By Dhruv Gupta, MSDF Rajastjhan Team

About 54 miles away from the capital of Rajasthan lies a small village called Mahalaan that may at first look like any other. However, once one visits the Senior Secondary Government school there, things begin to look different. In less than a year, the Government Senior Secondary School in Mahalaan witnessed more than a 100% increase in enrolment (from 142 students in 2015-2016 to 323 students in 2016-2017), 0% vacancy rate in teaching and non-teaching staff, and an upgradation of school infrastructure including new classrooms, a full-fledged sports complex with a yoga room, CCTV cameras, and a garden. This school has seen such a dramatic transformation that it is now attracting students from more than 2 neighboring villages.

How did this school improve so quickly while many just like it struggle?  The Headmaster of the school, Mr. Surendra Kumar, does not attribute this success to CSR donations or new government schemes, but rather to mobilizing the surrounding community.

Typically, in communities like Mahalaan, this strategy of parental involvement may seem counter-intuitive. With predominantly stiff relations between schools and parents, scarce resources in the community, and low confidence levels amongst parents, channeling the community to work towards school development can be a daunting task.

Mobilizing parents towards educational outcomes means a behaviour change from the present attitude of expecting and waiting for the government to do something, to proactively creating solutions. According to research in the area, this typically takes many years and cannot be achieved without a deliberate and sustained effort. However, through single-handed outreach and persistence, Mr. Kumar developed a successful partnership with the community in a short time-frame.

There are three main factors that enabled Mr. Kumar to be successful in fostering this sustainable community partnership: building a relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect; driving continuous engagement through a series of sustained efforts; and understanding the values and needs of the people along with what they have to offer.

Mr. Kumar was able to do this by revitalising the School Management Committee (SMC). a 16-member body comprising 12 parents, the village ward panch, a local educator, a teacher representative and the Headmaster of the school chaired by a parent.  India’s 2009 Right to Education Act made SMCs mandatory for all government schools across the country.  Over the past eight years, the record of SMCs has been mixed at best, with the general belief that SMCs lack the interest, skills, and capacity necessary to make a dent.

In Mr. Kumar’s school’s case, once the SMC was constituted, Mr. Kumar along with the parent members, visited one house at a time to identify out-of-school children and held personal conversations until they received a commitment from the parents that they would enrol their children in school. The SMC extended invitations to all members of the community  to come and participate in productive discussions on how the school could improve. Through these small steps, Mr. Kumar reduced the trust deficit between him and the parents, encouraging the latter to put their faith back back in the school.

This change in culture and revitalized relations with the community also allowed Mr. Kumar to seek support from the community for urgent matters at school. The SMC would organize meetings to discuss the most pressing challenges at school and would then collect small contributions from the broader parent community. More than 300 parents together, mobilized by the leadership of the SMC, are now committed to eliminate all the obstacles to providing a quality education in this village school.

From finding local volunteers who would take remedial classes in school to supervising the delivery of the mid-day meal, the SMC of Government Senior Secondary School in Mahalaan is changing the entire construction of the school, one brick at a time.

Work at Mahalaan is a good reminder of how important citizen participation is in building strong schools. At a broader policy level, we must find ways to engage parents and communities to make them active and effective stakeholders in our education system. SMCs are by no means the only solution to accomplish this objective, but they do offer an opportunity to build a strong alliances between all stakeholders in the education system - parents, community members, local government leaders, the Headmaster, and the school teachers - and thus, serve as a sustainable mechanism to turn-around the paltry conditions of most of our government schools.  

Unfortunately, SMCs around India face a range of challenges. In many cases, parents are not aware of the existence of SMCs or their roles and responsibilities in the school system. Even when they are, they lack the skills required to be effective contributors to SMC activities.  Current mechanisms to build capacity among parents are largely limited and unstructured, and the approach outdated and non-participative. School Development Plans, additionally, do not reflect the most pressing needs of the school and are not created by the SMCs in a democratic manner.

Given these challenges but also seeing the opportunities available through examples such as Mr. Kumar’s school, the IIC has been working with the Department of Education in Rajasthan to strengthen the functioning of SMCs - starting with ensuring that SMCs are constituted democratically and in compliance with norms, devising a strategy for the objectives that SMCs should prioritize, designing and implementing training and capacity building, and ultimately, devising a mechanism for SMCs to evaluate themselves. .

At its core, our strategy has been to take a more focused approach by defining the most critical focus areas wherein SMCs should intervene. Through focus groups and interviews with parents across four districts in Rajasthan, consulting a number of other state governments, and visiting innumerable schools, the IIC team created an exhaustive list of activities that SMCs could perform and then filtered them down to the top eight areas.

These eight areas are an intersection of outcomes that are important to parents; legitimate needs in schools; and outcomes that parents are already capable of solving. This last point is key - too often, we focus on things parents and communities cannot do, but there are several areas wherein they can intervene and have positive impact. These include increasing child enrollment and attendance, drinking water and toilet infrastructure, learning outcomes, parent-teacher interactions in schools, community contribution, monitoring mid-day-meals, and organizing community awareness events on the most pressing challenges in the village.

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Ultimately, our goal should be to enable and empower communities to be more involved in ensuring improvements in learning outcomes, better teacher-learning, curriculum design and assessments. But we cannot make a leap to those priorities unless we first cultivate the necessary  trust among communities, and develop in them a sense of pride and ownership in the education system.  

Dhruv Gupta is a Project Associate on the IIC MSDF Rajasthan team, and a former Teach for India Fellow, where he was also a part of his school’s School Management Committee (SMC).

Photo credit: Gwendolyn Bellinger