Parents can improve schools — but only if they know what they’re doing

A. Mariyam Alavi
Sanchit Khanna, Saumya Khandelwal

The election had less to do with ideas than placement on the ballot. The candidate who got the most votes happened to be listed first; second place was listed second; number 11 was listed eleventh; and the two losers, who didn't make the cut of being among the top 12 vote-getters, shouldn't have felt too bad about themselves. Their names simply appeared in the final two spots.

At the election to a School Management Committee (SMC) at the Government Girls' Senior Secondary School, known locally in Sangam Vihar as the pahadi school, none of the parents interviewed by Hindustan Times who voted had strong opinions about their choices. Pushpa, whose daughter is a student in Class 6, said she voted out of a sense of "duty" and to ensure a "better future" for her child. Yet she also said that she had "randomly chosen 12 candidates and left two out".

Even though SMCs are designed to be groups run by parents to monitor and improve their kids' schools, many parents at the pahadi school didn't vote to elect members to the group. Rekha Devi Sharma, 37, the mother of Nikki Sharma in Class 12, said that she hadn't voted because she was unwell. "But even if I did go, who would I vote for? I do not know any of the contestants, and the school had not informed us of who was contesting, what they stood for, nothing."

This is partly a function of the SMC election guidelines, which forbid candidates from using posters, speakers or mics within the school premises for campaigning. But most candidates said they did not campaign anywhere. Qadri said he only visited a few of his neighbours. Many parents are already very busy supporting their families.

First established by the Right to Education Act in 2009, SMCs are composed of 12 elected parents, a representative nominated by the local MLA, a social worker, a teacher, and the head of the school. The groups are supposed to meet once every two months to discuss the state of the school.

SMCs have been embraced by the Delhi government as a significant part of their effort to reform education in the national capital. In August of last year, Delhi expanded the powers of local SMCs, giving the parental-oversight bodies the authority to scrutinize school finances and teacher attendance, among other things.

"In the government system as a whole, lack of accountability is a major problem," said Atishi Marlena, advisor to the education minister, Manish Sisodia. "We did not know of the SMCs before coming in to power. But then we realized that it was a good way to ensure stakeholder accountability."

At the pahadi school, parents initially responded to the new SMC with enthusiasm. In 2015, during the first round of elections, 33 parents ran for 12 spots.

But when another round of SMC elections were held last month, only 14 parents were on the ballot. Participants, and authorities, said the number of parents voting seemed to have decreased. In the boys division of the pahadi school, only 12 parents contested, meaning there was no election at all.

The SMC elections at the pahadi schools, as well as conversations with heads of 10 other schools, indicate that candidates and voters don't always understand basic tenets of the groups; that the level of participation among parents is decreasing in many places; and that multiple schools are not holding elections at all.

Though they may have a significant potential to reform Delhi schools, the SMCs' second round of voting shows that the initiative also faces critical challenges.

Fourteen parents contested the election in Sangam Vihar's Pahadi School. Syed Mohammed Izhar Alam Qadri ( centre), was the only one who contested for a second term.

Getting cleaners to clean, teachers to teach

Every school was required to have an SMC in 2009, but according to Marlena and the schools contacted by HT, the elections didn't occur or happened only on paper until 2015.

The Aam Aadmi Party has sought to bolster the capacity of SMCs. According to Marlena, in 2016, 200 to 300 members were given and trained in a smartphone app that enabled them to upload pictures of the school if they saw something inappropriate — a missing guard, for example, or an unclean place. These pictures were sent to the offices of Sisodia, who then convened meetings with the deputy directors of education and gave them three days' time to take action against those responsible, according to Marlena.

"Because of this, around 80-100 heads of schools were issued show cause notices," she said.

Manish Sharma, who served as the vice chairperson of the Government Boys' Senior Secondary School in Kadipur, was one of these parent members who had been trained to use the app. He recalled how he and a colleague, Chanda Devi, inspected the school and took pictures of any lapses they could find.

"We uploaded pictures of a toilet that was unclean, and also of garbage that was strewn around a dustbin," Sharma said. "When we visited the school after around eight days, both places were clean."

