When parents are short on time and money, kids struggle in school

A Mariyam Alavi
Burhaan Kinu

At the Government Girls Senior Secondary School of Sangam Vihar, some families say they know the secret of academic success: school management committees.

"My kids are now more responsible, because they know I can talk to their teachers," says Mahindra Devi, a committee member whose daughters are studying in Class 7 and 9.

Banwari Lal Sanu, another member, agrees. His daughter, Khushboo, used to be "a little irresponsible" and "get distracted easily". But after Sanu joined the committee, Khushboo scored a 98 in her Class 12 board exam for economics. She's now pursuing a Bachelors of Commerce degree at Delhi University's School of Open Learning.

Not all parents, however, feel the same way. Chandrashekhar, whose daughter, Nikki, is in Class 12, appreciates going to committee meetings when he is invited, but also feels somewhat unwelcome. He says he'd never thought about joining himself. "How do I just walk up to them and ask them to make me a part of the committee? I was not even aware of the procedures."

Chandrashekhar (who doesn't use a surname) is not alone in feeling insecure and ignorant when confronting his kids' education. Like many parents of kids at government schools, Chandrashekhar makes as little as Rs.3,000 to Rs. 7,000 a month working at a factory; Sanu, conversely, obtained a BA, runs a mechanical garage with a few employees, and makes Rs. 50,000 a month. According to some teachers, experts and parents themselves, the poorer the parents, the less likely they are to join school management committees and advocate for their family.

Poverty hinders the schooling of Delhi's children in blunt ways, such as forcing them to drop out and take a job, but it also puts them at a disadvantage in subtler respects too, decreasing the involvement and interest of parents while distracting and discouraging their kids. The story of Chandrashekhar's family exemplifies the multiplicity of challenges posed by poverty to getting a good education in Delhi.

Experts say it is crucial parents ask children about their school day.

Experts say it is crucial parents ask children about their school day.

Time to talk

School management committees are supposed to exist at every school in India. First established by the 2009 Right to Education Act, they're meant to consist, in Delhi, of 12 parents, the school principal, a representative nominated by the local MLA, a social worker, and a teacher who runs the group. Together, they help solve both large problems about matters such as school infrastructure and smaller problems faced by individual students, teachers or parents.

In taking advantage of the management committee at the school — known locally as the pahadi school — Devi and Sanu hit on the same insight: that their kids' success would be driven by a sense of personal investment from their parents and accountability from themselves.

"Every time a parent asks how the student is doing, they do better," says Sanu. "As SMC members, we have a direct channel with their teachers, too. So kids know that we are not only reliant on their words to know how they are performing. I can easily ask their teachers." Both Sanu and Devi agreed that getting to know teachers cultivates in their children a certain sort of productive "fear".

As the education levels of Chandrashekhar's children has surpassed his own, he says he has become less involved in their lives.

As the education levels of Chandrashekhar's children has surpassed his own, he says he has become less involved in their lives.

Where Sanu and Devi are assertive, Chandrashekhar is diffident. "My kids are more educated than me now," he says. "How do I help them out at home? All I do is ask them once in a while how they are doing at school, if they have done their homework. That is all."

Yet Chandrashekhar's son, Arvind, who is in Class 9 at Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya, says he benefits from personal attention from his father. "When my father asks me about school, it makes me feel like he cares. It matters what I do and how I perform in school. I think I work extra hard on the days he asks."

Saransh Vaswani, the co founder of Saajha, a not for profit organisation that works to enable parents to participate in the learning of their children and the School Management Committees, confirms that frequent interactions between parents and students are crucial — no matter how educated the parents are.

"It's okay if you are not literate," he says. "You could interact with your child while you are cooking, talk to them about shapes and colours. We have even given parents and students simple worksheets to fill out together. Simple things like, match the 'ba' with 'batak'."

But like Chandrashekhar, his wife, Vimala Devi, and his other child, Jyoti, 21, also work long hours at intensive jobs, leaving them with only so much time and energy to interact with the Nikki and Arvind afterward. Vimala Devi and Jyoti each work at a garment factory in Okhla. Vimala Devi makes Rs. 6,000 a month; Jyoti makes Rs. 7,000. They work from 8am until 8pm most days, leaving Nikki to do household chores in addition to their schoolwork.

"I come back late from work. I don't even have time to ask about her studies sometimes," says Vimala Devi of Nikki.

Vimala Devi passed through only eighth grade; Chandrashekhar didn't make it past Class 5. Jyoti, who makes a strong effort to help her siblings, had to quit school during Class 8.

