Time spent in school during our formative years plays a crucial role in how we turn out as adults. This was certainly true for me. My ambitions ranged from being a ‘symbologist’ after reading Dan Brown to a chemist, after scoring the maximum marks in the subject.
I am now a journalist, working a job that sates my curiosity and pays the bills.
Many of my dreams and aspirations germinated because my school shaped my exposure to subjects, people and experiences. However, in retrospect, I also wish it had helped me become more aware of myself and the realities of the world we live in.
These sentiments were strengthened by what I learnt over the course of reporting for Citizen Matters on crucial aspects of schooling in Chennai. I realised that generations of learners are going through a similar experience and we will all be the worse for it if schools do not course-correct in the coming years.
The stories that I did on the state of the Right To Education (RTE) Act and on sex education in Chennai’s schools opened my eyes to what needs to change.
At the heart of both issues is the denial of knowledge.
If only Chennai schools did not turn a blind eye to sex education..
My alma mater in Chennai had a teacher who allegedly sexually harassed students. Most of my friends and I came to know about it only four years after our graduation, after complaints against him surfaced on social media the past year. The school management and teachers took no action against him even when some students had reported his behaviour previously.
Many alumni and current students started speaking out about the school management, the teacher in question and their own experiences with him.
This incident shook me to the core. I wanted to dig deeper. I reached out to a psychotherapist to unpack my feelings on the issue and understand how such incidents can be averted. That’s when I learnt that a holistic and long-term solution to prevent sexual harassment in schools is to have sex education classes.
I wanted to explore the larger sex education landscape in the schools of Chennai. To my dismay, I learned that very few schools offer structured sex education classes. Despite the growing number of POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) cases in Chennai, with 306 in 2020 and 546 in 2021 as per the National Crime Records Bureau, schools were reluctant to take steps to safeguard children in their capacity as spaces of learning.
Some schools covered the concepts of “good touch” and “bad touch” in the name of sex education but did not go beyond that.
Even though NGOs in the city were trying to change the status quo and make children more aware and empowered by providing comprehensive sex education, they did not have enough resources to cover all the school students in Chennai.
If only children learn consent, boundaries, and safe and unsafe behaviour, they will be able to comprehend and avoid physical and sexual exploitation. They will feel confident enough to speak out and feel that they will be heard if they have been subject to sexual harassment or abuse. Instances of abuse and harassment such as the one that took place in my alma mater can be nipped in the bud with an informed cohort of students who feel understood and safe enough to highlight these issues and be taken seriously.
Moreover, sex education will remove the taboo against human bodies and sexual health, with the goal of creating a gender-equal society. As we discuss bodies, we also have a chance to break gender role stereotypes. This can also set the stage for discussions that can help children experience gender euphoria instead of dysphoria.
All this can happen when schools in Chennai understand the importance of sex education and do not shun the subject like they have all these years. The onus is on managements of private schools and the State’s Department of School Education to introduce age-appropriate sex education classes for children and do so on priority.
This is at present only a faint possibility.
Chennai’s schools and their poor track record with RTE
The second egregious practice that I came across in Chennai schools has all but put a stop to the dreams of many children. This is to do with the implementation of the Right to Education Act across schools in the city.
Despite government schools offering free education to students, many parents aspire to enrol their students in private schools in Chennai as they believe this would give them a chance at a better future. The prohibitive fees in private schools mean many either go into debt to pay for their child’s education or see the doors shut on their hopes.
The RTE Act, meant to be a great leveller, provides the chance for children from low-income families to be able to get educated in the city’s private schools free of cost.
I remember talking to a parent while reporting the story on RTE in Chennai schools.
“I did not study and I am doing menial jobs for meagre pay. I hope my daughter gets the best education in the city. I want nothing more than to see her become a famous doctor or lawyer. RTE is our only resort,” she said.
But many private schools in Chennai stand in the way of the wishes of parents like her through their failure to follow the RTE Act both in letter and in spirit.
Despite the promise of free education via RTE, some schools continue to demand high fees from parents whose children are enrolled under RTE. Some private schools charge for books, uniforms and other miscellaneous fees, claiming that only tuition fees are exempted for students under RTE, thereby making the parents fork out a sizable sum beyond their means.
The reasoning proffered by the schools is that they are unable to manage the costs due to delays in the reimbursements due from the government for admitting students under the RTE Act.
If a daily wage worker can afford to pay the private school fees, why would they opt for admission through the RTE Act?
The spirit of RTE is to provide a level playing field. Children from working-class communities have a shot at breaking the shackles of social inequalities by accessing opportunities that are otherwise only available to the moneyed.
But the way the implementation has played out shows the callous indifference of the schools who look for any loophole to not honour the law and the government that does not see it fit to rein in errant educational institutions and perform its duty.
Instead, poor families have been deceived by false promises and left to pick up the pieces.
Looking at overhauling how the RTE Act is implemented in Chennai’s schools should be a priority goal for the State government in creating a society based on self-respect.
While I learnt that the more things change, the more they stay the same in Chennai’s schools, I also harbour some hope for change. I will continue to amplify the voices of the many bright students, hardworking parents, thoughtful educators and inspiring social workers who can create a better tomorrow for all of us.
I will be taking my experience working on these stories and the lessons they brought with them into the coming year.