When Viraj Kalra – a student of Class 6 in one of Lucknow’s oldest schools, La Martiniere Boys College, (LMBC, established 1845) was slapped hard by a teacher for having longer hair than permitted, his father Amish decided to take on the school, adding to the numbers of parents who are openly and often aggressively challenging school managements.

Kalra maintains that he was pushed into confrontation by the Principal’s supercilious attitude. “Instead of an apology he threatened me that my child would henceforth not be permitted to participate in any extracurricular activity”, he says. The harried father then complained to the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) which asked the school for an explanation. The school did not respond. Since it was closed for the summer break, a meeting with the Principal was not possible. Some sleepless nights later, Kalra decided to withdraw his child from the school to which admission is the prized dream of many a parent in Lucknow and beyond.

Viraj Kalra ( right) with his father Amish Kalra. Pic: Puja Awasthi

Kalra’s case illustrates the changing landscape of school-parent relationships. No longer are parents willing to pay any price for the brand value of what have traditionally been considered ‘good’ schools. Rather they are likelier to consider themselves paying clients with a right to demand good service.

An eco-system under strain

Clinical psychologist Krishna Kumar Dutt, who runs Asmita, a school for slow learners in Lucknow says, “The rise of consumerism has hit education and medical services the hardest. Parents perceive themselves as ‘purchasing’ education. They no longer accord the same kind of respect to schools as they did earlier. Instead they gloss over their own deficiencies – such as the lack of quality time with children by blaming schools for everything. The media also tends to highlight the problems of public schools much more without putting government schools under the same lens.

In all fairness, school managements are trying their best to cope. Shruti Singh, the principal of Mahanagar Girls’ College (established 1997, strength 800) says that the school has two dedicated counsellors to resolve parents’ complaints while she herself is available to parents at all times. Yet she despairs, “Parents have unnatural expectations of us. For instance, how do we ensure that a child has milk at home or does not spend too much time watching television?

While a rising awareness of child rights might have contributed to more vocal parents and increasingly responsive schools, many other factors are likely to have led to an often fraught relationship between schools and parents. The breakdown of the joint family for instance pushes parents into expecting schools to take on roles that were earlier fulfilled by members of the extended family.

This, however, is not necessarily a negative development as pointed out in Private Schooling in India: A New Educational Landscape, 2008 –an India Human Development Survey Working Paper. The paper credits the greater reliance of the middle class on non-government schools to increased school and teacher accountability and “improve(d) overall educational climate in public schools.”

Parents of children going to government school, too, are not immune from venting their displeasure though such instances might be rarer. For instance in July 2015, when more than 50 children of a government junior High School in Lucknow fell ill after consuming milk during the Mid Day Meal, angry parents responded by ransacking school property. However as Dutt points out, while there is no denying the rot in government schools, overall it is parents of public school going children who are more likely to complain and also garner greater media attention.

Shoma Ann, who has worked with top end schools for five years as a counsellor, attributes the growing number of complaints to over-protective parents. "Even though parents have lesser time with their children they are exposed to such an overload of information that they tend to be over protective and overreact at the slightest hint of change in their children".

She also says that children recognise the parenting style they are subjected to and manipulate parents accordingly. "A child who knows that her parent's ‘no’ will turn into a ‘yes’ after some time will act in a manner that elicits the yes. Parents have to realise there is a boundary children cannot be permitted to cross".

Ann explains this with the example of a hyperactive boy she came across. His parents grouse against the school was that his grades were falling, while teachers complained of his aggressive behaviour in class. It was only after detailed conversations with the boy and his parents that Ann got to the root of the issue – a submissive mother who would allow the son to beat her up causing the boy to deduce that such behaviour was acceptable and could be taken beyond the home. "Such matters have to be tackled with great sensitivity", she emphasises.

In all of this, what comes to the fore is a steady degradation of mutual trust and respect between schools and parents. It is in response to the steady stream of complaints from various quarters that Juhie Singh, the chairperson of UP’s SCPCR is pushing to make public schools more responsive and transparent in their functioning by disclosing their fee structure, not failing children till class 8 and doing away with corporal punishment (the latter two being key provisions of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, RTE). She says that the Commission’s experience has been that some schools remain ‘insensitive’ and ‘unresponsive’.

Juhie Singh, the chairperson of UP’s SCPCR. Pic: Puja Awasthi

Using the LMBC case to illustrate she says, “Since children from elite families study in well established public schools and their boards are also influential, they tend to disregard our suggestions. In this case for instance, the school lost sight of the fact that the Commission’s only interest was in giving both sides an equal chance to put forth their sides of the story”.

Private schools

From admission rules to fee structures, private schools have routinely earned criticism for being arbitrary even though they have stepped in to plug in some gaps of the rapidly decaying government school system. Yet parents flock to these mainly for the tag of privilege rather than the quality of education which anyway has been called into question by many studies, including the 2011 Quality Education Study by Wipro and Educational Initiatives (see here) which found that students from 89 ‘top’ schools of the country demonstrated a reliance on rote learning while displaying ‘lower sensitivity’ and ‘lack of progressive thought’ on issues related to gender equality, acceptance of diversity and in civic responsibilities.

