Boarding the Illusory Train

Uttam Gaulee

Uttam Gaulee

When I had a brief stint as principal of a private school in Nepal circa 2008-2009, I had to deal with two frustrating parents representing two contrasting groups that created financial hardship for the school to run. One group represented the canny and the other naive. Mr. Chatur (pseudonym) represented the canny group, the smart well-to-do parents who didn’t pay fees and Ms. Saralmati (pseudonym) represented the naïve, poor parents.

Mr. Chatur was a businessman. He ran a retail-cum-wholesale store not too far from the school. He sold school supplies including uniform, shoes, belts, etc. to our students. Being one of the parents and due to proximity to school, he had an advantage to win business from the school community. We also recommended his store for parents to buy uniforms for consistency of color shades, etc. My problem with this otherwise fine gentleman was that he never paid the tuition for his sons. Clever as he was, he took advantage of an existing provision of a flawed school policy of tuition waiver for the top-performing students. Both of his sons topped the class every year and Mr. Chatur claimed the waiver for them. It would not be wise to do away with this merit benefit because all other schools also adopted it. My disappointment with this businessman grew when I heard that he hired a personal teacher to teach his two sons. Business minded as he was, in the wrong way, I would add, he figured out that hiring a personal teacher for a couple of hours a day was in fact more cost-effective for him than paying full tuition for his two children. This way, he was saving tuition money. Obviously, he was rich enough to pay the full tuition for his kids. Irony.  

One day, I talked to him and asked him to consider donating something to the school after congratulating him for both of his sons’ excellent academic performance. I indicated to him that we needed some lab equipment for school. He said okay for many times, but he never donated anything. Finally, after months of my requests, he showed up with a cheap plastic wall-clock. His annoying business-sense was visible in the advertisement of his business printed within the dial of the clock that he wanted us to hang on the school’s most prominent wall. I was sad but I laughed at my own success as a fundraiser.

Ms. Saralmati represented the naive group. She was the guardian to her grandson Raju (pseudonym). Her son worked in a Gulf country and her daughter-in-law (Raju’s mother) had married a different man so Raju was technically an orphan under the elderly woman’s care. Ms. Saralmati had no money, and Raju was an average student. At one point, his tuition had not been paid for 18 months. The number of parents not paying their kids’ tuition was significant and was steadily increasing. They would just send their children to the English Medium School because this was in itself prestigious in the community. This prestige issue coupled with the demonstration effect of a conservative society was so deep that it defied rationality in terms of the parents’ ability to pay. Such parents were a great problem because due to their delinquency in paying fees, teachers often had to wait for months to receive their already meager salary, the only reward of their hard work. As school principal, my desire was to recommend raise for teachers’ salary.  

At one point, teachers decided to prevent students with fees due from sitting for the final exam, a decision that I came to learn after I took the position of the Principal. Notices had been sent to parents in advance stipulating that any students with tuition due would not be allowed into the examination hall. When the examination day arrived, a number of parents led  by Ms. Saralmati, along with their respective kids, lined up to my office door. When I reached school, Ms. Saralmati caught me at the feet and started begging and imploring that her grandson be let into the exam hall. “Please, Sir! Don’t end my grandson’s education today. My son is in the Gulf. He will send money one day and I will pay you! I have nothing to offer right now!” I was moved and torn apart from the story of her financial hardship, which was real. But if I let her child in, I would lose the trust of the teachers. I called these parents into my office to talk.

My conversation with the parents

I knew that the conflict was hitting both sides so I tried to direct it towards a productive end. I explained to Ms. Saralmati and those parents that I was bound by the rules of the school and the trust of the teachers and so was not able to allow their children to the examination hall that day. But I assured them that I could arrange to have a separate examination the following week so that their kids’ education is not jeopardized. As they felt better, I asked them one by one what happened and why they were not able to pay tuition for their kids. Each of them had a unique story of financial hardship but the interestingly resounding promise was that they would pay later somehow. Their record of long delays has a more serious story behind. They were financially unable to pay the tuition in the reasonable future.

“Why don’t you consider sending your kids to public school?” I asked the blunt question in as polite a way as I could be while pretending as if I was just curious. Everyone went silent. I knew it was a hard question. But since Ms. Saralmati had already been vocal, she disclosed the reason.

“Sir, we know that the public school is free but as everyone says, the free education has no value in it.”

“But it is not free in that way,” I tried to explain. “It is free for you because the expenses of the school are paid for by the government.”

“Oh really? So does it actually have value then? Would my naati get a job by going to iskul [public school]” Ms. Saralmati asked, while other parents listened heartily. All nonplussed.

“Yes, it does. I was educated in a iskul myself!” I explained.

“But there were no Boardings [English medium schools] when you went to iskul, were there?” asked a cynical parent.

“That’s right, but there are still good reasons to send your children to the public school. First of all, your kids will feel better and more confident in public schools because they will know that they don’t owe money to school. Secondly, as I explained to you, the government is spending a lot of money on public schools. Thirdly, they also teach English once a day!”

I showed them the calculation how we spent Rs. 11,255 per student from what we get from the parents while the government spent Rs. 13,359 [estimated]. They started looking at each other when I put my principal hat back on and reminded them not to forget to pay the tuition dues.

Looking Forward I offer this story to the intellectual community asking all of us to think what this says about our education and society. How does this relate to ELT and what should language teachers take away from it? Benefits of multilingualism and the mythology of English medium’s equivalency to quality education has been discussed before in Choutari

This is one of the consequences of that mythology, a consequence that impacts parents severely, that destroys private schools (which tend to be seen more as villains than as victims), and demoralizes students across the country. Also, when I reflect on my own brief tenure of principalship, I now understand what made me so uncomfortable that I quit the job in less than six months. The system in place was and is still, aggravating socio-economic inequality and injustice. I will write in next blog what I think could potentially solve a principal’s plight of having to hate Mr. Chaturs and avoid poor grandmas. Until then, please let me know what you think.

The author: Uttam Gaulee is a doctoral candidate at the institute of higher education, University of Florida in the USA.

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