Last year on a ‘sabbatical’ from Rishi Valley School I had the opportunity to work with a variety of educational projects, three of these in association with ‘Shishukunj’, an organization I have known since my childhood. In Bagasra, Gujarat, Shishukunj has teamed up with another NGO to provide literacy and numeracy skills to a nomadic community. In Bangalore, Shishukunj runs an Englishmedium school till class 10 on the campus of an NGO providing shelter for children with single or no parents from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. In Bhuj, Kachh, we linked up with a group of people running a nascent alternative school and provided training and inputs based on Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy. Apart from these, I also interacted with CN Vidyalaya, an old Gujarati-medium school, based on Gandhian values, inside a 65-acre green campus in the heart of Ahmedabad. This school was keen to adopt the MGML (multi-grade multi-level) methodology developed at the Rishi Valley Rural Centre. Through my work with these initiatives, I become more aware of the perspectives and concerns of parents from different socio-economic strata of our society.

Setting A

Sitting on a hand-woven mat under a canvas canopy, a beautiful tent-like structure, were a group of men and women from the Sawarnya community, animatedly discussing how they could see life around them changing at a very fast pace. They felt the threat to their way of life. The Sawarnyas are nomadic people who serve the farming community in Saurashtra, Gujarat, by sharpening their tools as well as buying and selling bullocks from/to them. Nobody from the community had ever gone to school and therefore no one was literate. They were constantly on the move except for the four months during the monsoons. Recently, we had taken on a trial project to induct their children into formal education. This year some of the family members would stay back to look after the children. We would make arrangements for the children to be picked up and dropped and provide two meals at the day-care centre where they would be given classes in mathematics and Gujarati. The parents felt that the lack of literacy in their community was putting them at a disadvantage in getting government services. Some parents felt that educating their children would enhance their employment prospects in the organized sector.

We mused over what that could mean: completing class 10 would allow them to sit for the bus conductor exams. One or two probably might go for higher education, though the employment prospects would be primarily in the government sector. The private sector would remain out of their reach. But what about vocational jobs? —these children are so good with their hands, putting up their tent-like houses in no time at all. The coaching centres and tuition classes have still not penetrated this sleepy town of Bagasra, with a population of around 50,000. The children’s prospects of ‘doing well’ rest on the dedication of government school teachers: 30 of the 42 children who started out have joined government schools. Fortunately, we have found good schools for these children, though what happens after they complete their elementary education is still unknown. However, the question haunts us: what is the right kind of education for these children? On the one hand, modernity is pushing hard at traditional lifestyles which, at least for now in these parts, they have been able to resist. What will modern education do to these people? Yet the unavoidable fact is that the skills these people possess are becoming irrelevant in this fast-changing world with the advent of cheaper disposable farm tools and the introduction of tractors.

Setting B

The setting was a school hall of a reputed Gujarati-medium school in Ahmedabad. A group of middle-class parents of lower primary school children were raising questions about the curriculum. This was in the context of the school’s deciding to move towards an MGML structure in which there are no textbooks and children work primarily on their own through a series of cards tracked on a ‘learning ladder’ with specific milestones. The parents could not fathom how learning could take place without a textbook. ‘Will all the content of the textbooks be covered through the cards?’ How will we know what to revise for the unit tests?’ What should my child take to the tuition teacher to work from?’ All these questions with their underlying assumptions came flying at us! In my interactions with various schools (barring a few progressive schools), I have noticed that the textbook is regarded as sacrosanct, the repository of knowledge that the child must master. Reading any other book is considered a waste of time, and as a result very few children acquire the taste of reading for pleasure. The fact that the content to be selected for inclusion is a matter of curricular choice, and that different boards make different judgments, does not even cross their minds. This may be partly due to the way the exams are conducted and the premium it puts on getting ‘the facts’ correct. The other sideeffect is the tuition industry this has spawned, with children even in kindergarten going for tuitions!

