Community Participation in School Management: Reasons it May Not Work in India
By: V Santhakumar
There are arguments that favour enhancing the participation of the community (which includes parents) in the management or affairs of schools, especially those that are government-controlled or -aided. Such participation in education is seen1 as a way to increase resources, improve accountability of schools to the community they serve, ensure a more cost-effective use of resources and, more importantly, be responsive to local needs. In the end, such participation is expected to improve equitable access, retention, quality and performance of schools.
Community participation is not a new idea or practice. Historically, communities have played an important role in the provision and management of schools in different parts of the world and these were mediated through church or caste/ethnic associations or civil society groups2. In many parts of India too, parents or members of the community have provided land or other resources for the setting up of government schools3. It is on the basis of this that development organisations are actively advocating structured community participation in the management of schools.
There have been numerous attempts in various countries to enhance the participation of communities in the affairs of schools either through the School Management Committees (SMCs), the Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) or local governments. There is a sizable literature documenting these attempts. The overall experience in this regard is mixed in many developing countries including India. An exhaustive review of this literature can be seen in Dunne et al (2007). It quotes studies which have noted that the decentralization of critical decision-making in school development has produced certain desirable outcomes. These include, local government and communities taking up responsibility for building classrooms, hiring contract teachers, or raising funds for school infrastructure development. This was found to be the case in India too (PROBE 1999).
Studies have also noted that in places where the communities do not participate in these forums, the demand for schooling is also lower. The predominant features of these parents or communities are poverty, poor parental attitudes, low literacy, seasonal occupations, the use of non-school language at home and long distance to schools. There is poor community involvement where the PTAs or the SMCs are not formed or are inactive despite the government mandate (PROBE, 1999; Heystek, 2003; Ahmed and Nath, 2005). In summary, according to Dunne et al (2007) studies reveal very little celebration of the positive impact of decentralization policy in terms of shifting responsibility for critical decision-making to lower levels of government, institutions and local people. The most optimistic outcome of the decentralization policy in developing countries, according to them, is the creation of awareness and increase in local concern and action to address problems of education at the local level.
There have been attempts to explain the reasons for the differential performance of community participation in different contexts. According to Dunne et al (2007), community participation in schooling works well in the rare instances where there is a good understanding and relation between schools, communities and local educational authorities, operating within a stable social context with a history of community mobilization and a genuine commitment to community decision-making.
In this context, this essay makes an attempt to see whether such community participation in schooling can lead to expected benefits given the kind of fragmentation that exists in Indian society and also the differences in demand for schooling4 among various social groups. It will not be at all surprising if this analysis points to the fact that the community participation in schooling is not very effective in India. The crucial lesson is that the advocacy for community participation in the affairs of schooling should be based on a sound analysis of the local social structure, including the differences in the demand for schooling among different socio-economic groups.
2. Social Intervention in Schooling – Where do Communities fit in?
If the children from certain households are not in school, it may imply that either their parents cannot afford or that they are not interested in using schooling for their children. Can these situations be corrected by the involvement of the local community?
In a scenario where parents cannot afford but are interested in schooling for their children, others in the society could bear their cost of schooling. But in general, such cost sharing is only likely to be successful if it involves a wider society. For example, if 50% of the students in a village cannot afford schooling, if may be difficult for the remaining 50% to bear this cost, but it may be possible for a state government to mobilize resources towards attaining this objective.
In the other scenario, where a large section of the society is not interested in schooling and encourages children to take up jobs of unskilled workers, there is also very little that the society can do. This is because these sections of the society that are not using schooling are either clustered together in a locality or are fragmented in such a way that the schooling achievements of others fail to motivate them (Santhakumar et al, 2016). It may, therefore, be unrealistic to expect the local community to address the issue of lack of demand for schooling. It will require the intervention of the state/national government (which may enforce a mandatory schooling policy) in participation with national and international NGOs interested in this cause.
How children learn, what they should be taught or what the methods of teaching (specific subjects) should be, are also matters that cannot be left to the discretion of the parents or the community. These require the intervention of the national or state governments. Given the diversity of our country in terms of its vastness, differences in social and economic development, culture and languages, it is desirable to have a national (or a state) level framework of education which may not involve the local communities5.
The local communities may also not have a role in fixing examination (Board) standards or monitoring teachers. If a teacher deviates from ethical or professional behaviour (related to testing, evaluation or in terms of the behaviour towards specific categories of students like girls), the monitoring must be carried out by peers. It may not be desirable or possible for the local community to play a role in this, other than complaining to the head-teachers or higher-level functionaries when such a case comes to their notice.
