The recent tragedies involving the death of two schoolchildren in Gurugram have evoked the usual responses — demonstrations in protest, the institution of a “probe”, the suspension of the principal, a flurry of debates in the media and so on. But the fact is that these tragedies (and indeed, many more before them, reported and unreported), are only the symptoms of an entire educational system that has gone horribly wrong.
Consider, for a moment, the following: Who sets up most of the private schools in the country and why? Barring exceptions, most private schools are set up by property dealers, liquor barons, politicians and the like, with a two-fold purpose. First of all, schools give them a fig leaf of respectability. And they are also a great avenue for the investment of dubiously acquired wealth. To impart education is very rarely the primary motive. The driving force thus becomes the recovery of the capital invested and in order to achieve this, corners have to be cut. Among the softest targets for the axe are safety and security and teacher training. After all, parents grateful for admission are hardly likely to ask questions relating to safety and security measures. Also, security measures go largely unnoticed, unlike swimming pools, air-conditioned buses and “smart” classrooms.
But do not these schools have to conform to some kind of regulations in order to secure affiliation? Of course, they do. And both the CBSE and ICSE have, on paper, very stringent norms governing the process. But the devil lies in the implementation. We all know how “inspections” are manipulated in this country. When I was heading a well-known residential school in the south, I was deputed by the CBSE to inspect a local school seeking affiliation. I was phoned by one of my own governors who happened to be a local MLA to offer the friendly advice that the promoter of the school was a very good friend of his and that I should carry out the inspection keeping this in mind! If the new schools circumvent the norms, the older ones do not do any better. They generally suffer from the fact that they are housed in very old buildings, and compliance with safety norms would involve huge expenditure — in some cases, so high that building afresh would be cheaper. I encountered this problem in both the old “public” schools that I headed. In fact, in one, I discovered to my horror, that none of the buildings had any fire escapes. The state of affairs in most government schools is pitiable. They are, for the most part, too starved for funds to make safety a priority, and are, by and large, manned by staff just intent on getting through the day. And I am not even bringing the state of our rural schools into this discussion.
The other relevant question is, who is the person on the ground responsible for the implementation of safety norms? It is, of course, the head of school. Do heads of schools have the requisite training for this responsibility? Of course not. Just as they have no training in either financial management, the legal aspects of running a school, public relations or any one of the areas vital to school management, heads have no training in safety and security as well. So how is a head supposed to be sensitive to the requirements in this critical area?
The management and head (both of whom are equally ignorant), are thus quite content to hand over the responsibility to some private security agency. Anyone who knows how these agencies operate will also know how (in)competent they are. Most of these agencies (and more so, the ones at the lower end, which schools can afford), are quite content to have a hugely under-paid and untrained force, whose only claim to “security” is that they wear a uniform, practise marching in public view and salute the principal. And these are the people entrusted with not only guarding the premises but also responding to emergencies. All this while when even simple safety procedures are not followed. How often, for example, are fire-extinguishers checked? How often are disaster drills held? The net result is that when disasters do occur, everyone is running around like headless chickens.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that there is no way in which a regular audit in safety measures can be conducted. None of the school boards (although they have comprehensive manuals) have either the resources or the expertise to ensure conformity with safety measures. In the good old desi way, safety and security are “Ram bharose”.
If the head of the school and the security agency entrusted with the well-being and safety of the students are both questionable in their level of competence, it is hardly likely that the teachers, who should really be the ones with their ears to the ground, will have any clue about spotting likely danger areas. Teachers also seek refuge in the fact that they are overburdened anyway and have to rush off for their private tuitions.
What this effectively means is that those closest to the students are, in reality, quite far removed from a critical area of concern in more ways that one. I recall a distraught mother calling me soon after I had relinquished the headship of a well-known residential school. She was sobbing hysterically whilst informing me that her son had just died in a dormitory on account of an electric shock received while making coffee with an improvised device. Those being the “pre-media” days, the incident went unreported. Surely, better supervision and training might have averted the calamity.
The problem is therefore complex. We must, of course, be “pro-active” in this area rather than “reactive”. But the issue runs much deeper. It goes back to the very way in which we view school education, the priorities that we accord in the hierarchy of “educational needs” and whether we are really interested in investing in a better and safer future.