May 29, 2013

Meet the parents who fought ‘fleece’ in garb of school fees

Frustrated with ‘arrogant’ fleecing and overcharging of fees by their children’s school, a group of Delhiites move court against Summer Fields School, win a battle of fee for all parents in the capital — and, perhaps, across the country

His smile may have been demure but as Vinay Bhalla sat down in his apartment at Uday Park, in south Delhi, he showed the ease and confidence of a man who has fought a long, hard battle and has emerged a winner.

And that he sure has.

Having taken his daughters’ school, Summer Fields School in south Delhi’s Kailash Colony, to court along with other petitioners for charging high quarterly fees, the respite came on April 10, when the Delhi high court ruled that private schools cannot charge more than a month’s fee in advance. The judgment came on a petition filed by 10 parents of children studying in Summer Fields.

Bhalla, a member of Summer Fields School parents’ association, a registered body formed in 2009 by a group of parents protesting fee hike and other “irregularities”, said he and other members of the association feel the judgment came at a time when they had lost all hope.

While rules under the Delhi School Education Act-1973 do not permit schools to charge fees in any mode other than a monthly basis, as the HC bench pointed out while delivering its verdict, only a handful of parents are aware of it. Bhalla and company’s fight against the odds, while running the risk of harassment of their children at the school, is thus no little effort. In fact, it’s nothing short of heroic in its own way.

As social jurist Ashok Agarwal put it, “The judgment is binding for all non-aided private schools in Delhi. The rule was already in place and the high court has (now) clarified the rules.”

Genesis of the problem
Stressing that they formed the association following a rise in alleged irregularities over the last few years, several parents said it was a move to give a legal platform to their protests.

Fee hike, Bhalla said, was one of the earliest grievances of the parents. The school management, he claimed, has been “extorting money from us” in the name of the sixth pay commission, which raised salary levels of teachers and other staff. “But the money was not given to the staff,” he alleged. “In 2006, the monthly fee (at Summer Fields), inclusive of all funds, was Rs 1,500. In 2013, it is Rs 4,400 — a 300-percent hike in seven years. When we started feeling the financial pinch, we began digging in.”

Governance Now’s efforts to contact the school for their comments on the developments did not bear fruit.

Ajay Chopra, president of the Summer Fields School parents’ association, was the first parent to protest against the rising fees and other alleged irregularities. Slowly, other parents, too, joined ranks with him.

The association filed a case against fee hike in 2009.

The association’s vice-president, Rahul Chaddha, said initially Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress represented the school management as the defence lawyer on a few occasions. “How can the ruling party’s spokesman fight a case against the parents for the benefit of some businessman?” he asked.

He said the association had decided to stop paying fees for two quarters in protest. “(But) it was a huge blow for us when Justice Sistani, who was hearing the case, told us on the request of defence counsel Singhvi that he will hear our case only after we clear the fees (dues),” he said.

Singhvi later backed out of the case when parents objected to his presence as lawyer for the school.

A small victory but problems galore

While the litigation was on, a report by the Justice Anil Dev Singh committee, formed on the court’s orders to look into allegations of unlawful fee hike, pointed out that “development fee” collected by Summer Fields for the year 2009-10 and 2010-11 was not justified and ought to be refunded with an annual interest of 9 percent.

The committee had submitted its report on March 1, 2013, though the school is yet to refund the money, Bhalla said. “The committee does not specify a date by which the money has to be returned. And that is the dilemma in our country: the order has been issued but there is no committee to monitor implementation of that order,” he said. “The school management says, ‘We have no money. Where do we give it from’?”

“The report of the committee is not a challengeable order,” he added.

Chaddha alleged: “The school is inventing ways to circumvent the rules. Earlier, the fee receipt had heads like development fee, pupil’s fund, activity fee etc. But after Justice Anil Dev Singh committee’s report, they (school authorities) have removed all heads — they now charge only under the head ‘fees’.”
Vandana Sharma, a single parent initially based in south Delhi who moved to Greater Noida subsequently, said: “I admitted my three children to Summer Fields because it suited a middle-class family like mine. But after the management changed hands and the school hiked fees it became increasingly difficult for me.”

Sharma said she had to sell her jewellery at one point to pay school fees for her children. When the financial constraint became too difficult, she finally withdrew her children from the school. “It was difficult for me to keep up the fight. The then principal had told me, very arrogantly, to raise my source of income (to continue paying the fees),” she said.

