Democratic Practices for Better Prospects
-This article has been originally published by Labisha Uprety on November 13, 2016 in The Himalayan Times.
Every education system has certain forms of checks and balances to ensure that all components are working towards the important end goal of imparting quality education. While one of these is a financial audit conducted at the end of every year, this is purely balancing money inflow and expenditure. A more reliable way that allows for stakeholders of the school to examine these financial records and question discrepancies, if any, is the social audit process. It also encompasses within itself the more qualitative questions of education: including checking up on role fulfillment of the School Management Committee (SMC), the teachers and the status of students in the school, among others.
The World Bank, during its Community School Support Project (CCSP), initiated social audits in the Nepalese public education system in 2003. It was made mandatory for all publicly funded schools after the Third Amendment to Education Regulation of 2008. The move came as a growing need of improving transparency in the education system warranted itself. As the World Bank defines it, ‘social audits are a process of measuring and appraising various aspects of school management through the direct participation of and interaction between school stakeholders’. They are thus a means of assessing whether they meet set objectives as decided by the community and other interested parties who are directly or indirectly affected by the successful running of the school.
Social audit systems traditionally base themselves on pillar of eight specific principles: polyvocality (multi-perspective encompassing), comprehensiveness, participation, multi-directionality, regularity, comparativeness, verifiability, and disclosure. These pillars are supposed to uphold universal values of equity, social responsibility, trust, accountability, transparency, inclusivity, care and people’s well-being. These pillars and value sets rest on specific socio-cultural, administrative, legal and democratic-settings.
In Nepal, for education social audits, there exists a set of ‘Social Audit Guidelines’ as developed by the Department of Education. The audit is supposed to examine four key areas of the school: physical environment, teaching and learning environment, financial management and community participation. These audits are carried out by a 6 member group, also known as the Social Audit Committee (SAC). The committee is inclusive of the Chairperson of the Parent–Teacher Association (PTA) who acts as the Coordinator, two parents or guardians (including one female) of children studying in the school – nominated by the PTA Members, the Chairperson of the Ward where the school is located, an ‘intellectual’ nominated by the PTA and one teacher, nominated by the Head Teacher, who acts as the Member-Secretary.
The idea that a democratic tool exists in order to scrutinize possible irregularities in our schools is idyllic. When the World Bank released a report on an examination of the social audit policy it had advocated, it found that there were significant gaps between what was expected and what occurred. In the 60 schools that they studied from one selected district in each of the three geographical belts of the country, only 50 percent of them conducted social audits annually following the prescribed guidelines. The school committees themselves (SAC, SMC, and PTA) were frequently found to have been formed ‘undemocratically’, i.e. through political appointments. A large number of schools also did not present report findings to stakeholders even if they did conduct the audit. The SAC is, in part, largely comprised of Parent-Teacher Association members – who themselves hadn’t convened meetings 48 percent of the time, according to the study.
The SAC, though seemingly an independent monitoring authority, derives its members from the usual existing stakeholders in community schools. The ones that are undemocratically formed are doomed to fail. A stipulation in guideline alone is not enough. If the ministry created a guideline, they should also take responsibilities to ensure that they monitor progress of these school committees. Local communities also need be more empowered in questioning the schools. While it is understandable that the worker who works to fight hunger every day will find little time and energy to follow up his child’s academic progress, the school could themselves make plans to reach the parent in question. Stakeholder engagement, particularly parental engagement in both the audit process and its presentation, is a necessary step to show that committees are taking education and its associated responsibilities seriously.