Why not rate schools on how safe they are?

Bengaluru hit the headlines when a series of child abuse incidents were reported.

Update: 2017-09-20 19:44 GMT
Students arrive at Gurugram's Ryan International School which re-opened on Monday after 10 days closure following the murder of an eight-year-old boy inside a toilet of the school. (Photo: PTI)

No one knows the exact number of out-of-school children in India. Estimates vary. One estimate claims it’s around 84 million. That’s the number of children who should be going to school but aren’t This is more than Germany’s entire population. To point out that India would be a different place if these children got a decent school education is stating the obvious.

But here’s the catch. What sort of education will a child imbibe if h/she doesn’t feel safe “going to school”? How to instil love of learning in a place where a murderer, rapist, bully or vicious people may be lurking?

The recent murder of a seven-year-old allegedly by the school bus conductor in Gurgaon and the rape of a five-year-old girl in a Delhi school brought the spotlight back on the dangerous side of India’s schools. Both these savageries took place inside school premises, supposedly a safe zone. 

A few years ago, Bengaluru hit the headlines when a series of child abuse incidents were reported. In just four months, three cases came to light, including the sexual assault of a six-year-old child.

These crimes against children across India aren’t just morally repugnant and shameful, they also impact the narrative India is trying to tell the world about itself. Children are the future of any country. If children aren’t safe inside schools, what does it say about the shape of the future to come?

So what’s to be done? The short answer: plenty.

Clearly, what happens to a child inside a school is the school’s responsibility. There is no getting away from this and education regulatory bodies must make sure that schools which have been lackadaisical about prioritising basic safety measures don’t get away. 

We know what must be done. There are Supreme Court guidelines; these must be implemented. Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi recently said: “Those dealing with children, including teachers, bus drivers and conductors, peons, and others need to go through adequate background checks before being hired.”

But equally important, he said, was empowering parent-teacher associations (PTA). In these hyper-competitive and aspirational times, many parents are afraid to speak up for fear of how their words will impact their child. Getting one’s child into a halfway decent school is akin to running a marathon, and parents are reluctant to be vocal about lapses. They shouldn’t be. 

Parents have mobilised on issues like school fee hikes. But safety is non-negotiable. Nothing is more valuable than a child’s safety, and parents have to be engaged, be alert and pressure the school administration, if needs be, using the PTA as a platform to raise any concerns they have.

All schools aren’t bad. We must learn good practices wherever we find them. We must also compare safety practices. 

When my daughter was small, we, the parents, used to take turns accompanying children in their school bus. Parents alerted the school administration if the bus driver was speeding, or doing anything remotely reckless. Our turn came once every five or six weeks, but even working parents didn’t mind juggling their schedules for their “bus duty”. 

The school also had stringent rules about small children not loitering here and there after class. A lady attendant made them stand in a queue. 

One by one, they got into the school bus. And no one, not even a parent, was allowed to enter the school without an ID card which specified the name of the ward and other details. Good schools elsewhere have similar practices.

There is no reason why every school can’t adapt these practices. There can be no compromise on mandatory background checks of anyone dealing with children.

Currently, schools across India have different guidelines and laws on safety measures. But what we need is one comprehensive protocol covering all key areas regarding safety and security in schools and that is enforced.

What are the areas parents must look out for while choosing a school and even after their child is admitted in a school? 

In no specific order, here are some thoughts. As parents, it’s very important to make sure the school has basic minimum medical facilities to cater to a child who suddenly falls ill. There must be a dedicated vehicle to take a child to a hospital in case of an emergency. 

Schools must do thorough background checks of every one who deals with children, including bus drivers who may be on contract. Any complaint must be immediately addressed and steps taken. These must be shared with parents at platforms like the PTA. 

Transport safety is also a critical area. The Supreme Court has issued guidelines for school buses. Parents must monitor if the schools are following them. School buildings need to be safe. A recent news report said students in 4,870 state schools in 10 Assam districts have been attending classes in unsafe buildings. The school buildings don’t conform to safety norms required to withstand natural calamities like earthquakes.

Child abuse is the biggest worry and parents must keep regular tabs on whether schools are addressing this. Despite all the squeamishness that still exists about sex education in India, I believe children should be taught about “bad and good touch” even when they are very small. 

It’s good to read the Delhi government is planning to install CCTVs in all classrooms in its schools. But installation by itself is only the first step. Such mechanisms should be maintained and monitored.

Technology can help but parents should demand to know if schools have made sure police verification is done of both teaching and non-teaching staff. The bus itself must also be fit to be on the road.

So here’s a suggestion. Schools are rated on many indicators. What about including safety measures in that list? Why not a rating of schools based on their child safety practices?

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