, of course, for the advantages or disadvantages inherent in coming from a more advantaged or more disadvantaged background)? At the level of fees and other costs charged by these middle-class schools in greater Delhi, parents have the right to expect a very solid, if not extremely good quality of education for their children.

For the first time, my niece and nephews’ classes are being streamed directly into their homes, exposing the quality of the education the school offers, and turning parents into impromptu researchers conducting daily lesson observations, and what they have found has been profoundly disappointing. Teachers at these schools usually speak good English (as do my niece and nephew), but are young and relatively inexperienced. It would be difficult to say that they are highly motivated and inspired teachers. This cannot come as any surprise in light of the fact that these middle-class schools have burgeoned over the last ten to twenty years as greater Delhi has grown and grown. It should come as no surprise that good teachers do not appear overnight to staff expensive schools, any more than they do for low-fee or ‘budget’ ones, and no matter how much parents clamour to provide their children with an ‘edge’ over others. There is no way that the body of real teachers for schools to recruit from could have expanded fast enough for the quality of education given to keep pace with the level of fees and demand. The disappointing offering in Gurgaon is corroborated from the other side of the city, in Noida, where we recently received a phone call from a worried and horrified parent seeking advice, a friend-of-a-friend who learned that we ran a pretty good school even if it is in a remote rural hamlet. This father stated that the early grades primary school teachers could hardly read a story; didn’t know word meanings; and was generally and entirely underwhelming. To give teachers their due, making the switch to the streaming medium is not straight-forward; however there are certain concerns that this parent has that cannot be explained away through teething issues.

The parent who called us from Noida said that he and his wife are planning on totally transforming their lives, including home-schooling their children instead of paying exorbitant fees and myriad other costs for activities, materials, sports and school trips, for a school whose teaching quality they now realise leaves very much to be desired. Flashy annual school functions where their children perform in high-end costumes with professional music, lighting and smoke machines, along with all of the other trappings that schools provide to help cover for the absence of really deep and inspirational teaching, are seemingly not what some parents really want – while they are a key part of middle-class schools’ marketing strategies. The parent who called us, called in search of resources and advice to help him and his wife transition into this new way of educating their children – and no-doubt the disaster capitalists will be feverishly working to fill this market niche in order to capitalise on the current crisis by selling resources to such parents.

Some families will sustain this determination to make a change for the better in their lives, while other parents will likely sigh at the quality of teaching that has been exposed to them through the magic of Zoom and just carry on. Truly inspired teaching seems to be a sadly scarce and precious commodity, even for those who can pay, with the slack for this poor quality schooling being picked up by parents. Thankfully for these families, they have the time and resources to make up for the deficiencies in their children’s schooling, something that cannot be said for the poorest. In the end, many parents may feel unprepared to home-school their children and simply resign themselves to their captive status, with schools such as St _____ continuing to profit.

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