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Education is about Power

29 May



Thursday, 29 May 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

No real development in any sector, whether infrastructure or law and order, is genuinely possible if education remains neglected

‘Electricity’ said one. ‘Infrastructure’, nodded the other, in agreement. ‘Police reforms’, came the cry from another corner; ‘inflation’, insisted another. The new Government has been inundated with advice even before it has formally taken over serving the nation. The sad truth is that there are multiple fires that need to be put out. It can be done. But only if you pay attention to education first.

There is little possible by way of progress without good education available to all. Simple literacy enables economic participation. Comprehension improves health and longevity in families and villages. Higher order skills enable business enterprise to flourish. And so on — both common sense and research tell us how good education improves lives.

So, why is education for development a priority? All Governments invest in development. An education initiative anyway takes years to show benefits — they can bubble away on the back burner. I humbly disagree. I contend that if we continue to call education a development issue, India will continue to under perform.

The education sector is your strongest yet most subtle tool for power in the region and globally. Consider the education-based soft power initiatives of many countries that have been enabled by education. Consider the work done by the United Kingdom, the United States, China, Germany, Japan and others.

Classic tools of education as soft power have included internationalisation of education. London, for example, has traditionally been a hub for education for centuries and many world leaders find that they have been to college with their counterparts in other countries, often making the dialogue easier in fact. Universities in the US have not always made it obvious but the thousands of students who study there are clearly shown the benefits of the capitalist way of life — and this was more pronounced in the anti-communism years. China has its famous Confucius Institutes that fund programmes in global universities. India has very little in this space, nor does it bring international students into the country in large numbers to share its very own perspectives and attitudes. This is a lacuna that must be bridged.

India has a capacity constraint even for domestic students. There have to be many more places in education across all levels. In creating capacity it is time to think bigger than just domestic needs and build for global participation. Isolation in education has cost the country dear in many ways. Researchers struggle to create quality work and find the perfect audience and progress pathways. The quality of education too has suffered in the darkness.

The need to open the doors and windows via education is more than about stepping up and asserting itself. It is more than about creating channels for influence (no, soft power via Bollywood does not count, seriously). It is also about national imperative. India speaks of its demographic dividend, but even if these are educated are they employable? If they are employable, is there enough employment for them in India? We bank on growth, but run the numbers and it becomes clear that many will have to seek employment globally. Education will ensure that they are globally employable and can command a fair wage and decent working conditions. India will need to export some unemployment for at least a decade or two. Good policy design and quality education needs to ensure two things: First, Indians move up the remuneration ladder globally; and, second, India retains its fair share of premium, trained talent.

India’s brain drain was a natural consequence of inadequate opportunities in higher education, worse — inadequate recompense for higher order skills. The Indian diaspora powers a significant part of the world’s economic and intellectual engines, and must continue to do so. India needs to be able to build and retain the talent it needs for its own growth. Skills, vocations, research and creativity are about powering growth via education.

India needs an Education Strategy

28 May


May 16, 2014, 8:12 am IST in EduCable | India, Living

India needs an education strategy

India stands at a cusp today between two governments. The previous one has been serving the nation for the past ten years the new one will hopefully get a mandate strong enough to stand for the next five.

As we stand on this platform between the old and the new (regardless of which party comes back to power, though by now it seems to be fairly clear) it is a time to call for change.

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education. For each of these I can hear critics harrumphing. I agree, not enough has been done. Progress has been painfully slow. In many cases the slow progress has been a boon because the direction chosen was so obviously flawed. A generation has lost many chances. The current one must not be let down.

