GUEST COLUMN

ISLAMABAD - Every now and then an incident comes to light, which shows that elite private schools across the country are entities with very little accountability. Parents are no strangers to the fact that these schools have become corporate structures prepared to charge any sum from them, promising to impart a quality education to their children.  The parents, who naturally want their kids to acquire top-class education, pay their disposable income for this commodity. However, developments over the last couple of months show that the custodians of law are finally taking these institutes to task.

A debate regarding collection of tuition fee in summer vacations gained momentum last August. A petition was moved in Islamabad High Court against fee collection during the months of June, July and August when the educational institutes remain closed.  The Islamabad High Court barred the schools from charging this three-month fee. But the school authorities’ raised hue and cry and the Supreme Court overturned the decision. The final verdict was that tuition fee can be charged since the staff has to be paid but not altogether to reduce the burden on parents.

Fair enough! But this begged a question: do the school owners, who charge a hefty fee every month, not have enough funds at the end of academic year to pay staff during holidays? This responsibility lies more with profit-earning owners than it does with the students. Now, the apex court again sprung into action, and ordered private schools to slash their fees by 20pc while also refunding 50pc of the fee they charged during the summer vacation. The Chief Justice, in a much-needed move, has told these education cartels to straighten up or face legal action.

Another issue is that of lack of transparency in the fee structure. A standard fee challan of an A-level student adds up to a monthly fee of about 30 to 35000. While 30000 is the actual tuition fee, the added 3 to 5000 falls under the label of ‘miscellaneous’. One wonders what these miscellaneous activities are. Monthly school trips? Sports facilities? There is no proper breakdown of fee charges. Recently, a video circulating on social media recorded by a student’s parent shows the latter angrily confronting the administration of Beaconhouse School campus in Karachi for refusing to provide him the fee structure despite repeated requests. The video was viewed 87,000 times and attracted a few thousand likes.

Other (mal)practices such as ‘accidentally’ issuing the same fee challan more than once have also been recounted. Alia Nadeem*, a student of O level, said that the private school she’s enrolled in, sent her fee receipt for the same month twice. Fortunately, since her mother kept a record of the fee paid, visited the accounts office in her school with the receipt of payment and pointed out this blunder of the administration. The school obviously accepted the mistake, but the incident raised a valid concern. Do institutes not have an online mechanism whereby they are informed of who has paid and till when?

Is it truly an administrative error or has been deliberately done in attempts to squeeze more money from the parents?

Talking about exorbitant fees, is the education really even worth the price we pay for? The schools pride themselves on employing ‘best’ teaching faculty whereas one too many times the teacher they hire lacks decent subject expertise or is just not specialized to teach a particular subject. Does this mean that they are recruiting unqualified teachers for lesser pay? My sister just entered her A-levels and opted for a combination of Law, Literature and Sociology. The Sociology teacher, she and her peers complain, makes basic English grammatical mistakes, has a weak grasp of concepts and is unable to deliver on the GCE curriculum pattern.

Despite voicing their concern to the principal, the matter was not only left unaddressed but also dismissed as ‘student bias’. This brings to light another phenomenon: the case of bad principals. The job of a principal is by far the most important in an educational institute and if poorly done can take a toll on the students and teachers. A bad principal is someone who’s not educationally or mentally equipped to hold the role. Unsuitable principals also pave way for malpractices, misuse of power and unprofessional behavior on part of the lower administration. The stories of bad school administrators recounted by students and teaching faculty are also too many. 

Recently, a female student named Farwa Munir uploaded a video on Facebook recounting the disrespectful treatment meted out to her from LGS administration at an event. The girl was invited to the Islamabad branch of LGS to take part in a Model United Nations event and travelled to the capital on a bus. Upon arrival, she was told that the committee she was supposed to host had been abolished because the subject matter (HIV aids) was too controversial to be discussed. Without any courtesy on part of the school administration of being offered food and rest after a five-hour bus ride, the girl was told to go back to Lahore the very same day.

Insider information later revealed that she was declined participation because of her attire since the face cover was deemed unfit for the event. The girl rightly criticized the discriminatory policy but was more enraged because the administration, which had seen her picture beforehand and knew that she wore a niqaab. Why let her travel for 5 hours to inform her last minute that she can’t take part. Is there no code of ethics to be followed by the decision-makers?

Meanwhile, a Christian acquaintance working at a reputable school in Islamabad narrated that she was forced to take part in a milaad ceremony by the school principal. Rather than being mindful of the religious preference of a minority group member, the principal not only made her attendance compulsory, but also insisted that she covers her head during the ceremony. She claimed that this would give her an opportunity to learn about Islam.

Such instances stress the need for school owners and administrators to be more sympathetic towards the parents, students and teachers. They should take into consideration their social and cultural preferences, follow a code of ethics when dealing with issues and avoid seeing education through a solely moneymaking lens.

-The writer is a freelance contributor.