These questions gave us an opportunity to uncover the assumptions of the parents, who later themselves started recounting their experiences of how education had been much lighter in their days and how they learnt as much from experiencing life as from textbooks. In fact, some of them were able to recall teachers who had connected their learning with life. Suddenly the whole mood lightened, and we were also able to go into questions of testing, of the effectiveness of a highly structured system of unit tests and exams. We explained how the assessment is built into the MGML methodology through the idea of ‘milestones’.

Setting C

Though the setting was again a school hall, the purpose was different. We had decided that we would not conduct examinations till class 8 in the school, and we wanted to communicate this to the parents of the school in Bhuj. At present the school goes only up to class 7. The audience was more receptive as this set of parents had made a conscious decision to send their children to an alternative school rather than a mainstream school. Some parents, apparently pleased with the decision, had their own stories to tell. One of them recounted how her neighbour’s daughter had become depressed despite scoring 82% in her exams, all because her friend (who went to a different school) had got 84%. Though most parents could see that comparing children’s performance was unhealthy, very few could see the absurdity of comparing performances from two different schools (in which exam papers would also have been different!) Marks somehow have a way of taking on a life of their own and give a sense of absoluteness about a child’s capacity, hiding the various sub-texts behind them.

Another parent who had recently moved his child to this school said he had seen teachers in the previous school manipulating the exam system. One teacher would go through the exam questions the day before in the guise of revision. Once he had also seen that an answer written by his child had been erased and the correct answer written in its place by the teacher. Actually, this is not surprising, as the privatization of education creates competition to get more students enrolled. When combined with the premium that parents place on schools where students secure good marks, this is bound to happen. The pressure to get more students to improve the ‘bottom line’ of schools finally percolates down to the teachers who, knowing their students’ capacities well, are left with no option but to make the exams easier and, in some instances, to resort to unethical practices.

Then came the inevitable question: ‘How do we get to know how our children are doing in their studies if there are no exams?’ This was not unexpected, for the whole idea that assessment can be unobtrusive, diagnostic and a spur for furthering a child’s learning, as opposed to an exam with its mark or grade which effectively labels a child, is new to parents. In the latter case, the school usually transfers the responsibility on to the parent for addressing the child’s difficulties and taking appropriate remedial measures. We explained that the school would use the two weeks which would usually be set aside for the exams to work with children in those areas where they have experienced difficulties, and in this way the parents’ fears were put to rest. Some of the mothers were very relieved, because the exams are a very stressful time for them too, having to force their wards to sit down to study. We gently questioned the need to monitor their children so closely—wouldn’t it be better to give space to the children and allow them to connect to their learning in their own way?

On a sombre note, one parent reminded everyone of the incident of two students committing suicide in a nearby school just that year. The effect of stress caused by an exam-driven education system was present in everyone’s consciousness and needed no further spelling out. Teenage suicide and depression have increased at an exponential rate in the last ten years. Parents hold unrealistic expectations of their children, in many cases not commensurate with their capacities. If one looks at the statistics for those attempting the IIT exams and finally getting selected, one is struck by the fact that less than 1% gain admission. What happens to the other 99%? Leaving aside the few who get into decent colleges, the vast majority—some of whom may have started the IIT coaching from class six—end up in third-rate colleges. Their stories are never heard, even as we laud the small minority that has ‘succeeded’. We also do not hear about the drop-out rates from these premier institutes, which are on the rise.

Another parent spoke about how her child, who is in class three, rarely finds a playmate these days after school hours because the other children are either busy attending tuitions or preparing for exams. Childhood becomes a casualty in this race for good marks throughout the school years. When it may finally matter, at the school-leaving stage, the child may have become too exhausted to perform to her potential.

In fact, children have plenty of energy and are very keen to learn new things. They have hundreds of questions to ask. With the right environment, good emotional support and the freedom to explore and develop their own thinking, most children —given a little training at the right stage—will be able to perform well in the board exams. This has been the experience of the Krishnamurti schools. However, trends in the wider society seem to be going in the opposite direction, where questions in the textbooks are the only important questions and children’s questions become irrelevant. Success is defined in a narrow and constricted manner, and the whole joy of living is squeezed out of the child.