The good news is that much of the thinking and debating has been done for years. There are clear opinions and choices on most institutional and policy issues. The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Other issues that always get pushed under the carpet are also acknowledged as being awkward – Foreign Direct Investment in education, private sector provision of primary education, the mess that the current community college model presents (when the answer is obvious to some of us) and of course the very troublesome issue of apprenticeships that falls somewhere in the gaps between the ministries of Human Resource Development and Labour. Many of the issues that need to be sorted out are ideological – tradition pulls policy towards treating it as a public good. Pragmatism and resource constraints, and dare I say it – common sense too – negates that view. At the same time one realises that the current structures, behemoths as they are may be flawed, but are the only vehicles for the distribution of the new national policies. These knots will have to be cut before the new government can begin to make meaningful progress.

Of course, some changes are easier than they look, such as the RTE Act that has been attacked by many. It is enough to acknowledge the RTE 2.0 movement that is ready to move past recriminations and chart a path to better education for all. The RTE comes with fundamental flaws that cannot be allowed to continue into the future but has clearly established the principle of social engineering via education policy. Where it fails is in arrogating private property to the state, in discriminating against the majority institutions and in creating a distrust of government aid. These flaws will only strengthen the suspicion that government wants to play big brother and nanny – a creepy thought at best. The RTE itself has many flaws such as the emphasis on input based criteria rather than on value addition during the school year (though activists cry out for output based norms for schools). Many flaws have been patched over, but fundamentally it remains a noble thought that seems to be designed for flaws to show up in operation.

The new government has all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place. They have all been tagged and sorted too. Now it is up to them to create a the picture that they believe will built a better future for the nation. It is time for a national action plan. What India needs is a National Education Strategy.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

On Governance and Leadership

28 May

Leadership is the operational leg of good governance


Image: Shutterstock

“It’s just jargon”, smiled a colleague when I spoke of a governance strategy and operational plan for a client. “Nobody is going to look at this again, you know”, smirked another. I knew they were right, but I also knew that they were setting themselves up for failure if they ignored governance. Their reluctance was understandable – all the previous pieces on governance were stodgy and maimed operational efficiency. Just getting the governance bits done would have taken them ages – no wonder they wanted to push it to a dusty dark corner.

Worse was to come – nobody could agree on what the term Governance really meant. For some it was about supervision, for others it was about formal meetings of the powers that be that would lead nowhere. For most it was hurdle to be jumped. Or circumvented.

If that were so, then there is no path ahead. Without good governance there can only be stagnation. Governance is much more than mere policing of current operations. Good governance is a process of setting up systems that encourage continuous improvement. In a nutshell, it is about watching out with a sense of ownership for ways to make things better. It has influence beyond an organisation and ideally will be able to positively impact the entire ecosystem. Any one who has been a vendor or a supplier to a large corporation will vouch for that – good governance processes in the large client organisation may not force you to behave better in your own business but will certainly encourage certain good behaviours.

Some of them could be as simple as on time billing, regular tax returns. Others include more ethical treatment of wage labour, safety on site and more. Countries too that have stronger governance processes are easier to deal with – at least one knows where one stands with them. Purely from the point of view of doing business, the indices clearly indicate that those countries that invest in good governance are easier to invest in and engage better on the world stage.

So what does a well governed system do? Make things easier, of course. And make them easier for all the participants. For example a well governed national education system will make sure that every student has a chance to get a good quality education regardless of economic or social background. It will ensure that the student has pathways to success and recourse to aid and advice when required.

Success will not depend on fear or favour, regardless of cronyism or affirmative action. Does that sound utopian? If it does, then remember we are describing what successful good governance looks like once it is done. The journey is barely begun. How will a governance system make this happen? It is not as difficult as the grand words make it sound – in education it starts with teachers actually attending school and teaching as they are supposed to, with care and conviction. For teachers it means having some one to turn to for help and advice, and progression in their careers. For school administrators it means having professional standards to be accountable to as they run their schools. Who designs and sponsors all of these? The governors. Who aligns these so that they meet defined objectives? The governors. Who picks up the pieces again and again when systems crumble? The governors. This is the job of a governance system – keeping stuff on track and constantly pushing it to do better.

