Secrets of South Mumbai Schools

There are several whispered stories about Mumbai’s elite schools doing the rounds. In what is considered to be the city’s best school, a talkative six year old is called to the front of the class and scotch tape is pasted on his mouth. In another the teachers of four year olds pace the class with wooden rulers in hand and in still another school, a hearing impaired child is marched to the Principal’s office and emerges with his hair cut off as punishment. Now let’s call this what it really is: Illegal. Corporal punishment is defined by India’s Right to Education Act (Section 17 (1) and (2) as physical and mental harassment and is definitely against the law. It is important to note here that the law envisions schools as safe spaces both physically and emotionally.

Yet the silence around humiliation or inappropriate teacher-student interaction is striking. While we are quick to criticize such punishment techniques in the city’s government run municipal schools, it seems we are more forgiving when it comes to prestigious schools. I have heard parents say, “True, the teacher is very strict, and my child too has been hit by her once. But what a strong academic foundation she provides!” So here is my question: Why is it that parents who can afford every single privilege for their children, do not feel it is their child’s right to have both a great education and a safe environment in school?

Could it possibly be that some of the most influential parent bodies are actually feeling disempowered? Could it be that some school systems intimidate and traditions perpetuate this? I remember the first day of school for my daughter. At the time she was three and a half years old (The school we had chosen is consistently rated one of Mumbai’s Top 5 schools in a survey by a leading newspaper. A survey I now disregard completely!). For hours, hundreds of parents and children stood in silent snaking lines as the Principal barked orders at us. When someone circulated a paper for telephone numbers of fellow parents, the Principal humiliated the parent publicly. That morning as our tiny children were called forward and led away to class in an amazingly prison-like ritual, the beautiful old school building reverberated with one emotion – fear. If that’s how we felt, you can only imagine what our kids were going through.

We stayed quiet and fearful all year long, scared that if we spoke up it would be taken out on our kids in class. I went for a parent teacher conference once and the teacher thought nothing of complaining bitterly to another parent about his child in my presence. Sure, she had good intentions and was concerned, but clearly had no respect for confidentiality. Maybe in her twenty-three years in school, she was never asked to respect the child’s privacy. Maybe it was not part of the school’s child protection policy or more likely there is no such policy at all. While such schools have dozens of rules about acceptable hairstyles, shoe styles and procedures for parents to ask for leave, there is little thought on child protection.

I want to be clear, I am not critiquing the lack of a formal child protection policy document. Rather am questioning why the best schools have not articulated their own philosophy around child protection. A year later when I pulled my daughter out of school I spoke my mind to the Principal and asked whether teachers had ever thought about the harsh environment in the school. She seemed vague, like she had other more important things to worry about. It also seemed that nobody had questioned this aspect of the school and thus she was simply not accountable to parents on this front.

Today as part of my child protection work at non-profit Aangan, we work with parents living in some of the most vulnerable communities across the country to prevent child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work and harm. Based on what I see one thing is clear: Parents who are have systematically been pushed down by burdens of debt bondage, caste systems, feudal hierarchy or gender discrimination can move mountains for their children’s protection –when they feel supported and empowered.

Across the country Aangan is working with groups of the poorest parents who have traditionally felt powerless but have seen things change when they got together and formed child protection groups. A musahar community in Bihar (traditionally the most marginalized dalit group) who would typically be frightened of police is now able to dialogue and make sure missing children reports are filed. Another migrant group in Mumbai worried about high rates of rape and assault have convinced police to patrol the neighborhood at night. A third group in Madhya Pradesh have moved from being too frightened to speak to school authorities about subtle caste based discrimination against their children to getting themselves onto school management committees. In Varanasi, parent groups are working with district authorities to get children out of hazardous work and into school. And the single binding factor to ensuring accountability from government and school authorities across all 39 locations where Aangan runs this parent child protection workers program (called PACT) is just that parents no longer feel isolated.

Perhaps this could serve as a bit of inspiration for parents of Mumbai’s elite schools. If you are thinking about the emotional environment or physical safety in school, you are probably not alone. Getting together, talking about it, supporting each other, prioritizing child protection, negotiating with school authorities – this could be a great place to start. It is just a matter of reminding ourselves that child safety/protection is a basic requirement in school – no less important than academics. Maybe you will get it on to PTA agenda, ask the school to develop a child protection policy, ensure a special teacher training or handbook on the issue, or activate a mechanism by which children feel heard (not a token student committee, but a working one!). There are several possible strategies and it does not have to be an aggressive process of formal complaint letters, lawyers or PILs! Rather starting a proactive dialogue with each other can ensure an environment of safety, free of harsh punishment or humiliation.

I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have found a wonderful school for my daughter. And while the facilities, teacher quality and pedagogy are all to be admired immensely – something else stands out too. In this school, we all feel heard and empowered. Whether it is children, teachers or parents. It is an accepting, open space, which in turn ensures that our children are learning in a safe, protected environment. Now this is not a lot to ask for – in fact it is the basic right of every child. But it takes a sturdy school policy, some deep thinking and huge amounts of commitment from teachers and that is what I love about this school.

Consider asking your school about a child protection policy suggest drafting one or ensure it is articulated in school policy. If it already exists, as parents you have every right to re-visit it, talk about it or tweak it. Do start the conversation in your school because every child has a right to feel safe. Everywhere. Every time.

The author Suparna Gupta is founder, Aangan an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like trafficking, hazardous work, child marriage and serious harm. She is an Ashoka fellow and Ford Foundation Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School.