Governance in Schools: Tragic Costs

1 Sep

Support and mentoring have been proven to work, and we need to see more of them in the network of schools that is widespread in the country 

Last Friday, some schools in Maharashtra refused to serve the mid-day meal to their children. The principals refused to take responsibility for it. Schools in Pune followed suit. It was in Bihar where the mid-day meal deaths started being reported. That started off the shocked realisation that all is not well with the food we give our children, the most vulnerable ones who need the food the most.

Many come to schools just for the food. Schools and students still do not have the trusting relationship one would expect in a nation where the middle-class bets its bottom rupee on education as the driver of prosperity. It is not universally true, because all schools do not perform their duty of care as they should.

Report after report, whether by agencies or news media bemoan the state of our schools. Our food can kill the children. The teaching is left wanting — students are at least three years behind their grade levels. Students are slapped or beaten. Casteism is rife, and girls are made to wash and clean. Girls do not have adequate toilets and drop out of school. Teacher absenteeism is rife, as many live in towns far away. School buildings crumble, till budgets need to be used up at the end of the year.

Is there any one in charge?

The charge of making sure all goes well lies squarely with the principal. The buck stops with the principal. It is the principal who is in a position of accountability for all that happens at the school. There is no getting away from the fact that leadership and governance at the frontline of the education system reside in the office of the principal.

And now the principals say nay. I am sure they will have many supporters — their reasoning seems to be rational. If they do not control the raw materials or the preparation, then it does not seem to be fair to hold them accountable. Yet in the infamous Bihar case it was the head-teacher’s husband who was accused of being the supplier of the raw materials. Despite this control and supervision the tragedy occurred. This clearly is not the real issue.

The big question here is one of governance of schools. If school principals are not in a position to implement the tools of governance, then who is holding the fort? If they cannot ensure that teachers land up, that classes start on time, that students learn what they are supposed to and that the school facilities are maintained well — then what is their role in the school set up?

Governance in schools has been overlooked and has cost the system its very credibility. It is true that the statistics point out that almost all children in India are registered at a school. There are schools within a mile of most habitations. For a country as large and populous as India, this is no mean feat. To have schools, teachers, books, uniforms, and even food, is a humongous task. But if the school does not deliver what it was intended to, then this achievement loses its sheen. The failure may be seen as operational, but delve deeper and it is clear that the duty of oversight has not been managed as well as was needed by this system.

Governance at schools is about three things: Monitoring, support and consequences. As is every constructive system. The system falls apart at the first step — monitoring. So far there is no authentic way of monitoring either the attendance of teachers, teaching quality, pedagogies or student progress. There are a few studies but these are outside commentaries on a system that should be monitoring itself for improvement. The reports on the school system report statistics that do not answer all the questions which analysts need answers to in order to design supportive interventions.

In terms of support, the school system does have the provision in the form of block development officers and district education officers. Some are excellent, and the results are obvious in those districts. The areas with poor support mechanisms clearly suffer from de-motivation that filters through to poor care and lax operations. Support and mentoring have been proven to work, and we need to see more of them in the school system.


This was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on August 22, 2013 and is linked here and


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