Who makes good governance happen? Who are these people who do all this nudging and pushing? How many of them do we need? Is this another middle or upper middle layer of management? More fat to the machine. Err.. grease, not fat. It is true that there need to be people in charge of pushing things along. But not all need to be new people, nor does one always need more people. A good governance system by design is almost invisible, and seamlessly integrates with operations. If your governance system is a drag, you can be sure that it is either badly designed or is not being operationalised well.

Leadership is the operational leg of good governance. A leader at any level is already tasked with ensuring that processes run smoothly towards agreed goals. The leader (at any level) is then accountable for good governance to their board, or owners or sponsors. And is responsible for setting up a well functioning chain of such accountability.

Now for the secret sauce – you gotta keep stirring it. Good governance works well only if it is an active, alert and responsive beast. Let it stagnate and it can do more damage than good. One doesn’t need more people to keep stirring the pot. All we need is active and engaged communities that are not blocked out and can keep an eye on the pot – whether it is the competition (read opposition), the commentariat (or media), the people who are to be served or even external observers. As long as the pot is watched, it is unlikely to boil over – little can go wrong, and things might even get better.

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Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


In defence of Smriti Irani, India’s new HRD minister

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 6:25pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • smriti-irani HRD minister Smriti Irani

Does a leader always need to be an expert? Or is a good leader one who can leverage a wide range of expertise and skills? Ask India Inc, the entrepreneurial and the baronial – and the chances are that their business successes will provide the answer before they need to respond. Of course, an expert in the area will find it easier to process information and will have an easier learning curve when entering the arena. But those who are not experts also prove to be good workers and leaders. Not all good leaders are experts, but all good leaders know how to utilise the abilities of experts.

What about education? Surely in education we need educated leaders? They have to decide on broad issues of education policy, create legislation to revive the sector, identify and clear hurdles to scale and quality. It is a growing nation that must learn to invest in its own talent to participate on the global stage. It might have been better to have a learned greybeard to lead the initiatives rather than the youngest woman in the Cabinet of the Union of India, who, as the cynics and critics point out, has received no higher education. By that logic, no CEO or leader can be allowed to hold a post where they have not gone through the ranks. Nor would there be any conglomerates – for who can be all the things that a GE CEO leads? Or a Tata group CEO?

Smriti Irani, the young Cabinet minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) does hold a complex portfolio. What is more challenging is her inheritance – she faces a wide range of issues that seem to have decided on arbitrary criteria that has had little to do with the broader goals of education. She has to work with policies that impact individuals – and almost every family in the nation. Worse, she has to figure out which of the schemes she now supervises are useful and which ones are actually destroying the fabric of the nation. The nation now looks to her to have the ability to discriminate, to judge and to invest in the future.

So much needs to be dismantled, so much needs to be reconstructed and so much needs to be built. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Noble in intent surely, when it gave the right to be educated to every 6-14 year old in the country. Yet, so badly constructed that even three years ago, this author called the act a sieve. It is in a shambles today – forcing many budget private schools to close (should they not be supported to improve?), creating incentives for schools to declare themselves minority institutions (how is it inclusive, or even a national act if the it does not apply to a minority institutions) and of course the silent elephant on the table – the nationalisation of private property when 25% of the seats in the private sector were taken over by the act. Does she have the ability to distinguish between a left liberal argument versus a economic right social left argument and decide on the right course of action?

There is no point denying she does not have the academic grounding – but the argument here is precisely this – she does not need to have that if she has the ability to channel good advice. As a leader, her task would certainly have been easier if she had experience in the field of education. At the same time she would have the disadvantage of ideological baggage that would influence her decisions. And the critics would have carped about that. It is true, again, that the ministry of HRD is trapped in the middle of complex legislation and the entire sector is moribund due to regulatory messes. Higher education institutions cannot hire or fire the faculty they need to, talent cannot be nurtured or showcased due to hierarchies and tenure based structures. Research languishes, as does the quality of teaching. Does Smriti Irani have the ability to judge which area of science should receive more funding? Can she chair a meeting of the directors of the IITs and IIMs?

