Shanthi* works as a housekeeper and is the primary breadwinner for her home, which includes two children, aged 6 and 10. Given her limited income, she tells me that she sends them to the local government school in the neighbourhood. Valiamma*, a middle-aged lady, works as a cook in the same household as Shanthi. She also has two children she says, who have completed schooling from a budget private school in Chennai. 

Shanthi says she is ridden with guilt that she is unable to send her children to a private school, where she believes the quality of education would be infinitely better than a government school. Valiamma laments the fact that despite toiling to ensure her children received an expensive private education, they can barely communicate in English. This is beginning to affect their job prospects. This is a typical story where both parents want the best for their children. 

In the last three articles of this series, Madhi unpacked the complexities and lacunae in the supply of public education, which include: the lack of contextual relevance in our textbooks, the ineffectiveness of teacher training models, and the need for stronger data-based governance structures.

However, what is often ignored in this conversation is the considerations of the demand side of public education. Simply put: how does the awareness, aspirations, and participation of parents affect the quality of education their children receive?

In our preoccupation as a society with making teachers the heroes or villains of a child’s education, we have completely sidelined parents as critical stakeholders in the education system and stripped them of their right to demand better for their children. 

Expecting the system to care for a child entirely without any involvement from parents is unrealistic. It only emboldens the ‘suppliers’ of education to take advantage of power imbalances by packaging and selling bad education to parents under a shiny wrapper.

To What Extent Can Parents Influence the Education System?

Global evidence on the impact of parental education and involvement on children’s learning has unequivocally established a positive correlation between the two. Even in developing countries where parental educational levels are low, there is ample evidence to suggest that significant gains can be made in children’s learning levels when parents ensure a reasonably convenient learning environment and routine at home.

Yet, we see that much of education reform globally is focused only on the supply side of education, with only the occasional effort to focus on parents as critical enablers of children’s learning. 

As with anything to do with delivery of services to children, this is possibly because the principal-agent dichotomy affects Indian education the most: the parent decides what education a child should receive, and pays for it. More often than not, given the information asymmetry on education that exists, these decisions are not necessarily based on factors such as quality and outcomes, but are driven by community influence, and in many cases, simply by access.

The demand for education, therefore, is not driven by informed choices but almost by a sense of obligation to send children to ‘some school’. One could then argue that without improving the quality of demand from parents, the Indian education system will continue to suffer from a lack of accountability, and will deliver substandard education under the facade of quality and equity.

To seemingly address this state of affairs in India, the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 ushered in a new era of parental involvement in matters of education by recommending the setting up of School Management Committees (SMCs) in every government funded school. SMCs are primarily tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the quality of education in the school, along with ensuring proper financial planning and management. As per the RTE, 75% of the SMC needs to be comprised of parent representatives, while the remaining 25% may be drawn from teachers, local community members, and local educationists. In some cases, students were also reserved a place in the SMC. 

However, several studies undertaken in the past decade of the RTE’s implementation have painted the same dismal picture on SMCs, year after year. While the government’s U-DISE statistics state that nearly 97% of all government schools in India have an SMC in place, these studies flag the defunctness and limited operations of SMCs country-wide. Again, this is an all too familiar story of institution frameworks being available, but their implementation being shoddy and ineffective.

More importantly, the state of SMCs also reflect the various structural barriers inhibiting parental involvement in education in India. Improving the quality of demand for education requires addressing these first.

What Factors Might Prevent Indian Parents From Engaging With ‘Quality’ Education?

Most parents want the best for their children. But, without being able to define what ‘the best’ or ‘good’ quality of education ought to look like, parents are caught in a web of information asymmetry, and are forced to repose blind faith in the school’s intentions to do the ‘best’ for their child.

To understand why this is a problem, contrast this situation with a child’s health. Most parents are able to spot red flags in their child’s wellbeing within the first 24 months of their infancy. In case of severe developmental delays, it is almost a given that a parent would consult a doctor out of extreme concern. Yet, how is it that the same parent is unable to spot similar gaps when it comes to their child’s foundational learning, despite such gaps being obvious and significant?

When asked on how she became aware of her child’s physical development milestones, Kowsalya*, a parent to a 5-year-old in Chennai, said, “as a parent I often heard these milestones being discussed at home among the women of the family. It somehow became common knowledge. Similar conversations about learning or cognitive development do not find a place in such discussions.” In our experiences at Madhi, to the question “how do you know your child is learning well?” most parents from low income and low education demographics are most likely to tell you, “they score decent marks.” Parental awareness around foundational learning milestones—such as their ability to read or perform mathematical operations—is far from universal.

Clearly, while a parent is surrounded by family elders who are only too aware of toddler milestones, the same information about learning often does not get passed on informally within families or social networks.

Such scenarios, in our experience, are complicated by the family dynamics that exist in low income families, that sometimes make it extremely challenging for parents to have a close watch over their child’s learning. Many children in such households are primarily under the care of their grandparents who, apart from tending to children’s very basic needs, may not be able to actively contribute to their children’s learning and hence may not be aware of learning gaps that exist.

