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  • Joanna Härmä

Keeping up attendance versus birthday parties and Mother Ganges – attitudes in rural Uttar Pradesh

Ganga Snan at Haridwar, 12th November 2019 (picture from Amar Ujala newspaper). I was caught in traffic that day, passing Haridwar from Dehradun.


After leaving the world of regular employment I have been working as an independent researcher first based in Paris, and (since 2017) based in Edinburgh in the summer and India in the winter. My Indian home is my husband’s ancestral ‘village’ – not really a village because it’s actually a tiny, remote, rural hamlet with about 10 houses and not even the type of tiny shop in a window in a building that you commonly come across in villages here. There isn’t even a government primary school. Chakarsi (spelled Chak Aarfi for google maps) is in Uttar Pradesh, about 3 hours’ drive east (in good traffic) from the outskirts of Delhi. My husband decided in January 2018 to take over the school we had decided to start as naïve 24 year olds, from the rather ineffectual head teacher we had running it hitherto. I’d been saying for years that the school needed attention, but I had neither the language skills or the patience or people-skills to do what needed to be done.


Gaurav has been at it now for nearly two years, and we have both learned more, or at least as much during this time, as in the course of our studies and research and work to date. I decided I would start blogging about things that have particularly struck me; things that contradict what I have thought up to now; and things that Gaurav is experiencing that I have not seen written about in other sources.


The school we started opened on July 4th, 2004, serving 126 girls from lower kindergarten through primary 4. The school now has over 500 children, a small share of whom are boys, right the way through senior secondary school completion and we’ve had girls graduating and winning scholarships to study science at university. We started as a purely charity/NGO school, but with the financial crisis things looked bleak in the world outside while things somehow improved in this area, with generally increasing purchasing power. The school now charges fees in order to survive, though these fees in no way cover the running costs and we have many, many girls attending for free or at very low cost, so those who can easily pay, do so (still at lower fees than nearby schools) while those who can’t pay, don’t, and we, and lots of nice people in the UK, still pour money into it every month. So, we experience a lot of the things that the typical low-fee private school experiences, and to the families whose children attend, we are just that. We have not advertised that the school is heavily subsidised, though we have had questions from people who know the typical fee level, the number of children enrolled, and see what we are providing (suffice to say, the standards provided would be entirely out of reach based on the fee income of the school).


However, most of the parents are not perceptive enough to notice this, and the typical perceived motivation around here for running a non-state school is to earn a profit, and we don’t feel the need to portray ourselves as great benefactors. When Gaurav and I decided to do this, we just wanted to do something tangible ourselves, whether our careers ended up having any influence at all on wider systems, which we had originally probably hoped they would. At the time though, we did think about interacting with the government schools nearby, about partnering somehow to try to help, but the challenges along the way, and my own doctoral research later on, disabused me of the idea that anything like that would be possible. Starting this school was difficult and highly depressing at times, but on balance I am glad that we did it. We have had hundreds of students, and the very least we can say is that while these girls were at school with us, they were safe and respected.


I’ve had to set out this background to make the rest of my writing here make sense. I’d have liked to omit this personal detail and dive straight into the topics on my mind right now, but it needs to be clear where this information is coming from. Now – Ganga Snan, or bathing in the Ganges. In this part of the country, on this most auspicious full moon directly after Diwali (which was on 27th October this year), it is an old practice to go to the banks of the sacred river to take a dip and wash away one’s sins. It is a regional tradition and festival, and in the past many exchanges would take place in the process, such as agricultural deals, selling cows, and arriving at arranged marriage agreements between families. This used to take four days, however in the last few years under the current government Ganga Snan has somehow become enormously important and appears to be a manifestation of Hindu self-assertion.


What does this have to do with running the school? In the years before Gaurav was directly involved, the school staff report that some children used to disappear with their families (this not being an official holiday except for the day of the full moon) for the customary four days in total. Last year this had expanded for many children by a couple of days, while this year three days before that four-day period, children were disappearing from class. It had been made clear that only the four days would be considered excusable absences (including a Sunday which is the usual day off per week and the official holiday of the full moon, meaning two school days were excused), allowing ample time to get to the Ganges some 30 kilometres away, and back.


Children were suspended this last week in punishment for mass absenteeism. Those who had missed three extra days were told to stay home and catch up on the work from the missed days of the previous week – thereby making the point that the school takes this seriously and that it should not recur next year. About four-fifths of the parents took this as fair, for having disrupted the school on official school days through the absence of over 100 children, some of whom are nearing important, high-stakes (for them) examinations. The other fifth or so did not take this so well, coming to argue with Gaurav about it. After having no problem with taking their children for three extra days, suddenly two days in punishment were precious study days to them.