Certainly she can. She is a politician, and is not in that chair to provide the academic expertise. That is the job of the other people in the room including her ministry and advisors. She is tasked with a politician’s role – one of persuasion. Of getting support for ideas that drive through to results. Her leadership will be judged on her ability to get the job done. And the job at the moment is about managing the negotiation between different ideas and priorities. Her task is to involve more partners so that education can leverage the skills and resources that are available outside the government, and indeed the nation.

If this was a personal defence of the minister, one could call on her past achievements too – these are in the public domain. This is not about the person. This is about the sad conflation of degrees and competence when degrees themselves are not designed around competencies. Degrees may be the proof of certain learning but they do not represent the sum total of knowledge, skills and attitudes – each of which are required to be successful in a job.

For long the elitism of degrees has influenced choices in India regardless of talent. And this fascination with a linear education pathway that culminates in more degrees has made it difficult for individuals to follow their talent and aptitudes. Worse, teaching and learning are reduced to the tests that seem to deny that there are other pathways to success, not just academic. And academic pathways need not map to a certain age-line.

There are many who have become successful without following the trodden path, many whose learning has been honed outside academic hallways. There are skills that a Harvard and Ahmedabad cannot teach. Let us give the new minister a chance to step up and show what she has learned. Her competence will be tested in the public eye. The least one can do is be supportive and helpful. After all, we are on the same side if we care for a better educated nation.

One last question remains – would we all not have been happier if, say, Arun Jaitley had been appointed the minister for HRD? Yes, certainly. Erudite, well spoken, a sharp legal brain, proven intellect, the ability to negotiate in tricky land – it would have been ideal. Given the huge challenge in human resources, an experienced hand would have been useful. All the more reason to support the young minister, and call on others, including the cabinet mentors, to help her learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.




This was published in the DNA newspaper on May 27, 2014


Five Principles to keep Students Safe in Schools

6 May

Whether you see it as childcare, or a place to learn, or about meeting friends – the entire premise of schools revolves around safety. We send our children to school to learn all this because we know they will be safe there.

Sadly, we know that this has not always been so – children have been hurt and abused at school. Whether it was an explicit MMS sent out by school bullies or a child being abused by the caretaker and bus attendant. These were sexual – there are other kinds of abuse that our children face from classmates, teachers and even school heads. Often we forget that our harsh behaviour can have serious consequences for young minds – take the example of the poor young girls who committed suicide in Bangalore after they were punished for playing Holi.  They clearly felt unable to deal with the consequences of the humiliation meted out to them and the school failed in providing them a safe place to learn from incidents. The school failed them thrice – once in not providing them a safe place for self expression, two -in giving them disproportionate punishment, thus becoming an aggressor (even if they thought it was okay, and had precedence), and three, in not providing them a safe place to deal with their feelings.

There have been multiple incidents since then. Some sexual in nature, some due to negligence and others due to willful harm inflicted on our children. Are our children safe at school? Will the rules help keep them safe? They may, but safety is an attitude. A safe school builds a culture of safety where there is both awareness and alertness with sensitivity. This is signaled in many ways, not just in watching out for sexual abuse. It is the task of a school to provide a safe, caring, nurturing atmosphere.

It is not easy at all. Especially for large schools the challenges are immense. There are distant nooks and crannies in large schools where anything can happen. There are times when all children cannot be supervised – for example – as they go from a specialised classroom to another, or from a sports complex to, say, the library. Children have always found ways of bunking out of school. Unless one establishes a police state within the school there is only a limited degree of control that a school can have over every moment for every child.

Some places have resorted to that. There are metal detectors outside some schools in the UK. Some schools have cameras everywhere. Other schools insist on specific routines to be maintained that restrict the freedom of students.

