EducationNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 21

The plight of low-fee private school owners and teachers

Maheen Anwar feels like burying herself deep under the ground in shame when the landlord reaches the door of her flat almost every week and demands payment of the rent, which has pending for the last three months. She is a teacher at a private so-called English medium school in Liaquatabd, commonly known as the Lalu Khait area of Karachi.

She lives with her parents – a bed-ridden mother, an illiterate daily-wager father, and her younger sister, 26-year-old Farheen Anwar, also a teacher in the same school where she teaches Social Studies.

Another family member, her grandmother, passed away last month, when Maheen could not buy her medicines for almost two weeks. The family had to suffer another mental agony when government authorities took away the body from hospital, where Maheen and her father had taken the grandmother in a critical condition before her death. Those “abducting” the body claimed the old woman had died of the coronavirus, and that she would be buried according to the SOPs (standard operating procedures), set by the health authorities for the purpose. Only her father was allowed to take part in the burial of his mother.

When the country had not been attacked by the pandemic about four months ago, the two siblings used to earn Rs30,000 a month in salary from the school, and Rs5,000 in tuition at the flat. After paying a Rs10,000 rent, almost half of it in utility bills and buying Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 worth of medicines for mother and grandmother, the family would live a humble but respectable life.

But then the virus broke out, and the consequent lockdown, imposed by the government authorities, took away everything from the family: their school jobs, their salaries, their tuition fee, father’s daily wages, and chances of getting cloths for stitching from the neighbouring flats.

The insightful decisions of the federal and Sindh governments could not stop the spread of the dreaded virus, but the lockdowns, imposed by them, certainly took away their little moments of joy from them. Maheen has reached a conclusion during the past years that she, and perhaps her younger sister, would never be able to get married due to their family’s financial and social circumstances, but she had never thought that both siblings would reach a point one day in “Riyasat-e-Madina” that they would not be able to even feed their ailing mother and grandmother and buy them their doses of medicines.

During the holy month of Ramazan, filtered water, fetched from a nearby filtration plant, installed by an NGO, was the biggest source of Sehri and Iftari, along with some morsels of roti for every family member. The total “asset” of the family, gold earrings of the two sisters, was sold out one by one, either for buying medicines for the mother and grandmother, or for buying grocery from time to time.

The proceeds also exhausted in two months. When their grandmother was in hospital, Maheen, finding no way out to arrange for some money, contacted the school owner-cum-principal, Zubair Ahmad Usmani. He asked her to visit school office, and showed her the recovery register. No fee from any parent had been received during the past three months.

“People pay fee to only big and expensive schools during such circumstances, not to small schools, like ours,” regrets the principal. “The government authorities have been announcing from day one of school closures that students would be promoted to the next classes without any exams this year, and that there are no chances of reopening of educational institutions by the year-end,” Mr Usmani shares the latest situation with his senior teacher.

“Then why would they pay fee to schools, like ours, which impart education to children only for Rs1,000-1,500 per month, and are ever ready to admit any student desirous of education. Parents would pay fee to only expensive schools where they had got admitted their children with great difficulty, after tests and with “sifarish” of ministers or influential people,” he adds.

“Why would parents come to pay fee in our school when they know it well that they could be able to get their children admitted to the school again with only a personal request, when the lockdown ends and the schools are opened again,” the principal pours his heart out.

Mr. Usmani told Maheen that his financial position was not much different from hers, as he had also exhausted all his savings in payment of the monthly rent of the school building, utility bills and family expenses. “I had paid salary to all of my 14 teachers for March. But then, parents stopped paying the tuition fee. No classes, no tuition, no academy, no fee. I have lost all my earning sources to the lockdown. How can I pay salaries to the teachers,” Mr. Usmani expressed his helplessness.

The principal fears he would not be able to pay the building rent for June and for the coming months, and he would have to vacate it. It means when the lockdown ends, and God knows when will it happen, Zubair Ahmad Usmani would have to start a new school from scratch. He is not sure he would be able to rent the same building when the lockdown is lifted.

This is not the story of only one schoolteacher and one school owner, but of 1.7m owners and 1.7m families of schoolteachers. The 1.7m families have reached the verge of starvation. They are attached with a noble profession and their self-respect does not allow them to queue up for free ration, or ask for charity.

The ruler of “Riyasat-e-Madina” did order payment of Rs12,000 to each bar member to appease the higher judiciary and win support of the “black coats”, but he never thought of private schoolteachers, who could neither benefit nor harm him in any way.

Private school representatives say the closure of educational institutions for a long time has not only destroyed their setups, established with hard work of years, but also pushed all those attached with the sector to the verge of starvation.

In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) President Kashif Mirza said that the schools should open now. He suggested the federal and provincial governments make standard operating procedures (SOPs) for opening the schools, otherwise they would be forced to start classes with their own SOPs. “Teachers belong to a noble profession and they should not be forced to take to the streets,” he added.

The federal and all provincial governments had closed schools first till June 1, and declared the period summer vacation. Later, they extended the closure of schools till July 15, with the cancellation of all board exams and announced promotion of students to the next classes.

Kashif Mirza believes the closure till July 15 would result in a permanent closure of 50pc of private schools and around one million people would lose their jobs. He claimed that severe coronavirus-hit countries, including China, India, Iran, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, had partially allowed the opening of educational institutions while America, Russia, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and Israel had announced opening schools from June 1.

The APPSF president said around 50 million students would have to face educational loss due to coronavirus lockdown and already 25 million children were out of school in Pakistan. He said the government should announce a relief package for private schools because 90pc of them were working in rented buildings. He proposed that they could run the schools in two shifts – one from 7am to 10am and the second from 12pm to 2pm — by maintaining social distancing in classes. He said the government should hold board examinations by maintaining social distancing and if it had cancelled the examination, the government should pay Rs25 billion exam fee back to 4.5 million children.