The Draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 recommends that all private schools must set up School Management Committees (SMCs). It wants to treat private and government school equally and all government schools are required to have SMCs. Equal treatment of all schools is a worthy goal. Though NEP does not tackle the obvious question of why equality is desired only in the case of SMCs but not in many other areas where they are not equal. Nonetheless, let's assess the claim that SMCs would improve working of private schools and make them more accountable to parents.
What has been the experience with SMCs in government schools? The concept of SMCs is not new. There has been an ongoing effort over the past more than 30 years to devolve power to parents and the community. With the NEP 1986, the Government attempted to involve parents in decision-making processes and to decentralise education.
It also adopted the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution that entrusted Panchayati Raj institutions with education. In 1994, the District Primary Education Project set up several Village Education Committees (VECs) across India. These were conceptualised as school oversight structures involving the village head, parents and the school headmaster. They were responsible for monitoring school performance, allocating school resources, and hiring contract teachers in case of shortage of full-time teachers.
However, VECs were highly ineffective. A J-PAL study in Uttar Pradesh showed that over 92% villagers did not even know about the existence of VECs. Even after conducting informational campaigns, J-PAL was not able to increase parental engagement with schools.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 mandated SMCs to be set up across all elementary government, government-aided and special category schools.
With the aim of encouraging parental involvement in school education, the RTE Act made SMCs responsible to monitor functioning of schools, prepare School Development Plans, and oversee utilisation of grants. The SMC would comprise of 75% parents; out of the remaining 25%, ⅓ would be from the local authority, ⅓ from teachers in the school, and ⅓ from local educationists.
The Draft NEP envisages these exact responsibilities for SMCs in private schools. But even with a change in nomenclature, SMCs and VECs retain similar structures with similar failings. Several studies from Oxfam, Accountability Initiative, and other academics document the challenges of implementation as well as failure in achieving the desired goals over any extended period of time. First, parents are not aware that SMCs have been instituted in schools.
For instance, 94% of parents surveyed by JOSH in 2014 did not know that their school had a SMC. Second, the procedure for selecting members is not clear. Most states have not laid down a selection process for SMCs. Third, many parents do not know that they have been 'appointed' as members of the SMC in their school. Fourth, in many SMCs, a vast majority of members are not aware of their roles and responsibilities. There have been instances where the headmaster and teachers asked parents to sign on minutes of meetings that they did not attend or know about.
Fifth, there is no clarity in the RTE Act, 2009 on how SMCs were to achieve their objectives, particularly in preparing School Development Plans. The ability of SMCs to carry out their responsibilities rests on trainings. But these trainings either do not take place or are not conducted on time. Moreover, they are often of poor quality and limited to only two or three SMC members from each school.
Fund disbursement to SMCs is also significantly delayed. According to a 2012 PAISA Study, over half of the schools received their annual school grants at the end of the third quarter, i.e. in November. Moreover, SMCs have limited financial powers, mostly on the School Development and School Management grants; their spending power is on less than 2% of the total money schools receive in a year.
Out of the few School Development Plans that are submitted on time, most are either not prepared with inputs of all members of the SMC or do not address the most urgent issues in the school. The Draft NEP explicitly acknowledges these "various challenges...including lack of awareness among parents, the inability of parents dependent on daily wages to participate in the activities of the SMC, lack of participation of women" and how "meetings of the SMC are often not held, or held without sufﬁcient representation, or with no inﬂuence on the matters of the school." Yet, it still wishes to implement this flawed apparatus in private schools to 'protect' parents and children.
It seems that the NEP assumes that private school parents are all middle class or upper class, well-educated and have the resources and time to make the SMCs function well. Yes, there are private schools where this would be true. But the vast majority of private schools are what could be called low-fee schools or budget private schools. The children of the readers of this article are studying at private schools that make up about 10% of total private schools. Almost 90% of private schools are where the children of the people working in the homes and offices of the readers of this article attend.
Furthermore, NEP assumes that interests of parents are always in collision with the interests of the management. This is the old industrial age mindset of labour versus the management.
Even traditional labour unions do not behave with this antagonism today. But NEP harbours this anachronistic attitude. It also gives insight into the demand that private schools should not be allowed to call themselves 'public schools.' Only government schools are public schools. Their prejudice against private schools is just too apparent. The draft policy assumes that all parents have the same interest, and overlooks the heterogeneity amongst parents. In its attempt to give parents a 'voice' against school management, it forgets that parents may have genuinely diverse 'voices' on critical issues.
Consider for example the current debate over installation of CCTV cameras in schools. While some parents are in favour of installing cameras to keep track of teacher and student behavior others find it to be an invasion of privacy as well as detrimental to teacher and student well- being. Such diversity of interests complicates the working and effectiveness of SMCs.
The SMCs have not been effective in vast majority of government schools and they are unlikely to be successful in almost 90% of private schools. In the 10% of private schools and probably in special category government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) and army schools, SMCs may serve the purpose. But for the 90% of parents and students in government and private schools, SMCs are mostly good intentions without real benefits. India's education needs revolutionary ideas and not just extension of stale reforms based on the industrial-age mindset of antagonism between interests of parents and of the school management. One hopes that the NEP will begin to travel towards the 21st century India.