Your child just lost his last chance to play kho-kho and kabbadi with friends as playgrounds in private schools are no longer a strict condition that school owners have to comply with. Instead, they can now have an indoor game facility or can simply tie-up with a neighbouring municipal park and herd students there each time they wish to jump around. Activists say the government is destroying the concept of holistic education while officials say land is expensive and not all schools can afford a playground. Finally, the children are the ones paying the price for the steep land prices, finds Roli Srivastava

All work and no play may be making Jack a dull boy, but the state government isn’t exactly concerned about it, now that it has exempted private schools from having a playground. A government order issued by the school education department on July 7 gives concessions to private schools from having a playground citing high cost of land in cities as the reason.

The order was issued in response to a public interest litigation filed in the high court by a private educational institution and a group of minority institutions. The litigation challenged the reason why a playground was a mandatory condition to get government affiliation to a school when many government schools did not have one. The high court had then asked the government to offer its suggestions and in response the GO was issued, closing the matter of open spaces in the school premises.

The order is applicable not only for the schools that would come up in the city in future but also to the existing ones operating without play areas. The GO offers schools to have a “reasonable\adequate’’ indoor play area for games such as table tennis, badminton among others. It also suggests that schools tie up with a nearby municipal ground or park or use the playground of another school to meet their students’ recreation needs.
So, students simply running aimlessly in the safety of their school campus would soon be a thing of the past. Predictably, child rights activists and educationists describe such an order “anti-child’’ and even “unconstitutional’’.

Playing Against Children   

Education officials note that they have no choice but to come up with an order like this for two reasons. One, more parents choose private over government schools for their children and two, private schools cannot afford the conditions for open space anymore given the soaring land prices. But then, child rights activists question whether the government is opting for a simpler ‘no playground’ concession as against strengthening the infrastructure of its own schools to boost their popularity among people.

Child rights experts and educationists further note that while the issue raised in the PIL was valid, the government clearly thought of handling it differently. “What stopped them from promising open space for children even in government schools as against depriving even private school students from playgrounds,’’ asks Jagdish Chandra, who sends his six-year-old to a “middleclass’’ private school and is now worried that by the time his newborn starts going to school, there wouldn’t be affordable schools left with a playground.

“The definition of a school is more than a classroom teacher and child. It is the ambience in which children learn,’’ says Shanta Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. She says playgrounds are absolutely necessary and that standards for schools across the world make a special mention of these open spaces. “The right to education (bill), which we hope will be passed this monsoon session, will set a national standard for all schools and issue norms, playgrounds will become mandatory,’’ she says.

But Anil Sadgopal, educationist and former dean, faculty of education, Delhi University, isn’t as optimistic. “While the right to education bill makes it compulsory to have a playground, the government has put an asterisk mark under which it says exemption can be given,’’ he says. Perturbed by Andhra Pradesh’s playground GO, Sadgopal says that education is incomplete without a play area. “The government is rushing to promote privatisation of school education,’’ he says, pointing out that in no advanced country can a school be considered without a playground.

Senior educationists further note that while the idea to use municipal grounds or parks is good enough on the face of it, there is a rather crucial concern associated with it: Where are these municipal parks? And does such a park exist in the vicinity of every school? “This (suggesting tie-up with parks) means that urban planning has to be looked into,’’ Sadgopal says. He further notes that this move indicates the complete loss of “holistic education’’ in the country.

“Importantly, they are violating the child’s right to play, which is a very important right,’’ says Asha Bajpai, of the Centre for Socio Legal Studies & Human Rights, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She describes the order unconstitutional, given that India ratifies to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that makes play and leisure every child’s right.

Of Compartments In Education   

With this one GO, child rights activists say, the government has compartmentalised not just the format of education but even the already divided community of students wherein the haves get a playground and the havenots just a classroom.

For the international or the ‘corporate’ schools serving noodles and pastas for lunch a playground is usually taken for granted in most cases. But for the middle class family, the school playground has so far been their best option for their child’s mental and physical recreation what with most nuclear families now living in small flats with little or no open spaces.

“Are you (the government) trying to make a statement that children needn’t play since the cost of land they are playing on is high,’’ questions Isidore Philips, child rights activist and director Divya Disha. He says that children can’t be made to “study in shutters’’ and describes the “matchbox schools’’ that have come up in the city as reeking of the culture of depravation. “Indoor games are no games,’’ he says, commenting on the option given to schools to have an indoor facility if they cannot have a playground. “Children need to jump. You cannot reduce the scope of a child’s development,’’ Philips says, describing the GO as retrograde that is only diluting education.

Besides, activists wonder whether there is any need for more government schools to come up with such a private institution-friendly plan. “Many people are opening schools and it has become a business. The government possibly thinks that the more the institutions, more the number of educated people. But such an order will see maximum implementation in urban areas where there are already enough schools. None of these private players would go to rural areas where schools are actually needed,’’ says a school principal, who did not wish to be identified.

The principal predicts that many apartments would now turn into schools, as is already happening in the city with many schools opening on the second and third floors of commercial complexes. “With obesity among children on the rise, the government should have actually made it mandatory for all schools to have a proper playground and a dedicated physical training period. But with this order, it is simply looking at children studying through the day with no rest,’’ the principal says.

Officially Speaking   

Education department officials maintain that the GO was a practical solution to a problem emerging over and over again with playground turning out to be an unfeasible norm for many private institutions to comply with. While earlier, the government made it mandatory for all schools in urban areas to earmark 1000 square metres for a playground and 2000 square metres in rural areas, the order has revised these conditions.

Now, depending on the student strength of schools, it may earmark area ranging between 500 square metres and 2000 square metres for a primary school and 700 square metres to 2200 square metres for upper primary and secondary schools. However, it gives an option to schools that cannot comply with these conditions offering an indoor sports hall measuring 345 square metres. “The relaxation was given for lack of land,’’ says C B S Venkataramana, principal secretary, school education, citing that in cities such as Hyderabad land rate had touched over Rs 50,000 per square yard. He points out that while some schools were operating without any play area at all, the GO now makes an indoor play area mandatory.

He further states that this kind of a relaxation would only make setting up schools easier, citing the tremendous pressure from parents to enroll their children in private schools. Asked about the mechanism in place to check whether schools were complying with the indoor games condition or that of them tying up with municipal parks, Ramana said inspection of schools would start next month.

After the PIL was filed, a committee was set up to examine the issue and the no-playground decision was taken only after the panel had submitted its report on it.

But critics of the move aren’t convinced and fear it is a sign of things to come. “What next? Exemption from setting up a science lab, a computer lab?’’ asks Sadgopal.

Also, activists note that many “rich schools’’ too have come up in commercial buildings and not being able to afford land for a playground is an apology for a reason to stop having play areas in schools. But officials say that parents prioritise the quality of education in the classroom over other details of the school such as its play area.

But the irony of it all seems lost on the powers that be. There is not only a covert admission in this playground exemption that government education quality is not up to the mark and thus the need to give private schools a push, but also an overt confession that the government couldn’t really care less for improving its schools. Whatever happened to the flush-with-funds schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan to improve schools across the length and breadth of the country is anybody’s guess.

THS IS ALSO WHY WE GO TO SCHOOL!: School students taking a break from books to play outdoor games with friends may soon be a thing of the past in this spaceless city. The new GO says schools can tie up with the nearest municipal playground and take the students there, but really, WHERE ARE THESE MUNICIPAL PLAYGROUNDS?

source : Times of India, 17 July 2008