They are not wrong in setting up routines. It is these routines that will ensure that the school becomes a safer, more caring place. Here are some things schools do to ensure that schools are safer places:

Ensure that every part of the school is supervised by a teacher especially during break and sports. Corridor, Break and Sports grounds duties to be assigned separate from teaching duties (a teacher cannot be in a classroom and be teaching at the same time)

Create a buddy system where children are paired up, or are in groups of three. They are responsible for knowing where their buddies are at any point of time, and preferably staying with them. Another version of the buddy system that has seen a reduction in school bullying is assigning an older child to look out for a younger child in the playground. If the younger child feels any danger they have a person to approach who is responsible for helping them. The choice of the system and the specific design depends upon the needs and circumstances of the school, and the details must be designed with care. The idea is to create a watchful, caring safety net for children.

Awareness. Educate children and make them aware of their own rights over their bodies. Nobody can command them to do what is not right. (It often bothers me that when we train our children in unquestioning obedience we put them at risk. Anyone in a position of authority then must be obeyed, regardless of what they ask children to do.) Teach children about good touch and bad touch. Tell them that they have the right to say no. Teach them that their ‘no’ must be respected. Show them what to say and do to save themselves.

Include parents in the safety community. Share their tools of keeping children safe. Help them understand that often sexual abuse comes from known people. Share the statistics and the stories. Engage experts to run the communication and workshops with parents – because these are issues that are about fears, vulnerability and hurdles – and must be handled with sensitivity.

Create an atmosphere of open communication within the school. Let children chatter freely with teachers, with head teachers and each other, sharing their fears and hopes. This is no guarantee that there will be no abuse in the school but healthy and open conversations can often identify potential flash points and early action can be taken to save children from harm.

There are more lists available for school leaders that will help them keep their school safe. Even with the best of care, and the best of intentions there is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. Even so, with care, with vigilance and with supervision the school can be made a safe space. It takes effort, and this effort must be put in by the schools. At the end of the day, for a school leader – there is no substitute to management by walking around.



This was published in the Times of India Blogs on May 5, 2014 and is linked here


Meeta Sengupta
05 May 2014, 05:42 PM IST

3 Guideposts for Education Policy for the New Government

1 May

Classroom model to sustainable future

Thursday, 01 May 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

It is time for a fresh start, even if the faces are familiar. Come May, the electorate’s preferences will be known, some clever mathematics and chemistry will be called into play, and the contours of a new world will begin to take form. Whether this Government feels solid and stable to itself and its interlocutors will determine how much it is able to achieve in the first pass. The first 100 days of any new Government are typically seen as the ‘honeymoon period’ where it is given a chance to make its mark with lower risks. In education, what should the first 100 days’ spark?

The first point is to understand the imperatives. Employability in the short term, credible employables in the medium term and some fine foreign policy play to ensure labour mobility in the long term, are clear expectations from the next Government. They inherit some clear thinking and terrible implementation and now need to build operational pathways to ensure student success. So far, the decisions have been about size, infrastructure and access. The plans are now to focus on quality. And, if the reports are to be believed, the rote learning epidemic is not the only evil, there is worse — teachers, it seems, are encouraged to support examinees to shore up achievement numbers. While I have never seen evidence of an examination where the answers are written on the board for all students to achieve good marks the rumour mill assures me that this is not uncommon. Paraphrasing what Sir Humphrey says in Yes Minister, “Minister, you asked us to change the numbers, we changed the numbers…” ‘Quality’ needs a re-think too.

Going forward, planned investments are in school leaders and teachers, accreditation, community colleges, PPP models and pathways for skills and alignment of academic certifications. Lip-service paid to value education, bringing back woodworking or cooking to the high school, or even acknowledging leadership as different from teaching (it had to be said) is not enough. Indian education needs to break out of traditional mindsets and structural barriers and leapfrog ahead. Doing that will just about help the nation catch up with the others.

