More than 100 parents from 8 different schools sat waiting at a government school auditorium in Anand Vihar on the 5th of March with their respective school headmasters. Together they were prepared to confront several government officials with a long list of unresolved and neglected complaints and grievances. However, this was not a protest, but a meeting scheduled by the officials themselves. The government, represented by the heads of various public institutions, arrived fully prepared and committed on a Sunday to listen, resolve, and act upon the numerous challenges faced by these government schools in New Delhi. It was a first: in the presence of the local MLA, parents and headmasters were saved from undue and countless visits to various public offices, thrown from counter to counter, to demand the very basic facilities in their schools.
The event, or "Maha Sabha" as it was called, united all the essential stakeholders of these schools to answer a single question: What must we do to improve the quality of education our children are receiving? And who kicked it off? Not the 20+ government functionaries, including the MLA, but befittingly, a girl child! She started by placing her demands for enrichment activities, leadership courses and guest lectures—all in a government school! What a refreshing change!
Parents have united across the 1027 government schools in Delhi, proving how effective bottom-top governance solutions can be.
In this unprecedented public engagement, government officials acknowledged individual issues and committed to solving them with a much-needed sense of urgency. The empowerment of parents was palpable— for example, a mother stood and demanded a police constable to guard the school of the Senior Secondary Girls Government School, attended by her daughter so as to curb incidents of hooliganism and street sexual harassment. The attending SHO guaranteed the parents that a guard would be posted. This fascinating meeting helped resolve complex problems, and was a true testimony of how parents, teachers, school leaders, and government officials can successfully come together to address the most pressing needs of our education system.
This stands in stark contrast to one year ago. In 2015, parents felt largely unwelcomed in schools, principals were overburdened with numerous administrative duties. An extreme information asymmetry existed between the Education Department staff and schools.
Thus, transforming schools required a shift in the status quo. The formation of a sustainable partnership was enabled by reactivating School Management Committees (SMCs), 16-member committees comprising of 12 parents each, an MLA representative, a local educator or social worker, a teacher representative, and the principal of the school, and chaired by a parent. SMCs are mandatory under the Right to Education Act, 2009, in every government school in the country. SMCs institutionalise parental engagement and create a forum to discuss the challenges faced by children at school, involving more voices in the conversation around how to improve the quality of education provided in government schools. Consequently, this demand for development is complemented by the Education Department of the Delhi Government through several Maha Sabhas spread across the city. Unfortunately though, the selection process has been arbitrary in many cases around India. Members have been rather submissive (reports from elsewhere suggest principals sit on chairs, and members on the floor). However, we notice a different vibe here.
SMCs in Delhi have gone beyond simply articulating the needs of the school. In partnership with the government, they delivered various interventions to increase the learning outcomes of the students.
Furthermore, SMCs in Delhi have gone beyond simply articulating the needs of the school. In partnership with the government, they themselves got into problem-solving mode and delivered various interventions to increase the learning outcomes of the students. In the summer of 2016, for example, SMCs organised Reading Melas to support the government's Every Child Can Read campaign, which helped convert over one lakh non-readers into readers.
Motivating SMCs was possible only after a series of three deliberate action steps taken by the government.
- First, creating a direct communication channel with WhatsApp Groups, connecting SMCs and parents to give them updates and announcements from schools.
- Second, ensuring regular SMC meetings that involved parents monitoring school facilities and observing areas of development in the school.
- And lastly, delivering trainings for parents that instil basic skills such as reading circulars and writing letters.
The impact of SMCs on Delhi's schools has been nothing short of inspirational. Parents have united across the 1027 government schools in Delhi, proving how effective bottom-top governance solutions can be. Building the capacity of parents to support and contribute to the education system will be critical to ensure a better future for Delhi's children. And if increased FDI facilitated by simplification of government policies is celebrated as an indicator of development (which it should!), then this should be celebrated equally, or more! After all, if there is one window clearance for investors, so why not for our children, our greatest investment into the nation's future?