This is happening in a wider context of growing frequency of absences from school for all manner of different family events. Weddings happen on all days of the week (as has always been the case), during this crucial time of the year leading up to Board examinations, the winter months being wedding season. In addition, new practices that were never part of the culture are becoming normal. The urban birthday trend is spreading to rural areas, and while some children simply bring sweets to school to distribute to their class, other parents keep their child out of school and even have day-time parties, no matter what day it is. In the past many people did not even know their birth date, but now families are having fewer and fewer children and are treating them in a more ‘precious’ manner than was usual in the past.


Recently, my own research assistant during my doctoral fieldwork and an ex-employee of our school, who comes from the next village, and who now happens to be a teacher in a government school, decided to hold a big, daytime birthday party for his son. As a result, his 3 children in our school were absent along with another seven or so girls from that village, and clearly he himself was absent from his government school. Children disappear for days at a time due to weddings, and last year a parent removed a girl in the middle of an examination so that they could leave when they wanted to for a family wedding. With regard to Ganga Snan specifically, it is not even necessarily the parents of the child who insist that the child miss school to attend the festival – there have been cases where aunts, uncles or other relatives took the child while the parents stayed home, and to our dismay, parents allowed the child to go. In other cases, children who would rather have been in school were made to go along with their parents.


If such events were only once a year, it might seem trivial. However when the large networks of Indian families and their acquaintances are taken into account, the number of such events occurring every year is enormous; my parents-in-law are invited to three weddings and another family event this coming weekend alone. The reason that this becomes of such interest to me is that much of the pro-private school rhetoric focuses around parents and their more active role in their child’s education when the child attends private school. Indeed, the hopes of education development project designers ride at least partially on martialling the power of parents and communities to hold schools to account! I myself have said that when parents are paying fees, they will try to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ by ensuring the child attends regularly. From everything I have been told, private school parents are more motivated, conscientious and will ensure regular attendance. It is highly likely that this is still the case when compared with government school parents, however this issue has opened up new questions for me.


In circumstances where nearly no one would even consider sending their children to government school (as is the case in this local area), how supportive, engaged and positive are parents with regard to their children’s education? It may well be that schooling, and then private schooling, has simply become a trend that people are following. It’s become ‘the done thing’, and government schools are seen as being for the down-and-outs only. During my doctoral research, quite a few parents stated that no one wants totally uneducated girls any more for arranged marriage, so girls have to go to school. This is a step change from 2005-06 when I interviewed many mothers around my own age for my doctoral research, who were totally uneducated or had only a couple years of primary schooling. Indeed, the current enrolment figures for girls in particular look good, and our school serves almost entirely girls[1]. But parents don’t treat our school as seriously as they would if it was an urban school, despite the fact that our school’s facilities far out-strip those at urban schools, and none of the schools in the nearby market town (that these families class as urban) could even hope to have someone like Gaurav in charge (as well as teaching mathematics, while supporting girls to develop to the best of their abilities through sports and multiple other avenues).


Parents refer to it as ‘just a village school’, and some say openly that they have no expectation for their girls upon graduation, and that they will just see what happens. Gaurav’s experience is that the education of rural girls is still treated casually, even by fee-paying parents, it being likely that the main expectation is arranged marriage and motherhood. Some aspire to getting a government job, a hope that will not come true for most, particularly under the present government which is scaling back the numbers of posts actually filled (despite building hopes by advertising enormous numbers of vacancies). Of course there are exceptions – parents who are very committed to their girls achieving as much as they can in terms of actual learning and also progression to the next level, no matter the (professional) outcome. In general though, from our anecdotal experience it does seem that girls’ education is not necessarily treated with the importance it deserves (perhaps somewhat a tick-box endeavour), even by those paying for private schools. Even these more motivated private school parents can cavalierly undermine their children’s learning, and the learning of the other children in the school.


In my next blog, I will be continuing on this theme to an extent, looking at how parents view the grades their children get, and what they want from the school that they choose to pay for. I will talk about the effects of competition for ‘clients’ among schools which has resulted in grade inflation that has distorted parents’ views of their children’s learning and what it takes to achieve genuine learning.

[1] We started as a girls-only school at the request of the community, but recently parents have come to value more sending all of their children to the same school, so we have taken some boys in pre-primary and lower primary grades only, so that we would not lose too many students.


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