Are we, as educationists, able to meet the aspirations and potential of the students we claim to nurture? Can we take them to their success? This is what must drive the education policy — the need. This is not time to be coy about potential greatness. Enough with the resource constrained limiting ways of the past, it is time to aim high, pulling in resources in our wake. This means opening up access to market based solutions.

The next point is to invest in governance. Keeping a light and transparent rein on operations of all education providers, while ensuring that their processes and outcomes are visible to all — civil society, students and parent community, media and, of course, the regulators. Having multiple regulators for institutions based on their activities and aims and redesigning the governance matrices to be layered and goal oriented is needed. The new Government must minimise gate-keeping, optimise scaffolding via governance operations — in simpler language, reduce licensing requirements, and improve support structures.

The next need is to build tight structures for certification and remove all barriers to learning. Let there be no restriction on where a student can learn, let there be learning pods in markets, streets, schools, community centres, playgrounds, libraries (build more of these). And let there be multiple certifications accessible to all. Break the silos to build connected learning networks. Unleash creativity and innovation, bringing a rigour that does not let it slip into jugaad.

This is how we build sustainable futures for all.


This was published in the Daily Pioneer on May 1, 2014 and is linked here:


And yes, their headline missed the point of the article totally!








This is how we build sustainable futures for all.

On Cheating and Morals

17 Apr

Thursday, 20 March 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Cheating and bribery are becoming habits at the school level itself. Students copy in examinations and pay for leaked papers. The trend carries over into politics too

Is India really supportive of dishonesty? Should we give up the pretence of being an honest country where truth and equality are valued? Because, often, India gives enough data to prove that we do not believe in truth enough to be able to demonstrate our leaning towards it. Be it the elections or the exams, whenever we are put to the test, many of us crack under the pressure and use questionable means.

Consider this chilling piece of news: A boy in Uttar Pradesh committed suicide because he could not pay a bribe to be allowed to cheat in the examination — his dream of becoming a teacher was, therefore, lost. There is so much that went wrong here: Bribe, cheating, limitations on opportunities to a career, and the bullying of the poor; the mother had to mortgage her ring to arrange for the bribe.

This is not a unique example. Cheating has been rife and is almost institutionalised in many parts of the country. It is a rare examination room where cheating does not occur in some form or the other. While as an educationist I constantly argue for smarter examination designs to eliminate this evil, one has to admit that there is an element of training for a corrupt future going on here.

Examinations that merely test for rote-learning are bound to be gamed — and we see that they are by millions of people. If the objective is to win, and the underlying principle is the survival of the fittest, then of course the laws of the jungle will begin to apply. If the examinations were not such a high-stakes hurdle, then the situation might be different. As things stand, the marks will determine whether you have access to a decent education or whether you have to chart your own path through unguided waters. The price of purchasing that certainty is often paid by crossing the ethical divide.

Things do not get better as one climbs through the education ranks — as a student one often uses pirated or photo-copied textbooks (and the cases are still in court), essays and thesis assignments are often either plagiarised or outsourced for a fee, and, one hears that laboratory test results are ‘arrived’ at in various ways. Another example: Professor Muralidharan, who has worked for years on education in India and published serious academic papers, tweeted out a case of his entire paper being copied and cited by an academic in southern India, as shown on his webpage. Brazen plagiarism must have its roots in a history of not being caught out and shamed.

Academics now are charged with producing a given number of research papers per year to get their increments and promotions. With poor research training and little time and support, many plagiarise. Others often sit on the ethical fence and split their work into the required number of papers — just to meet the rules. Honesty is clearly not a way of life even as we learn.

