Sunday, 26 April 2009

The death of a child in a Delhi School

Earlier this week a school girl died in a large well-endowed school in Delhi. Medical help came too late. She had asthma; eminently treatable and not a condition you would expect a young person to die of.

Allegedly there was negligence on the part of the school. The administration came in for a lot of criticism: there should have been better medical facilities in the school, some said; all schools should have a doctor and nurses available, teachers and others should be trained in first-aid. Parents and pupils marched in protest; they called for heads to roll and the school had to be closed for a couple of days.

I heard the discussion and debate programme on NDTV. Everyone seemed to agree that the rules governing schools should be tightened to ensure that this does not happen again.

So why am I blogging about this? To bring a rational alternative point of view. Not about the specific case; I don't know enough about it and even if I did I would hesitate to say anything at all for fear of intruding on private grief. Any loss of life is sad; more so when it is avoidable, and it is particularly tragic and devastating when it is a young person.

My take on this is rather about the reaction and the hasty ill-judged calls for rules to be changed. Hard cases make bad law, it is said, and here we have a tragedy that may well lead to ill-considered actions that may be misplaced for two reasons.

First, they may not achieve the intended purpose. After all good intentions are never enough to achieve positive change for the better. The next medical emergency in a school may be beyond the capability of whatever medical resources are put in; and the calls for action entirely miss the point that children spend their lives in a variety of settings; what about vacation time? holidays? school trips? What about schools in smaller Indian towns and villages? its hard enough to get medical help under any circumstance never mind for someone who becomes seriously ill during the school day.

Second and more important, all the commentators seem entirely to have forgotten the role of prevention. Schools in India present scores of hazards for children: many children die or are injured each year in road crashes during the journey to and from school; once in school they face a heavy burden of rote learning that denies them opportunity for play and robs them of a true rounded education experience. They have to put up with bullying, harsh punishment from teachers, poor or absent toilet and hand-washing facilities. And thats just for those who are lucky enough to have a school to go to and parents to send them there.

Schools can do a great deal to promote the health of their pupils and prevent harm. But providing top-notch medical facilities that can deal with unusual and rare occurrences of serious illness in children cannot be the role of a school. Schools don't exist in a vacuum. They are part of the society and the community they serve. If the community has poor access to medical facilities then it is illogical to expect the school to provide it.

The recent case in Delhi highlights the role of schools in promoting the health of pupils but not in the way most commentators seem to think. Its a responsibility hat cannot and must not be seen as the sole responsibility of schools.

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