Is School a Safe place for children?

Spokey Wheeler

By Spokey Wheeler
International Director, Adhyayan

When my youngest son was 7, and I was the headteacher of a secondary school in Germany, we all went to the Eiffel Mountains for the weekend. What should have been a great few days turned into a nightmare. Ned was difficult and unhappy all the time we were there but he wouldn’t talk to us, he couldn’t tell. It wasn’t until Sunday night as we put him to bed that it all came out in shuddering gouts of tears.

My son has a quick brain but he used to write slowly because he wanted so much to do things properly. On Friday just before we left for the mountains, his teacher had told him that unless he wrote faster and finished his work, she would lock him in the classroom cupboard. He had worried all weekend about what would happen when he returned on Monday morning. I was at first outraged but, most of all, I was upset for my son. How was it possible for his teacher to so frighten him when it was her job to take care of him?

The stories of abuse of children, and the dereliction of duty of some teachers, are far too common on the pages of Indian newspapers. In this past week alone, I have read about four alleged incidents, and I have only read three editions and the Adhyayan Facebook page. The first concerns the alleged humiliation of children whose hair was clipped by school staff to set them apart from the rest of the children. The reason: the school had been forced to enroll them in response to the government’s Right to Education act, which requires non-state schools to enroll 25% of its children from state schools. And then there were two stories about teachers threatening children to drink their own urine. The allegations were both responses to children’s incontinence—the first to bed wetting, and the second following loss of control of the child whilst allegedly being beaten up by three of his teachers.

The final article described a campaign by ‘Social Jurist’, a campaigning organization, which got children in Delhi state schools to write postcards revealing what school life was like for them. Reading the children’s handwritten postcards, cards which one usually associates with holidays and happiness, made their plight more poignant, and the need for action immediate. I applaud their enlightened post card campaign to give wronged children a voice.

With incidents such as these regularly headlined on the front pages of national newspapers, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to put one’s self in the place of these children as they contemplate the prospect of (not) going to school tomorrow – of how they feel when they wake up still gripped by their classroom nightmare, but with their eyes wide open and school just around the corner.

As a parent, I don’t know how I would deal with my child’s distress if as a parent I myself was intimidated by the head teacher, and maybe not even allowed into the school without his permission. At least when my son had a problem, I was able to phone up the School’s principal that Sunday evening, and make certain that he would ensure my son’s teacher understood what it was she had done wrong so that I was able to persuade him back into school on Monday morning.

When as teachers we talk about the bullying of children by children, we often use the phrase ‘It is good to tell’. Why is it that we don’t take the same enlightened approach when the bullies are their teachers? Why is it that so many teachers turn a blind eye to what is going on in the classroom next door? There should be no place in our schools, either for those who inflict cruelty and humiliation on our children or those, especially the principals, who collude by remaining silent and doing nothing. And as these newspaper articles confirm, such behaviours are in no way limited to the state school sector.

Is it possible for such overt prejudice and abuse to take place either sanctioned by the principal or without their knowledge? In only one of these schools did the principal take action against teachers, but even then sought to justify their actions by the student’s behaviours. And one of these schools is attached to a higher education institute. The spokesperson there suggested that drinking one’s own urine was medicinally beneficial.

Clearly these incidents make one question the nature of a school culture in which such actions are accepted or ignored by one’s colleagues. The problem is that we don’t know just how many schools in India there are like this. While there are many examples of wonderful leadership, the difficulty is that we just don’t know how many schools there are in which what could be described as casual abuse take place.

And that is my purpose in writing. While there are no panaceas for transforming overnight the dysfunctional behaviours of some Indian teachers, school leaders and even boards, implementing strategies to improve the quality of school leadership could have far-reaching impact. As yet we have no means of telling just how many such schools exist, nor are there professional standards for leadership to promote what good school leadership should look like. And we don’t have the benefit of a Hippocratic oath, which as teachers, we are required to take, nor a Teaching Council which deals with those who breach it.

We are, I believe, on the cusp of change. There is a growing recognition that pedagogical and cultural leadership are central to the role of principals. The Government of India has begun a major initiative on the transformation of teacher education. So what might help to accelerate the development of real school leadership?

At a systemic level, there is a strong argument for developing a national training programme for aspiring and existing school leaders, focused particularly on leading teaching and learning. If there were more principals like the one I watched in a Mumbai boy’s school taking his regular learning walks around the school, the sort of abuse described above would be much less common. By being out in the corridor, by spending time in the classrooms, he or she can take the temperature of their school at any time of the day. The bonus is that by being often in classrooms, it is probable that the quality of teaching, learning and achievement will be enhanced as well as children’s safety.

But school leadership does not rest solely on the shoulders of principals Education committees already have legal governance duties for both state and private schools. Their powers and their opportunity to influence school leaders is considerable. A number of programmes already exist for training Village education committees to support them in their leadership of their community school. Most importantly there is an increasing trend for parents to be appointed to such committees. There is evidence of very good Indian and international practice that could be adopted at state, private network and school level to improve governance.

At Adhyayan, we are viscerally committed to helping transform the lives and learning of children by focusing on leadership and on quality. The Adhyayan Quality Standard trains schools to review their own effectiveness, and then awards them a quality standard to reflect their achievement as a school. One of the six domains by which we judge a school’s effectiveness is ‘Leadership and Management’. It is not possible to be identified as achieving ‘good’ by international, national, state or local standard if the quality of leadership and management is not good. This is underpinned by international research evidence that the leadership of the principal is critical to the effectiveness of the school.