Manjula Goswami, the principal of the Lucknow branch of Millennium School believes that it is no longer possible for schools to hold parents to ransom. “The days of such monopoly are over. We have an active redress mechanism and aim to resolve parent complaints within 24 hours. Parents who enrol their children in certain schools simply for the brand value and take nonsense in turn need to look inwards”, she says.

Take the case of Kulsum Talha as an example. Talha, a journalist and a single mother took on another prestigious Lucknow school – St Francis’ College (SFC, established 1885) in 2012 when her son, captain of his school’s cricket team, with two others, was denied permission to sit for the class 12 board exam on the alleged ground that his attendance fell short of the 60 percent mandated by the Council for Indian School Certificate (CISC). This information was relayed to the parent on a Saturday evening – just three days before the practical exams were to start.

Convinced that there was some mischief at work, Talha approached the High Court and got an interim relief order that permitted the boys to take the exam. The school challenged the order and when a two judge bench at the Lucknow bench of the High Court upheld the judgement, it went to the Supreme Court which also ruled in Talha’s favour. Her tenacity led to the calling of the class attendance registers by the court and she noted that attendance was marked even for Sundays and that her son had been listed absent for those days when he was playing cricket for the school!

Stung by the judgement, the SFC management responded by withholding the results of the boys as a consequence of which they could not apply for admissions to any colleges till it was too late. Talha ultimately had to fork out an exorbitant fee to get her son through the management quota in a Pune college.

She says that the experience destroyed her mental peace, caused her to lose work and ate into her son’s confidence. Most importantly however she regrets that the larger issues of the case, for instance who is responsible for monitoring the child once he is inside the school and why examination fees are charged six months before the board exams while decisions on students’ eligibility for the exam are taken much later, were paid scant attention by her media peers, upholding Dutt’s earlier observation of the media’s greater interest in sensationalism rather than a deeper examination of issues.

Had my son been prevented from taking his exam there is no saying which direction his life would have taken. I had attended every single parent teacher meeting, yet his attendance was never mentioned. We are part of the system that makes schools run, yet we have no voice in that system”, says Talha.

Nutan Thakur, a Lucknow-based RTI activist and advocate, currently fighting a case against SFC for a child in class 8 who has been failed says that tedious legal recourse often does not work as schools resort to hair splitting definitions when challenged. In this case, for example, SFC has argued that as a minority institution, the provisions of the RTE are not applicable to it. “The minority defence that schools use is applicable only to administrative matters”, explains Thakur. “While the Supreme Court has ruled that schools are profit making entities, what certain prestigious schools do can only be labelled as extortion. Few parents are willing to confront them”, she adds.

The other side

However, in several cases it is also the school authorities that are at the receiving end. Nalini Sharad, had been a principal for six years at a branch of Lucknow’s famed City Montessori School (established 1959) when a student of class 9 committed suicide in 2011. The parents alleged that this was a consequence of Sharad having scolded the boy and forcibly taken down his pants. A media furore ensued and the parents filed a case against Sharad.

Two years after she retired, Sharad is still fighting the case. Though unwilling to say much she points to the police investigation (the report of which was rejected by the court) which gave her a clean chit. Media reports from the period had also quoted the boy’s friends and neighbours to suggest that the deceased was petrified of his father – a policeman, and could have taken the step to escape his wrath after poor exam results.

Vijai Singh Yadav, chairman of the CBSE-affiliated The Avadh School emphasises that students and parents often make frivolous complaints against schools. “When we ask parents to come and discuss disciplinary issues, we have mothers trying to shield their children. Students are our responsibility during school hours, but we find it impossible to tackle the indiscipline they inculcate at home. It is easy to blame the school”, he says pointing to cases where parents forge transfer certificates for admissions and where influential people call to interfere in matters such as the awarding of marks and the payment of fees that are strictly the school’s domain.

Madhusudan Dixit vice president of the Independent Schools federation of India – a nationwide association of CBSE and CISCE affiliated schools, points to the lack of communication between parents and school authorities as the key cause for many of the problems that plague public schools. Dixit says that while the association aims to help teachers, school managements and parents through constant dialogue, it is approached only sporadically.

School managements will come to us only when harassed by the government or its departments like water and electricity. Parents will not attend school meetings, yet expect us to jump in when their wards face problem. Teachers are only interested in salary issues. This has led to gaps in communication and a very knee jerk approach to tackling issues”, says Dixit who has served for 20 years in the state’s education department.

Clearly then, while open communication is an important step towards more sensitive schooling, the country’s elite schools must realise that the imperviousness that served to bolster their reputation in the past can only knock it down in the present while parents will have to realise that schooling cannot be limited to schools.