“Now my children study in a convent school with moderate fees. My eldest daughter, who was in class X (when she had to pull her out), could not get admission in any school and lost a year.”

“The school is polite with those associated with the parents’ association since they have now seen our clout,” Bhalla said. “But with others, they are abominably rude. We have received complaints from parents who have been told to take their wards to other schools when they displayed concern over the fee hike.”

Chaddha said he is scared at times that his daughter would face the repercussion of his fight against the school management. “My daughter suffered embarrassment for my principles — the school held back her admit card before her board exams.”

But alerted by insiders well in time, Chaddha moved court and got a verdict against the school’s decision. “The court ruled that admit card cannot be held back,” he said. “We do not want to overpower the management but want it to run smoothly.”

Another parent, Yashbir Bakshi, also said initially they were apprehensive of “retaliatory action” from the school. “It was not easy for us to move court, as most parents are afraid that their children will be harassed.”

In 2010, the parents’ association filed another case against quarterly fees charged by the school.

Little support, sustained fight 
Parents claimed the response from the government has been very casual, and said they smell a nexus between officials and financial lobbies.

“It’s very frustrating that whatever we do makes no difference. In fact, instead of backing off the school is getting arrogant by the day,” Chaddha said.
Both Chaddha and Bhalla said Summer Fields has made it compulsory for students to subscribe to the student’s edition of a national daily for an annual charge of Rs 275. “Three children from my home go to the same school. What do I do with the same newspaper? I am not a junk dealer!” Chaddha said.

Pointing out another issue, Bipin Arora, general secretary of the association, said the school charges Rs 10 per day for fees delayed. “We now have become bolder and have refused to pay late fees but some parents are not aware of the rules and are exploited by the school,” he said.

According to rule 166 of Delhi School Education Act-1973, a fine for late payment of fees, or contributions due to a school, can be charged at the rate of five paise per day, after the 10th day of the month for which the default continues.

Rule 165 of the act says all fees and contributions payable to a school by a student shall be payable by the 10th day of the month in which they are due. 
Lawyer Agarwal said, “The school will have to start implementing the court’s order on monthly fees immediately but it might not implement the order of the Anil Dev Singh committee (on refunding development fee in 2009-10 and ’10-11) so easily. They can raise objections in HC”.

While the parents are happy for now with the way things have turned out, Bhalla, calling it a battle of principle, said, “Education is a fundamental right and we will fight this commercialisation of education.”

As for support from other Delhiites, he rued: “At the end of the day, we did this (take their children’s school to court) for all parents of Delhi. But we have not received adequate support. We have held many protests — in front of the school, at Jantar Mantar and even blocked roads. But we faced resistance from many parents who said we were wasting our time and ruining the career of our children.”

School seeks Rs 5 crore from parents who opposed fee hike

MUMBAI: In what activists have termed a 'terror tactic' , a well-known Thane school has sought damages of Rs 5 crore from the parents of two students for allegedly defaming the institution while protesting a fee hike. A law firm representing the trust behind Billabong High International School at Wagle Estate, Thane, sent the legal notice on May 13. It states that the two parents circulated texts and emails accusing the school of "charging high fees and providing inferior quality of education" . Contending that they ran a "vilification campaign" with "mala fide intention" , it calls upon the parents to "tender an unconditional apology... in seven days" . "You are also called upon to pay damages to the tune of Rs 5 crore for the loss suffered (by the school)," it reads. If the parents fail to comply, the school will initiate "civil action". Activist asks edu dept to stop Thane school's 'terror tactic' 

The two parents who received legal notices from Billabong High International School, Thane, demanding damages of Rs 5 crore were expectedly in shock. 

"Just because we fought for the future of our children, the school is taking out its frustration on us. We would have agreed to pay the hiked fee had the school improved its quality over the years but it did not. We therefore questioned the increase ," said one of the parents. The notice was sent to two of the around 1,500 parents who protested the over-10 % hike proposed last October. 

Activists said the Thane school's move was clearly meant to scare parents into submission . "It appears educational institutions have begun frightening parents with legal action. The education department should put an end to this terrorism," said Jayant Jain, president of the Forum for Fairness in Education. 

The school's managing trustee, Sandeep Goenka, said Billabong Thane proposed a 12% fee hike after a gap of two years. The revision was suggested to take effect from the 2013-2014 academic year. "Following rules, we asked for parents' consent. While most parents have consented to pay the revised fee, a handful are creating trouble for us," he said. "We were forced to start defamation action against a couple of parents since they have been... instigating other parents." 