Some SMC members, like those at an evening school in Shahdara, took a less bureaucratic approach to ensuring that their children's school ran smoothly, according to Marlena. The Shahdara school was meant to go until 6:30 pm, but teachers would instead leave by 4:30 to make their commute easier. "Two SMC members started going to the school regularly at around 2 pm and locked the gates from inside and sat in the guard's room until school time was over," said Marlena. "They would not allow anybody to leave."

SMCs were also involved in many government initiatives. They were expected to organize weekend reading melas during the Chunauti Mission, an attempt to help 3.5 lakh students who could not read their own textbooks; to check if remedial classes were being conducted in their schools; and to help out during the government's first summer camp, in 2016, which was intended to make sixth graders who had recently transferred from municipality-run schools feel comfortable in the larger institutions.

At Sangam Vihar, however, Sonu Nijhawan, 50, the vice principal and chairperson of the SMC, struggled to recall a single instance of the committee contributing to the welfare of the school.

Syed Mohammed Izhar Alam Qadri, a 42-year-old tailor from Sangam Vihar and the father of three students at the school, was the only SMC candidate at the recent elections contesting a second term. During his tenure, Qadri said, his committee ensured that the pahadi school fixed its extra gate and provided enough desks and security guards. He also said the group put in plants by the school entrance.

Qadri said he ran for a second time out of confidence in the potential of SMCs. "I want to ensure that my kids' and all the kids' future is secured by a good school and a good education," he said.

Sarita Devi, the new vice chairperson of the SMC at Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, however said that she had not even known such a post existed before the elections.

Helping has a price

Yet for many parents, the original enthusiasm for joining SMCs and voting for their members seems to have reflected mistaken ideas parents had about the body.

"Initially, many people thought it would be a paid position," said Arab Singh, the deputy director of education for zone-24 in Delhi, whose jurisdiction includes the Sangam Vihar school. "Last SMC, members thought that meetings will have some remuneration fixed by the government. I think they were disillusioned after finding out otherwise."

Qadri said that when he had first signed up for the post in 2015, he had thought there would be certain "benefits" to it. "If the government were to reimburse people for the daily wage they would lose out on for attending a meeting, more people would get involved in the process," he said.

The meetings are held on Saturdays or times when students have a half-day, but these are often workdays for parents, said Qadri. "Just because the kids have a day off, does not necessarily mean we will have a holiday too, especially for those of us who don't work in the organised sector," he said. "I am able to manage because my oldest son is also working, and contributes to the household expenses."

The teacher in charge of the SMC of the pahadi school's girls' division, Neelam Minj, had to plead with parents to nominate themselves this time around, according to Nijhawan. They barely managed to clear the bare minimum of 13 required to have an election.

Despite a student body of nearly 6000 children, only 832 parents turned up to cast their votes on Saturday at the school.

Learning on the job

At least one motivation for joining the SMCs may not relate to school at all. Qadri is a member of the Congress Party. His daughter, Ayesha Bano, who insisted Qadri nominate himself in 2015, said that she got the idea from her teacher, who had seen Qadri on Congress posters around Sangam Vihar.

"I am not interested in politics," said Qadri over tea at his single-bedroom house near the Madina Masjid in Sangam Vihar, where he lives with his wife and four kids. "If I get a few duas for any good work we do, that will be an added bonus."

His wife, Ayesha Begum, however, quipped that the SMC election was an election, after all. She hoped that his position in the SMC could help his "future prospects," or that it would "pay off" during a possible political career in the future.

Irshad Khan, a 33-year-old electrician and another member of both Congress and the pahadi school SMC, said he was hopeful that the school group would be a stepping stone to larger-scale political opportunities.

According to Arun Kumar Sharma, the vice principal of the boys' division, locals perceive the SMC election as a barometer of social status in the community. Contestants, said Sharma, seemed unfamiliar with the objectives of the SMC or what needed to be done at the pahadi school.

Yet the effect that the SMC will have at the pahadi school will depend on the effort parents put into it.

"We will get to know more about what the SMC does, how it works, after getting elected," said Devi, the vice chairperson. "We will learn on the job."