Jyoti's foreshortened time in school was a direct result of her family's poverty. She now plays the role of a surrogate parent to her siblings.

Jyoti's foreshortened time in school was a direct result of her family's poverty. She now plays the role of a surrogate parent to her siblings.

The end of a dream

Jyoti's foreshortened time in school was a direct result of her family's poverty.

"I always wanted to study and become 'something', 'someone'," she recollects. "From the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. My mom used to fall ill often, you see? So I wanted to treat her."

This dream ended in 2008 when her father fell ill with multiple masses in his kidneys. She was in seventh grade. The family had to leave their small village in Uttar Pradesh for Delhi so that her father could seek treatment at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

"When we moved to Delhi, we soon realised that we could not afford the expenses if I did not work too," says Jyoti. She joined her mother at a factory making, she says, "chamkeeli things", shiny trinkets that were decorated with small mirrors and sequins.

"I remember having to beg her boss to give me a job as well," says Jyoti. "I was not 14 yet, so it was illegal to employ me. Saab finally relented and allowed me to work there, helping with some of the handiwork, for around Rs. 1,200 per month. They used to make me hide in boxes or send me out to play at the time of inspections."

Though the new job meant that Jyoti could support her parents and siblings, it also meant that she would never become a doctor.

"Now I try to live out my dreams by playing a doctor at home when somebody falls ill," Jyoti says. "Even when neighbours fall ill, I talk to the doctors about it and then prescribe the medicines they suggest."

Though many parents realize that education is central to the future success of their kids, it is a long-term investment with no immediate returns.

Though many parents realize that education is central to the future success of their kids, it is a long-term investment with no immediate returns.

The financial straits of Chandrashekhar's family is typical of other families in the pahadi school. The average household income is about Rs.10,000 to Rs. 20,000 a month, according to Sonu Nijhawan, the vice principal.

Teachers say they regularly see how the academic futures of their students are thwarted by the poverty of their families.

"One instance that I will never forget is that of Madhu," says Neelam Sanjeeta Minj, the teacher who is in charge of the school's management committee. "One of our bright students, though she had only secured a 68% in her tenth grade. Her family was originally from a village in Rajasthan, and her father worked as a halwai here in Delhi. She had to discontinue her studies and go back to her village because her father was not earning enough to sustain a family here in Delhi. I still remember her crying."

Much though many parents realise that education is central to the future success of their kids, it is a long-term investment with no immediate returns. For poorer families, it often must be sacrificed.

"I keep telling Nikki to study," Jyoti says. "I even ask her to not do the household work. I say I will make dinner after I get home; I usually ask her to make use of the time to study."

Wondering about the future

"Hum toh padh nahin paye, humare bache to padhe (We were not able to study, but we would like our kids to study)." This belief, according to Minj, is the driving force behind many success stories of kids whose "stubborn" parents insisted they get an education.

Jyoti is largely uneducated herself, works a difficult job, and comes home exhausted. Still, she has intuited what Minj learned from experience, and is determined, as a kind of surrogate parent, to provide her siblings with the unflagging attention and support that they need.

"I keep telling Nikki to study," she says. "I even ask her to not do the household work. I say I will make dinner after I get home; I usually ask her to make use of the time to study... I sometimes yell at them when I see them squander away the opportunity given to them by goofing around. You are allowed to play, of course, but you need to study."

Nikki dreams of teaching Hindi someday, and regularly practises by helping classmates with their homework. If she succeeds in becoming a teacher, it would radically change her family's circumstances.

Nikki has noticed her sister's efforts. "'Padhle (study) Nikki, padhle.' This is something you will hear often in this house," she says. She dreams of teaching Hindi someday, and regularly practises by helping classmates with their homework. If Nikki succeeds in becoming a teacher, it would radically change her family's circumstances. A senior secondary school teacher in Delhi government schools can make as much as Rs. 55,000 a month.

Nikki's teachers say that she is receiving high marks, but getting that job at a government school wouldn't be easy: she'd have to complete an MA and BEd in Hindi and pass an additional set of tests even to be considered.

Jyoti has devoted herself to the difficult task of supporting the education of her siblings. But she is also acutely aware of how different Nikki's future might be different from her own. The eldest child wonders what her life would have been like if she hadn't dropped out of school.

"My siblings, especially the youngest brother, call me uneducated at times," Jyoti says. "It is usually when I insist he go finish his homework or schoolwork. But when he calls me 'unpadh', I get angry, upset, all at once. I sometimes take it out on my parents. I ask them why they let their other kids study, but did not send me to school. I know it was not a choice they were happy making. It was something they were forced to do. But sometimes, I ask anyway."