Learning to take questions

As a reporter covering school education for The Hindu’s Chennai city bureau, my work entailed speaking to teachers and school heads — of both public and private institutions — regularly. Some of them have given me crucial tip-offs about policy changes, and shared valuable insights on trends that only they, as practitioners, would understand.

Many of these schools, especially those privately run, consider themselves ‘top brands’ in education. They believe every event held on their premises — be it the annual day, sports day, science project, literary club inauguration, or some Rotaract club activity — is worthy of publicity. In their view, some coverage, any coverage, is justified for their effort and “innovativeness”. “Even a few lines would be an encouragement for our children,” the charismatic school principals would say.

All the same, these schools proved thin-skinned when their institutions were in the news for the wrong reasons. Some of the reactions following the recent, troubling allegations of sexual harassment in city schools reminded me of that aversion to any scrutiny or criticism. Responses from the school managements and many alumni reflected a staunch belief that their school could not err. Past pupils’ loyalty to their alma mater seemed to trump reason.

It took me back to two important stories from a decade ago, whose coverage invoked similar reactions at the time. One was a swimming pool accident in 2012 at a famous city school, in which a nine-year-old boy tragically drowned. A subsequent police case meant the issue, while taking its legal course, received wide coverage, and rightly put the spotlight on children’s safety in schools – a concern that is never redundant.

Another story I covered was in 2011, two years after the historic Right to Education Act was passed. One of its clauses mandated that private schools reserve 25% of their seats to children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in the neighbourhood, and provide them free and compulsory elementary education, for which the government would bear the cost.

Some schools reacted in telling ways — from terming the rules “very damaging to the class and the entire school”, to asking parents to protest against the Act through letters that said: “Your child’s quality of education will suffer seriously as the teachers will have a very difficult time managing and educating a few children who are not qualified for the particular class or who are very difficult to manage.”

The institutions barely hid their class bias. Their pride and brand consciousness outweighed everything else, including any sensitivity to the Act’s thrust on fairness or social justice. A few school heads even casually threw in the “I’ll speak to your editor” line when we sought a reaction. Clearly, they did not appreciate the media asking them questions.

As far as our reporting requirement goes, we need to establish the facts, give the context, with the perspective of those affected, as well as the reaction of the said schools to the concerns raised. But invariably, these private schools suggested that they were beyond public scrutiny. If critical thinking and a spirit of inquiry is at the heart of education, it is ironic that schools are so averse to questions, let alone the slightest introspection.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 8:04:56 AM |

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