What about community-owned or managed schools instead of government schools? This is taken up in the following section.
3. The Merits and Demerits of Community-Owned or Controlled Schools
Community-managed schools can only meet the needs of people if they are in a position to demand what they need and if the demands are in consonance with `quality schooling’ as determined by the framework of education. Considering that a significant section of the Indian society does not have the full demand for schooling (discussed in Santhakumar et al, 2015), it is more likely that their `real needs’ may be overlooked in these community-owned schools.
Many communities may not be able to meet the full cost of schooling but it is expected that the national or the state governments will meet these costs partially or fully. However, this requires contracting between the state and the community schools and there can be a number of issues in such contracting which have been discussed in Notes of Strategy: Need to Strengthen Government Schools in India in this series. Monitoring the community schools so that they meet the standards set by the governments, is also not easy. For example, the schools may appoint teachers who do not meet the standards set by the government especially if the standard demanded by the community is lower than those considered desirable by the state. Or where communities decide to pay lower salaries to teachers, there could be problems related to the motivation of the teachers.
If teachers’ salaries are given directly by the state, but the right to appoint teachers is given to the community, the community they may not adhere to the standards desired by the state government. This was the case with the panchayath-managed schools in Kerala. So, either the state government has to make additional arrangements to regulate the appointment of teachers or they have to take over this function in order to control the possible malpractices in these appointments by the community managers.
Community schools are like not-for-profit schools, which have played an important role in the spread of schooling, but as is argued elsewhere (Notes of Strategy: Need to Strengthen Government Schools in India) that they should be seen as complementary to government schools. The ideology of schooling in a local community need not be in tune with the objectives of the society at large. This is especially so when the levels of human development in most parts of the country are lower than desirable. Parental ideas or norms about a desirable education are more likely to be influenced by their socio-economic standing. Hence, the prevailing `ideology’ in a community may determine the nature of schooling in community-run schools, and these need not necessarily be adequate to achieve the goals of the larger society with respect to education6.
What happens if the communities have to bear a part of the cost of schooling which may have to come from parents? This may lead to a segregation of parents into those who can afford to pay and those who cannot. However, it has been noted that the communities which are expected to contribute financially to government schools are often those which cannot (Dunne et al, 2007). Many parents may not be able to contribute even if it is for non-tuition purpose or if the contribution is voluntary. This inability to contribute may result in disaffection and dropout. On the other hand, if the schooling is provided by the limited resources that can be mobilized by the local communities, it may have an impact on the quality of education.
Hence, it may be necessary for many community schools to get financial support from the state or external agencies. Even without such a financial support, there is a need for the government to regulate the functioning of the schools. This may require some intrusive regulations or monitoring on the part of the government which may not be liked by the communities, which may resist it or gradually lose interest in the affairs of the schools.
4. Ways in Which Communities can Contribute
Based on the discussions in the previous sections, we know that it is not desirable for communities especially in countries like India to have a major direct role in the design of the education policy, curriculum development and teacher hiring. This is also true for the payment of teachers, textbook design and teacher training. Certification is also a role which cannot be left to the communities. The desirable contribution of the community would include mobilizing minor resources; monitoring the construction of buildings and other infrastructure and their maintenance; the distribution of textbooks and other items. Another role for communities in India is to encourage all parents to send their children to schools on a regular basis until the completion of a final grade. This is so since a significant number of Indian parents do not have adequate demand for schooling to ensure that their children not only enrol but also attend, and learn (Santhakumar et al, 2016). Do the communities have the incentives to carry out these minimal and/or feasible roles, is the issue analysed in the following paragraphs.
4.1 Social Fragmentation and Community Participation
For the purpose of the discussion here, I have divided the Indian society into three hypothetical categories.
Category A: The middle and upper-middle-class section of the society which wants education for their children and can afford, if necessary, to bear the full cost of it.
Category B: The lower middle-class and a section of the poorer households (for example, those in the urban areas) which see education as the main determinant of upward social and economic mobility; however, these sections may not be able to afford the full cost of a `quality’ private school.
Category C: The poorer people (mainly from the so-called vulnerable social groups) and sections of peasants (or those who are involved in occupations such as cattle rearing). As argued in Santhakumar et al (2016), these people may not have the full demand for education, that is, no interest in either sending their children to school or ensuring that they complete all grades, learn and benefit from schooling. They do not seem to consider the completion of schooling or higher education as an advantage in earning livelihoods or in the welfare of their children. This category includes those parents who want their boys to be educated but not their girls.