This shows in choices made at election time too. As a nation, we do not vote for honesty. The number of criminals in Parliament has been widely reported. The number of criminals who are getting to stand on behalf of significant political parties is known too. And yet such people will continue to get elected. A recent paper by Milan Vaishnav (for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) estimates that the chances of winning elections for a candidate with no criminal charges against him or her is a mere seven per cent (rising to 25 per cent if there is at least one serious case against the individual). From the voters’ point of view, in a survey, a whopping 48 per cent indicated that they would be okay voting for such a candidate.

Improving School Governance

2 Mar


Meeta Sengupta

Improving School Governance

01/09/2014 |
The school principal looked at us across the grand table and asked, “Under the circumstances, what should the school policy be?”

This was the purpose of this gathering — not only to hold the school and its head teacher to account for the past quarter, but also to build and enhance the school’s policies so that there was a consistent and value-based response in school. As a member of the school management committee here, and previously as a school governor, I knew this was going to be the most intensely debated part of the meeting.

Formulating policies that helped the school to devise daily routines and processes was not just about right and wrong, or about opinions. It called on the shared values of the school and its guardians, and needed to translate into practical and consistently applicable procedures.

Those were not the only demands of school governance. Governance in schools is about calling the leadership to account, supporting them with skills and resources and helping them chart a path of continuous improvement for the school. This is not dissimilar to the role of the board in corporate entities. The board is the guardian of the core values and drives the interests of the true owners of the enterprise. The moral responsibility of the institution is vested here — governance — is about watchful guardianship.

Much of the responsibility of governance rests on the school leader. I would go as far as to suggest that the school leader is at the front line of governance, dealing with daily issues and sniper attacks. The head of the educational institution is the most visible embodiment of all that must be right with an institution — and is the enforcer as well. Most good governance is done without harsh enforcement. Or as the Art of War says,  ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’ – just so, good governance is alignment of behaviours (ideally) without having to be led by rules, policing or punishments.

Having said that, these rules and the consequences of not following them are an essential part of the toolkit of governance. As are other gentler means including monitoring, feedback loops and constructive observation and mentoring. Governance is the duty of care and it is operationalised by watching out for aberrations, managing these aberrations and then scaffolding the system back to normal growth.

Who should, then, be included in this community of care? Those who govern must not only be able to be the conscience-keepers of the school, but must be able to influence it on a daily basis. Most governors and school managers do not get much time to actually interact with a school — they are not employees of the school. They cannot be paid by the school, for that would be a conflict of interest.

With limited access comes the limitation of information — the flows of information to the governing level comes only via the school management. Other channels too are opened up via the agency of the management. School management (and governing) committees meet for a few hours each year. Under these constraints, it becomes very difficult to create any impact. And yet, it is these individuals who support the school leadership towards school improvements. Their role is probably the trickiest of all in the entire school network. They are charged with being the ‘critical friend’ of the school. To exert influence without authority, and thence to drive change for good, is the role of governance in the school context.

It takes exceptional people to be able to achieve this, and now, in India, all schools must have a school management community. The record of school management committees has been mixed so far, with slow but steady progress.

The challenge, as with much of school leadership, is to find the right people to be able to create this community of critical friends that can hold the school accountable for the welfare of the students. In small local communities the fear is that this will become politicised, if the school management committee merely becomes a local arena for power play, then its core purpose of school improvement may take a back seat.

On the other hand lies the challenge of finding the right people to influence positive change in the schools. The quest is for exceptional individuals who can be honest guides to school excellence. This is not a community that can be built merely by regulation, though that is a good step.

Of all the recommended participants in the School Management Committee, it is only the parent representatives whose interests are wholly aligned with the students. Some must represent different interests such as the owners (including the public/government), and the model rules include these. But the range of competence required by an SMC spans budgets, recruitment, human resource management, student psychology and much more. Unless governors and SMCs themselves receive support and training, they will also be unable to discharge their duties adequately. \

Currently in India, there is little organised, or even standardised support for SMCs. It is not enough to decree community participation in schools; these must be facilitated by resources, support and education lest its progress be wayward — and worse — too slow for any real timely impact.