‘Mere guidelines’ and the morality of schools

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 17, 2015 08:41 IST

What do you expect from schools that treat parents as customers, children as trophies and fee couriers, and teachers as service-class mules? What do you expect from a system that shirks social responsibility as long as the revenue flow is good, over and under the table? What do you expect from a bureaucracy that is busy being arrogant and also giving lessons against arrogance? What do you expect from governments that only want to be seen as better than their oh-so-horrible predecessors?

She is only five years old. Molested by her school bus conductor, she must still be in shock. She won’t know. The questions seem too generic, even rhetorical, anyway. But you and I, those who are supposedly sane enough to know a good restaurant or school from a mediocre one, know the answer.

Reported earlier this week, the molestation of a kindergarten student in a private school bus could look like a crime. The accused is in jail, and the child too would hopefully not be scarred for life. It’s not that, though.

This is a breach of trust, and a question of morality.

I, with no kids but only a nephew who keeps trying to hang by my beard, can avoid the questions. But parents cannot. He is barely six months old but they are already worried about which school he would go to. Or, to put it better, which school he would manage to get admission to. In the scheme of things, it’s a question slightly more important than whether or not his body-mass index (BMI) is normal. Good health is God’s gift, but he must go to a big private school if he is to have a decent shot at success in life, you see.

Elite private schools relish this, and revel in competing self-praise and sales pitches. No wonder these schools are such big clients for public relations (PR) firms. From Yellow Day and Red Day to Halloween parties and the Annual Cool Pool Bash to even a Banana Day, they try everything to stay in the news and be seen as fancier than the other. Their press releases bombard reporters’ mailboxes every day, and their PR representatives are extra-pesky even by the PR industry’s generally pesky standards.

After all, they mean business, and the business is of riches. I’ll give you a seemingly unrelated example.

When was the last time a school boasted about how it had managed to fill all of the seats reserved by law for poor children? And this reservation is not the usual quota system that the middle class loves to criticise. It is to be given in return for the subsidised land that most schools get. Yet, since the land scheme rules say they can charge nominal fee, the schools define “nominal” as they please and charge hefty sums. Even the Right to Education (RTE) Act is routinely bashed, violated or at least circumvented by elite schools. Some schools have gone to the extent of suddenly becoming “minority institutions” just to deny the poor their right.

While also revealing the true colours of our governments that keep such laws vague and limited to papers, the schools’ attitude basically reflects how social responsibility is actually seen as a liability.

That is why, in the molestation case, when he was first asked about it, the school principal tried to hide behind technicalities — a classic business practice.

It was a hired bus, he noted. I did not get any complaint in writing before, he added. About the Supreme Court’s and other guidelines that mandate a female attendant on the bus, he underlined that “every guideline cannot be adhered to”. The UT education department and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are playing pass-the-buck. Neither ever wrote to the other to check if the guidelines were being followed.

The clincher came from the principal, though: “The buses bear the name of the school but we have clearly written ‘for’, not ‘from’, Stepping Stones Senior Secondary School.”

Tell that to the child who boarded the bus thinking she’d be home soon after a short bus ride with her friends, or to the parents who stood in queues for days, tried every ‘sifarish’, and adhered to every guideline and norm of the school just so that the child could get admission.

Hate me for saying this, but parents too must be more vigilant and perhaps even ask some uncomfortable questions about how socially responsible the schools are in essence. Having female attendants is only one part of that.

Morality, sadly, is not available at the fee counter.

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