Before going further with this analysis, we may note that education is affected by peers, along with other factors within and outside the classroom. This is known to the parents who want their children to be educated. Hence, there is a preference for a `better’ peer group among the parents. In general, the category A would like to have peers from their own section of the society. The category B would wish to send their children to a school, if possible, populated by the students belonging to category A. The nature of peers may not be a major consideration for parents belonging to the category C, since they may not be concerned about the factors that have a positive impact on learning/education. However, parents belonging to the A and B categories may not prefer to have the majority of peers of their child from category C7.
This may create a complex situation if the catchment of a school is a locality where all three categories reside (although this is not likely to be a common feature of localities in India, especially its rural areas.). It may create a tendency for the category A to prefer schools which cater mainly to their own children or needs. Given that government schools cannot have a policy of exclusion, these parents may not opt for government schools and would prefer one or other kind of private schools in India8.
Though the category B parents may prefer to send their children to those schools used by category A, there may be different outcomes: (1) some of the parents may do so, probably with a severe strain on their finances; (2) some may send their children to lower-rated, lower-cost private schools where most of the children come from category B; (3) yet another section of parents may send their children to government schools, but not too happily. The parents belonging to category C if at all they do, would send their children to government schools.
In the context of rural India, we would need to consider the following three possible situations:
(a) areas where most parents come from category B
(b) areas that have both B and C
(c) localities which have only category C
Given the level of enrolment in private schools in India, it seems reasonable to think that most children belonging to category A have already shifted out of government schools. In cases of (a) there could be a higher incentive for the category B parents to participate in schooling not only because they have an interest in the education of their children but also because their participation is not affected by the indifference of the category C. This may be the reason for the relatively higher participation of parents in the affairs of government schools in states like Kerala (since the share of category C there is very low).
On the other hand, there could be different kinds of `collective action’ problems in the other two situations. In places where both B and C use the government school, lack of full demand for education among category C may create a number of complexities. It may lead to the presence of a set of students (C category) who are not motivated by their parents to be in school and this set could be less preferred as peers by the parents of category B for their children. There can be conflicts between these two groups on what needs to be done to improve the schooling on the part of parents, and it may lead to either non-participation and gradual marginalization of the category C and community participation getting limited to category B. This may reflect in the functioning of committees like PTAs or SMCs. These committees may become more active if people who participate in these fora want schooling (or better schooling) for their children. Such participation then becomes part of exercising the ‘voice option’ to get better quality public service. It may also encourage parents to contribute a part of their resources or their political/social capital to improve the facilities in the school.
The other possibility is that there can be an exclusion of C category children. This could be aggravated by the fact that they may be different from the others not only in terms of the demand for education but also along the lines of caste, religion, etc. There is evidence of this in other parts of the world too. The unequal access in the participation of bodies like the PTAs and the SMCs according to socio-economic status, race, caste, social class, location, political affiliation and gender has been noted in other developing countries (Dunne et al, 2007). Members from the C category may be elected to these committees (because of the mandatory clauses imposed by the government or external agencies) but their participation is not equal. When the people belonging to these different categories participate, there could be an intensification of conflicts (De Grauwe et al., 2005; Ahmed & Nath, 2005) with the category C not readily devoting efforts towards improving the school. There can be `perverse’ incentives from the participation of some parents towards non-learning related objectives, and this may sustain and intensify conflicts between the different categories. The conflicts may encourage sections of the category B to move away from government schools.
If we consider the catchment areas of government schools where most parents belong to category C, here too there are different possible outcomes. First, there may not be any significant participation and hence even the SMCs may not be formed or be active. This is a common feature in parts of India despite the mandate to form such committees. The head teachers may be reluctant or may find it difficult to form or activate SMC9. More efforts may be required to ensure the participation in the activities defined in the charter of SMC. Even when these are formed mandatorily, the actual participation is lower than expected. This was the situation in many experiments carried out to bring in community participation including the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) schools in Madhya Pradesh. Kothari et al (2000) note that the actual participation of villagers in the affairs of school (created through EGS) was not very commendable. The Village Education Committees were not very active and members did not visit the schools regularly. Irregular meetings, low attendance, low participation of women, and generally a sense of distance from the schools was apparent in many cases.