“Both parents work outside the home and the child invariably is raised by the grandmother, who is unable to support the child with homework. How will children from such families do well academically then?” asks Saraswathy*, a primary school teacher at a public school in Chennai. “As teachers, we can only do so much since parents play a bigger role in the child’s formative years. We see many children with different behavioural issues because of this.”

Families that send their children to English-medium private schools grapple with a different kind of challenge—of not being able to support their children’s learning due to the language barrier. 

Even if parents are literate and fluent in their mother tongue, English-medium education effectively excludes them from being able to support their children, further distancing them from their child’s learning. While parents send their children to English-medium schools in order to afford their children better education, they inadvertently end up removing themselves entirely from their child’s learning journey.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that parents from low income and socially disadvantaged communities are at times unable to significantly influence demand for better quality education because of the inherent power structures that exist within the school system: between the educated and the nonliterate, the powerful and the powerless, the middle class and the low income class, and in many cases, the upper and the lower caste. When parents challenge the system, they often find that the system challenges them back.

“If we question the teacher, we get told that it is our fault that the child is not learning well. Then, the child gets singled out in class by the teacher and is scolded or admonished often,” says Ambika*, a parent of a seven-year-old attending a government school in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district. 

Our experiences at Madhi indicate that such instances are especially visible in public school settings, where parents are made to believe the school is doing them a favour by offering ‘free’ education. Of course, there is often little time and space for them to argue that public education isn’t free, but state funded!

Getting More Parents Involved 

Despite the many barriers mentioned here, there are reasons enough for both State and society to reactivate parents as critical stakeholders in their children’s education. A systematic and concerted effort to help parents demand better quality of education is the need of the hour. 

For such a shift to take place, focusing on the ‘3 As’ will help mobilise parents as active secondary consumers of quality education.

Awareness: The government and NGOs together  should raise parental awareness on critical learning development milestones that young children must attain, to be able to capitalise on them in later years. While the parent community places great emphasis on the 10th and 12th school leaving Board exams, the relative apathy for and a lack of awareness on early childhood education must be urgently addressed. An intensive information campaign must be undertaken to sensitise parents about the importance of foundational education and of children attaining age appropriate milestones.

Acceptance: Few parents wish to admit that their child has learning difficulties or that they aren’t doing well in school. In our experiences at Madhi, the stigma associated with having a child with any kind of disability is so overwhelming for Indian parents that they would rather not acknowledge that such gaps that exist. However, if armed with the awareness of what learning milestones are, and surrounded by public messages about the need to identify such gaps early, a parent may gradually grow to accept their child’s learning gaps. As they say, acknowledging that a problem exists is almost as good as winning half the battle.

Action: Quite often, despite being aware of a child’s learning gaps, parents feel quite lost and incapable when it comes to supporting them. This need not be the case. Whether literate, non-literate, or semi-literate, it is possible for all parents to play an active role in their child’s learning by implementing simple routines at home with consistency. Social media can be leveraged in a big way to disseminate such information at scale. If aware of learning milestones and cognizant of the gaps in their child’s learning, a parent is more likely to have informed discussions with teachers, rather than being a passive listener during parent-teacher conversations.

Through Project Math and Language Achievers (MALA)—a pilot programme being launched by Madhi as part of Tamil Nadu’s State Foundational Learning Mission—we hope to address the awareness gaps among parents on the importance of foundational learning, while co-opting them as critical stakeholders in improving their children’s foundational learning skills. The programme will deploy mass outreach and community engagement strategies on a large scale to improve the quality of demand from parents and ensure that they are empowered with the tools to actively participate in their child’s learning. We think programs like these—that provide simple packets of information on ‘quality education’ to parents—could help improve parental involvement.

Shanthi was given a worksheet by Madhi, with a few words, sentences, and sums written on it. She took it home, confident that her children would be able to read and complete the sums in no time. She came back to us, sharing that neither of her children could read fluently or do the sums. However, one heard the resolve in Shanthi’s voice as she said, “I have spoken to their tuition teacher and told her that she must focus on strengthening the basics. I am also going to make them read to me every week and do one sum and show me. Can you help me with [preparing] a sheet like this every week?”

And there you have it: awareness, acknowledgement, and the will to act to challenge the status quo. If a piece of paper could spark off something so potentially transformative, one can only imagine what a national or regional campaign can do to invigorate parents and make them take charge of their child’s education. The possibilities are endless.

For more on how to reform India’s education system, curated by The Bastion and the Madhi Foundation under ‘The Five Tenets of Education Reform’, click here


Featured image courtesy of United Kingdom Department for International Development/Pippa Ranger (CC BY 2.0).

Merlia Shaukath is an alumna of Stella Maris College, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of Oxford. She comes with 10 years of experience in the development sector with leadership roles in organisations like Teach For India and Athena Infonomics. As the founder and CEO of Madhi Foundation, Merlia believes that access to quality early childhood education is the greatest leveler against social inequity and is committed to working towards eliminating the Foundational Learning Crisis in India.

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