The purpose of writing this article is not to project any story of achievement. The sole objective of relating this experience is to make other traditional schools aware that they can protect young children from the harmful stress of achievement and yet allow for learning to take place. It is the story of an experiment to save children from the pressures of competition and the consequences of comparison. In this way, their innocence, their capacity to listen and their sensitivity are not destroyed. As the children grow older, we hope they will remain open to the subtleties of life and flower in goodness. Our experience is that the experiment seems to work.

The idea to start a school based on Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education arose when we were inquiring into why adults lose their capacity to listen, and why our minds become incapable of deep reflection on any issue. We began to feel that children in their formative years must grow in a sensitive and affectionate environment and that this must be the foundation of their adult life. If not, as they grew they would tend to become callous and indifferent. The education system seems to contribute in large measure towards this.

In 1992–93, a small group of us were invited as advisors to the primary section of Mushtifund School by its trustees. Mushtifund School (mushti means handful) was started by a group of people who collected funds by requesting individuals to contribute a handful of money! It is a traditional day school located in Panaji, Goa, catering to middle- and low-income families living in and around the area. The school has both English and Marathi sections.

The location of the school was far removed from anything we had in mind. The five-storeyed school building, situated in the centre of a bustling town, adjacent to a crowded street, had neither open space nor a natural environment. Behind the school lay the main temple of the town, always busy with visitors and vendors.

However, what energized us were the innocent faces of the hundreds of children who seemed in dire need of something different, and it seemed to us that if we could make a small difference in their lives, it would be worth all the trouble. The school management trusted us fully and gave us complete freedom and cooperation at all levels. We periodically kept them posted on what we were doing.

We began by making contact with the teachers. I interviewed the teachers and selected some of them based on their sensitivity, openness and willingness to cooperate in a new experiment. Later, we conducted refresher courses to enhance subject competence, and the teachers felt confident that they would be helped and supported.

In the beginning, the teachers had no staffroom due to paucity of space. A small secluded space was created by rearranging cupboards. We had frequent meetings and the teachers were encouraged to read books and discuss them. I asked them to write about themselves—perhaps a striking experience that brought change in their lives or a childhood experience with family and school. They had the liberty to write freely, without having to show it to anybody, and they wrote diligently. We also discussed issues such as the status associated with different kinds of work—no work is less or more important if you do not associate with it an image of importance.

The teachers were sent to various other schools to visit, stay for a few days and study the schools’ philosophies and methods. These included the Krishnamurti schools, as well as others offering alternative education. Initially, we gave admission purely on a first come, first served basis to children living in the surrounding areas. We thus had children from various social and economic strata: children of maids and watchmen as well as their employers, all sharing the same classroom. We requested that some columns from the admission form, such as religion or donor’s name, be removed. The management agreed. We also tried to restrict the number of children in a class. However, not many schools existed in that area, so we did not have much leeway in the matter. The children themselves were not interviewed, but their parents were given an idea about how we were trying to bring changes that would allow for learning without stress.

We put aside textbooks in the English section that did not come under the direct purview of the government, and selected replacements to suit the changing times and our perceptions of that change. Topics were reorganized in sequence and structure, taking into consideration the age of the children and their capacities. So, while no change was made in the syllabus, subject teachers of classes 1 to 4 sat together to choose topics that were relevant and to ensure a gradual transition to the next grade.

We decided to stop all examinations, homework and structures of competition. The major challenges we faced were of convincing parents that this endeavour was worthwhile and then establishing a structure to assess the progress made by students. We had to determine whether a child was grasping the subject content or not and whether some children needed more attention. Some sort of assessment therefore became essential. In a class of 50–55 students, this was a difficult task. Moreover, we did not want either the children or their parents to be aware of when the assessments would take place. All of this was challenging, but the teachers responded very well. Teachers were requested to maintain a register of the children’s classwork performance. Depending on the assessment, they could decide to repeat or revise a particular topic. These records were for the teachers’ individual understanding, and were kept confidential from all except the principal. Children were assessed not only in academics but in other areas as well. The reports were descriptive in nature, and there was no quantification of performance. A child’s inability to understand a topic was dealt with sensitively.

Before abolishing examinations and all competitive structures, we had met with the parents. This was a crucial undertaking. The parents were from different social, economic, and educational backgrounds. The school tried to reach out to them. With each group of parents we faced different challenges, and these helped us bridge the gaps in our own perceptions. We encountered a fair amount of resistance, which, not surprisingly, came from the more educated class. We requested these parents to give us a chance to experiment, without harming the child’s academic career. We stopped giving homework, so that parents could not put pressure on their children and thereby create resentment towards studies. Some parents wondered what the children would do if there was no homework! We suggested various ways in which parents could spend quality time with their children, as well as engage them in other areas of children’s interests, such as games, arts, music and so on.

We wanted to bring to the parents’ notice how examinations create havoc in education, how at a very young age children get adversely affected by the relentless demands for performance. We spoke to them about the potential damage examinations can cause to the learning capacity of children. The fear of examinations, fear of punishment, and fear of not getting a rank lead to cheating, and breed violence and corruption. Fear prevents real learning and encourages rote learning, which is evident in presentday education. We told the parents that we wanted to protect the children’s innocence and their innate sense of goodness. We wanted to see the learning mind nourished.

To have complete freedom from comparison, we stopped all tournaments. All activities took place, but with the competitive element removed. We noticed that the children enjoyed these activities and that most of them participated enthusiastically.

Teachers of the Marathi-medium section, which is directly aided by the state government, also wanted to implement this system. So, without violating government rules, we modified the system for them to adopt. Interestingly, the local government also is now interested in doing away with examinations. In fact, the education department has been very appreciative of our experiment. To involve other schools in Goa, we are planning to have workshops with the help of teachers from the Krishnamurti Foundation India and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

J Krishnamurti’s philosophy and teachings form the backdrop to all our efforts. In a small way, Mushtifund School is trying to create an environment of change. This, we would like to believe, comes close to what Krishnamurti meant when he said: ‘The whole atmosphere of school undergoes change when there is no sense of competition and comparison.’

The changes in Mushtifund School took place over two whole decades, and we hope other schools in similar situations do not lose heart when attempting the change. While many of our original teachers have remained with Mushtifund, many new teachers have also joined and slowly merged into the stream. Principals have also changed. They question the philosophy, but make honest attempts to understand our point of view. Luckily, they have been open to new ideas and have the interests of the children at heart. It is teamwork—and the trust, respect, and concern among the management, teachers and parents—that has made this remarkable change possible. If all our efforts lead to creating smiles on the faces of even a handful of children, it is enough.