Parents countered that the school sought the consent of precisely five class representatives (parents representing a class) before making the fee hike official. Aggrieved parents took the issue to the zilla parishad , which asked the school to stay the fee hike and resolve the matter with the parents. But the school insisted on the increased fees, allege the parents. Parents requested for the school's audited accounts to understand the hike, but got none. "The school already charges a huge fee though its education quality has not improved. The school's principal has changed thrice in three years," added another parent.

May 25, 2013

Schools with fancy names to face derecognition

HYDERABAD: The government will derecognize schools which carry fancy titles like "Techno", "Olympiad" or "International", a top official announced on Friday. The secondary education department has ordered schools to remove all such qualifying terms that are used to attract students or face immediate action.

"The schools teach the syllabus which the state board prescribes. There is no value addition in education happening here. The names are meant to mislead parents," said Usha Rani, director of school education (DSE).

Thousands of schools in the state have fancy names like "Techno school," "IIT academy," "Olympiad school" or "International school", though they teach the state board syllabus without any value addition.

Officials said these schools have a higher fee structure ranging anywhere between Rs 45,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh per annum and said the department had acted upon petitions against such schools.

The move leaves several prominent schools in the state with no option but to change the names or move court against the order. "It's a management decision of naming schools and the names are justified due to the kind of quality of education they provide," said a spokesman of the Narayana group of institutions. Other institution heads said they are consulting the legal experts for the next course of action.

Meanwhile, Usha Rani said two years ago, the government had issued a circular asking school managements to drop the names, but this was not followed as the penalty for non-adherence was a meagre fine of Rs 10,000. "If they continue to carry the misleading titles this year, the department will cancel recognition," said Rani.

A senior official with the department said school managements have been naming their institutions without consulting the concerned authorities.

"The managements obtain recognition under one name, but as part of their marketing strategy, they change the name to something fancier, which is an offence under the AP Education Act," said an official.

Child rights organizations which have been fighting for a change in the naming system said the order could bring about a desired change in the education system in the state.

"School education in the state has become a lucrative business and hence the growth of institutions which use fancy names to set themselves apart. Once they drop their fancy titles the managements will really have to work hard to give the institutions an edge over others," said Achyuta Rao, president of Balalahakkula Sangham, a child rights NGO.

Smaller schools in the city also welcomed the move and said using fancy titles, the corporate schools in the city have been attracting a lot of students.

"This had caused the death of several regular schools which used to give good education at a low cost. We have been opposing the fancy names for several years," said S Srinivas Reddy, president, Recognized Schools Managements' Association.

May 22, 2013

Sakshi | 13 May, 2013 | Main Page

May 6, 2013

578 ‘illegal’ schools face closure this year

HYDERABAD: As many as 578 unrecognized schools in the city and Ranga Reddy district face closure from June this year, which means that around 1.16 lakh students could be left in the lurch and may have to take admission elsewhere.

Cracking the whip for not applying for recognition, the school education department published a list of private English and Telugu medium schools in the two districts on Sunday. These schools will not be allowed to admit fresh students in the next academic year, officials said, adding that the list would be put up on the department website for the benefit of parents.

"The list is expected to be a guide for parents who want to enrol their children in schools. These (unrecognized) schools could be closed if they do not apply for affiliation under the state board within three months," said A Subba Reddy, district education officer, Hyderabad. The government is all set to close down more unrecognized schools in the future, officials said.

Meanwhile, the education department has decided to help the students of such 'illegal' schools. "The students can take admission in nearby government schools if they do not get admission in private schools," Reddy said.

However, experts say many students may not want to opt for government schools. "Parents may have opted for these unrecognized schools as most of them provide English medium education. They may not want to opt for government schools, most of which provide education in Telugu medium," said N Ramana Reddy from Save Our Education Society. Students should be given the option of studying in reputed and recognized private schools under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, he added.

Under the RTE Act, 25 per cent of the seats in private schools are reserved for children from socio-economically weaker backgrounds. Educationists said that instead of just closing down unrecognized schools, officials should take care to first implement the RTE act. "The act has not been implemented in the state even three years after it was instituted. The state government should take extra effort to implement the act now as it is cracking the whip on unrecognized private schools," said R Venkat Reddy, director, M V Foundation.