One of my neighbour’s joyous exclamation that her toddler
had gained admission into a prominent school (about 20 kilometres away) led me to remember a few incidents that happened while I had been scouting schools for my sons.
A highly recommended school was about five kilometres away which, to me, was a negotiable distance. However, the day to day affairs were being managed by the personal secretary of the Principal who was ‘missing-in-action’. The prospectus was a cool couple of thousands (school touting ‘prospectus’! ) and there would be a ten-minute interview to classify the tiny tots as ‘normal’ and ‘hyperactive’. Very innocently, I asked if any certified experts would do that and I was shown the door.
At the gate of another prominent school, I was informed by the security to fill up an enquiry form and pay Rs.250 per child before initiating any discussion. In yet another school, the head was nice enough to entertain me for about twenty minutes (it was a newly established school) to claim that the curriculum was drawn from the best practices of CBSE, IGCSE and IB, though they had affiliation for none at that point of time. And who decided on the best practices? I was shown the door yet again.
While at one school I discovered that I would be paying an arm and a leg for international cuisine, I found ‘ayyammas’ surreptitiously devouring food from the snack boxes of pre-primary kids in another. I also saw a school where the toilets did not have proper doors. A friend of mine who found the idea of checking washrooms pretty funny changed her opinion after last year’s incident in the Gurugram school.
The similarity across these schools was nevertheless astounding - in almost all of them (except the one where the ayyammas were eating the food from the snack boxes), the total cost for LKG education for my two sons would have costed me more than I had spent for my entire school education. And at the end of all this, I still had no guarantee that my kids would feel safe.
The following incidents that happened in the recent times add credence to this — protests by parents in Hyderabad regarding the yearly school fee hike, an 8th grade student committing suicide for not being allowed to write an exam, a child not being allowed to attend classes for wearing the wrong footwear, a group of tiny tots being given TC’s because their parents belonged to a WhatsApp group, a child being mowed down by a school bus, and a child falling into a well in a play school (and the parents thought that their child would be safe there).
All these incidents, when seen together, reveal two things: despite their well worded intentions and their elevated ‘ethos’, many schools today are sacrificing humanity at the altar of ‘profits’.
Hyderabad is one of the metros where school fees could be the highest (as per some news reports in 2016), and this is more often justified by the infrastructure and of course the ‘snob’ values associated with a particular school. Further, many teachers lack commitment because of two reasons: the monetary compensation is far from motivating, and most of them are not teachers by choice. Therefore, they fall in line with the institutions’ philosophy of running the school either as a resort or as a commercial venture. Some schools resort to in-house training of teachers, the quality of which is often questionable.
Despite the glossy promotional material with the photos of ‘happy kids’ talking about ‘great experiences’, teachers talking about their child-centred pedagogy and globalised curriculum, websites proclaiming qualified and experienced teachers and heads with wide and varied experience, there is a palpable sense that most of the schools today are directionless, rudderless, profit-making enterprises. And this is happening because there is a limited sense of accountability. Even if any exists, governments allow them to be circumvented.
There is a tragedy waiting to happen — today’s schools are rapidly evolving into dystopian realities. They are rapidly transforming into places where dreams are being defeated… on a daily basis. And no one seems to be concerned. And the situation has become more alarming because schools are now unleashing the most powerful weapon in their arsenal — subtle manipulation.
One morning, a parent shared that her Grade 2 daughter had written a series of Olympiads. The tiny one didn’t want her mother to talk about her performance and so she hid behind, tugging at her mother and pleading with her to stop the discussion. Oblivious to her daughter’s discomfort, the lady continued talking about how her daughter didn’t do well whereas her cousin in Grade 3 stood first in the school. If you would blame the mother….I would request you to pause and ponder regarding the origin of the mother’s problem. She had obviously seen the online portal of the school where the photos of the toppers were regularly posted. Like many other parents, she was pressurised into enrolling her child for the nerve wracking exams that involve preparation and practice; the parents were expected to train their children with the school’s support being restricted to registering and procuring the preparation material.
Parents who contribute to the school’s initiatives and respond positively to their policies are generally seen as star parents (appreciated during Annual Day/or any other function) whereas a questioning parent is seen as a ‘problem’. Therefore, neither did I raise questions regarding the sensibility of manipulating the tiny tots into writing the Olympiads, nor did I enrol my kids for those tests. In other words, I had developed a thick skin, just like many others.
At that moment, I could not help but recollect this incident in Chennai. During a parent-teacher meeting, a former colleague of mine told a child’s parents that it was their responsibility to help their grade 2 child learn English at home. Very helpfully, she also suggested that the parents could begin by watching English programs/films and speak to each other in English. There was a problem though — the child was a first generation learner and the parents were vegetable vendors who were working hard to give their child a decent shot at education. In this regard, our prinicipal stated a simple fact to all the teachers - when the kid is in the school 8 hours a day and five days a week, what business does the school have to shove the responsibility of learning onto the parents? That hit a nerve.
That man was Mr.G.Neelakantan, who was the principal of Sir Sivaswami Kalalaya in 2005. Having worked under his guidance for two years, I have seen him as a true educationist. He would have considered parents as equal stake holders with the school assuming primary responsibility for learning. He would have seen schools as spaces promoting happy learning, not profit-making entities. He would have understood the emotional quotient of children and made sure that they had enough learning experiences to last a lifetime. And he would have done all this without providing an international cuisine or an AC bus. Today, as my children attend school, I wish people like him were around, more particularly in Hyderabad. Then, this tragedy waiting to happen would be nipped in the bud.