Secondly, there could be some perverse incentives to participate if there are pecuniary gains to the parents10, and such participation need not improve the learning environment in schools. Such incentives may exist for certain stakeholders, including the local politician (whose children may or may not be in the government school).
These arguments do not imply that there will be enough participation in (private) schools where category A parents send their children. One does not always see much involvement of parents in many `quality’ private schools in urban India. The reason is that the number of such schools is less than the demand for admissions. Some of these schools may be well-known or providing excellence in certain areas, and hence the number of children seeking admission is significantly higher than the number of seats. The tendency of even the lower-middle-class parents in urban areas wanting their children to study in these private schools increases this demand. Exploiting this situation, some of these private schools tend to become monopolistic. This may result in `supply’ at levels lower than the optimal in a competitive situation. Such monopoly creates a situation where the schools become authoritarian and even though they may sustain `quality’ in other areas – for example, the share of children passing competitive examinations – the management may discourage or not allow parents from participating in the affairs of the school. The only choice available to the parents if they are unhappy with the school, is to change schools. The `exit’ option is the only way to communicate parents’ dissatisfaction with the school. Hence, parents may continue with a school even with minimal participation as long as they are getting what they consider as `quality’ education.
4.2 Local Politics and Community Participation
The impact of local politics on the functioning of school management committees need not be always benign. Political affiliation and cronyism affect the establishment and functioning of various school-community bodies (Dunne et al 2007). The local politics in the villages may take different forms, it could be one of elite capture or counter-elite capture or in certain cases, one can see a deepening of competitive democracy11. In many villages, where the majority is yet to see the value of education, the local politics could be one of elite capture or where counter-elites are gradually asserting their rights. It is easy to predict that in situations of elite capture, the local community’s participation in schooling can be mediated by the elite sections of the society. These elites need not have the incentive to make the school accessible to all. There may be instances where local elites are benevolent and they make efforts to expand schooling to others, but these are rare cases. If these local elites (including politicians) send their children elsewhere (to urban government or private schools) they may still show an interest in the affairs of village school for political (and in certain cases pecuniary) interests but whether it leads to the transformation of school to make it accessible and interesting to all parents in the village, may depend on the level of the demand for schooling there. Such a situation may not prevail if most parents belong to the category C.
What happens when non-elites start mobilizing in these villages? In most parts of India, such mobilization is along caste/religious lines. A class-based mobilization of the non-elites can be seen only in a few states like Kerala and West Bengal or in some parts of other states. In fact, the parties with a base in the middle or lower caste groups that have emerged and become powerful in many states, have extended their influence to most villages (Santhakumar et al, 2016) in these states. Even in localities where most people are yet to show full demand for schooling, one can see political mobilizations of Dalits and other vulnerable social groups. However, such mobilizations have not substantially changed the status of demand for schooling among these sections of the society.
This could be, as noted in Santhakumar (2014) because the identity-based political formations are not keen on modernization and are not interested in changing society in a manner which encourages sections of people to move beyond their identity-based collectives. This lack of enthusiasm reflects in their not actively encouraging their support base to acquire an education, unlike in the case of under-class parties or certain social movements which have focused on spreading education not only by supplying education but also through generating adequate demand.
4.3 Teacher versus Parents
Teachers, especially Head Teachers (HT) can have a determining role in the participation of the community in the affairs of schooling (Soudien & Sayed, 2004; De Grauwe et al., 2005). The participation of the community in schooling and the behaviour and practices of teachers (especially that of the head teachers) are interrelated. The teacher is much more likely to come from the categories A or B mentioned earlier (this is the reason we see children of many government school teachers studying in private school in India).
A pro-active teacher/HT who is aware of the importance of bringing the community on board may take steps in this regard. However, the social distance between the teacher and the community may determine the final outcomes. If the teacher belongs to the local elites, it may lead to a situation discussed as part of elite capture there; or a few benevolent teachers (coming from local elites) may be interested in spreading education and their social status may enhance their effectiveness in a top-down approach. Though this may lead to the persistence of a certain vertical relationship with the community, there could be some positive impact on education due to the efforts of such teachers.
On the other hand, if the situation is such that the teacher comes from the local elites, and the social context is undergoing a counter-elite assertion, it may lead to conflicts. This may not lead to better educational outcomes especially if the non-elites who assert are yet to see the importance of schooling.
In summary, the social fragmentation and the persistence of a significant section of the society which is yet to demonstrate full demand for schooling may have implications for the effective participation of the community in schooling. This needs to be taken into account in the advocacy for community participation in the affairs of schooling.
V. Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University
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