An A2 size sheet is stuck with bits of black electric tape on the wall of a one-room salon in Shiv Vihar, West Delhi. The sheet which is displayed right next to the mirror lists 36 low-cost private schools in the area and around. Across these names are small coloured circles which inform the reader of scores of each of these schools under eight themes—infrastructure, teaching quality, school management, relations with parents, holistic development, discipline and value education, and lastly, value for money.
The owner and the chief hairdresser at the salon says, “I saw the Sandhi Jankari Patrika for the first time a few weeks ago when two young students walked into my shop and explained to me how to read it. But I am not very educated, and I don’t have young children.”
He adds, “I put it up here for my brothers who may have school-going kids, at least they will know where their schools stand.”
The Sandhi Jankari Patrika (Sandhi Information Sheet) displayed in the salon is the culmination of months of extensive data collected from these 36 schools through surveys, student assessments and observations under the research study Sandhi. The study is being conducted by the Centre for Civil Society, a Delhi-based think tank and curator of the school choice campaign in the country.
The Power of Information
The project takes inspiration from Learning and Educational Achievements in Pakistan Schools (LEAPS), a six-year-long research study, conducted by three economists, Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das and Asim Khwaja and funded by World Bank. The study which involved providing information to parents on the performance of the schools and students in their village, recorded a 42% rise in learning outcomes and 17% reduction in private tuition fee of private schools in these areas when compared with parts where no such information was provided.
In their article ‘The Power Of Information In Improving School Performance,’ the authors state— “Providing information to citizens can improve services for the poor, swiftly and at relatively low cost. That, encouragingly, is the lesson emerging from recent experiments in Uganda, India, and Indonesia as well as observational research in the US in sectors as diverse as health, voting behaviour, access to subsidised food and education.”
Taking a cue from these findings and in the context of the Indian low-income urban reality, Sandhi aims to answer questions like—Does access to objective, unbiased information empower parents to choose schools differently? What will be the implications of this empowered decision-making, on the way schools behave?
Reaction of the Community
It has been an exhausting six weeks for community volunteers who have been engaged in reaching out to people with the Information Sheet. They sometimes travelled on e-rickshaws which played loud audio snippets to catch the attention of the passers-by, stood in busy weekly markets, visited the streets on foot and also rang doorbells of unknown houses to hand the owners the Patrika and teach them how to read it.
But it has been a rewarding experience for many of them. 19-year-old Gulshan, a volunteer, says, “I have learnt how to approach different people differently, and then it felt purposeful, like I was contributing towards something bigger.”
Reaching out to more than 20,000 people directly, however, was not always a pleasant experience for these volunteers. Some people were unwilling to stop and hear them out and were dismissive of the entire initiative. However, such responses were more exceptions than rules.
“I didn’t know there were so many schools here, where can I find their addresses and phone numbers?” a woman enquired. A majority of the people, as volunteers recount, showed an appreciation for the initiative, recognising it as a much-needed intervention. A large number of parents took this opportunity to vent out their distress related to schools- both private and government. Poor teaching quality, unreasonable fee hikes, poor facilities were common cries of these parents. “This should happen everywhere where there are schools, why just here?” a young man commented after one of the volunteers finished explaining the sheet to him.
But the most common question that parents raised—some to express their helplessness, and others as a genuine query was—“What can we do about it? Humare akele bolne se kya hoga? (Nothing will change if we speak up alone),” and some even demanded that the organisation intervene to bring the desired change in these schools.
However, in one of the community meetings a woman makes a passing comment, “the principal of Aradhana Public School (name changed for privacy concerns) refuses to acknowledge the Patrika.” Did you take it to the school? The intrigued facilitator asks her. “Twice” she replies. “My husband and I went to the school and enquired about the scores. Initially, the principal dismissed it by saying that he has nothing to do with it. However, when my husband persisted, he begged us to stop creating a ruckus. ‘Your child will pass out next year as it is,’ he said.”
Another woman who manages a garment shop in the morning and tutors primary school students in the evening informs that she has gone through the sheet thoroughly.
“I was surprised! A lot of parents come to me seeking advice about good schools, and the sheet makes me think that I have been making wrong recommendations all this while” she reflects.
On the other hand, parents whose children attend government schools and citizens who were concerned with “how things are” demanded that the sheet provide information on government schools as well. “Teachers are least concerned, students are most misbehaved, and at least half the children of this area attend government schools. This makes it all the more important.” Mahesh (name changed) who runs a coaching institute in the area asserts.
At this stage, it is only possible to assume the nature of shift this may cause in the educational landscape of Hastsal and its surrounding areas. As one woman in the community meeting commented, “this is important, but doing it as a one-time activity will change nothing.” However, the receptiveness shown by the community to the concept of informed school choice gives one reason to be hopeful.
(This article has been written by Ritika Chawla. She works as a works as a Research Associate with Centre for Civil Society.)