Setting D

She said she had come to meet her child as she had managed to get some time off from her work. We were on the campus of the Bangalore Shishukunj School. She said she was working as a maid in a house in north Bangalore, 15 km away. Today, her employers had gone out for the day, so she thought she would come and pay a surprise visit to her daughter. I asked her what she would like her daughter to become when she left school. She said the only thing she wished for her daughter was that she would find a good husband. ‘But would you not like her to graduate from a college?’ I asked. This seemed to come to her out of the blue. She had never thought of her daughter as being college-educated. In fact, there was nobody in her family who had gone beyond class ten. She had run away from her husband’s family as she was being badly treated after her his death and come to this NGO, which had hostels for battered women and children. Eventually she had found a job as a maid and rented a single room in north Bangalore. Finding money for a bus fare to come here was not easy, and she visited only once in two months.

There are many students in Shishukunj who do not see further education as meaningful for them. Last year, one of the class ten students left because he had been offered a job in a petrol pump. However, when eight out of ten students from the first batch this year joined college after completing school, we felt that they could become role models for the others. Many of these students come on the week-ends and conduct activities at school and also support children with their academic work. We feel that a good academic education together with an inculcation of good values could help these young people escape from the cycle of poverty and low aspirations in which they find themselves trapped. Teachers keep complaining about the poor academic work ethic among students. But we try to appeal to them to see the bigger picture—lack of parental support as well as role models.

But hold on! Haven’t I heard the same outpourings in Rishi Valley School: our children do not utilize their time well, do not complete their work, have bad study habits. Do our students also suffer from lack of aspiration? They too probably go through confusion about careers and livelihood; but all this is in the context of an economically supportive family. Exams, in both these cases—the economically disadvantaged and the upper middle class —do not seem to have the same hold as they do on the middle-class parent. For the moneyed, there are management seats or the possibility of going abroad. They also have the luxury of experimenting with alternative career options. However, it is not the case that this way of thinking comes naturally. Even affluent parents have all kinds of insecurities. Some students are able to persuade their parents to allow them to follow their inner calling; others end up following the diktat of their parents. Some are able to change careers later on in life. The affluent parent is just as worried about his children ‘fitting into’ the existing structure of society as the middle-class parent; hence the frequent question: ‘How will my child manage in the outside world after having been cocooned in your school for so many years?’

Perspectives and prospects

That education is a panacea for alleviating poverty is a widely held view. My experience of last year seems to suggest that this may be only partly true, and hidden in this view lies a more dangerous reality. While I see Shishukunj in Bangalore being able to provide some children an education that will help them escape the poverty trap, those not inclined academically will fall through the gaps, even though they may have talents in other areas. We need to give a lot more thought to vocational skills. The real tragedy, however, is that school education on offer to the poor, especially in the rural areas, is sub-standard. We end up creating a generation of young people who may not find jobs in the formal sector, and yet think that it is beneath their dignity to work in the traditional occupations that their ‘illiterate’ parents followed—a sure recipe for social unrest. On the other side, the middle class, with their upward mobility and status consciousness, have allowed their vision of education to be funnelled into a narrow tunnel of materialistic aspirations, turning education into a tool to secure a comfortable ‘lifestyle’. This, coupled with a lopsided exam-driven education system that focuses on a narrow set of skills, has spawned a whole coaching industry that makes exams an even bigger monster. Inevitably, the stress of this is being felt by students all over the country.

The Krishnamurti schools—with their varied attempts at a more wholesome and humane education—have shown that there are alternative ways of approaching the whole question of exams and livelihood. It becomes imperative that these schools continue deepening their efforts as well as spreading their models of teaching-learning as widely as possible. What I have observed is that only when people see ‘working models’ of an alternative approach do they feel encouraged to move away from the mainstream. Otherwise, their insecurities have a way of overcoming their better sense.