‘You are supposed to be teachers and you don’t send your children to school?!’

The local community was aghast. How could we, my wife Rama and I, both teachers, take our children out of school? But we felt that we had had enough. We pulled our two children out of the local school and decided to teach them at home. We lived on a farm and we could teach them whatever we wanted, without their having to get beaten and silenced and end up hating reading and writing. This was in 1991.

A few months later one of our colleagues brought three of his children and then another brought two more, and that’s how Vidyodaya as a ‘school’ emerged. We believed then, as we do now, that schools often become places where children stop learning. At least, the natural ability to learn, the curiosity, the sense of enterprise, all this somehow gets left outside the classroom, just like their slippers. This is why we preferred to teach our children in a non-institutional way. Here we shall try to set out our attempts to grapple with the ground realities of the situation in the context of our idealism. To put it simply— how does one have a school without a school, how does education take place without being pedantic?

What we put on the anvil were the goals of education. We realized that the contradictions we were faced with were the direct result of a society which had decided that the goals of education were no different from the goals of an industry— the production of commodities in large quantities. These products had to be just like every earlier product, acceptable to the market.

We decided that Vidyodaya would give, above all, a firm value-base to children. It would be a school which developed respect for oneself and for humanity, respect towards the environment of which we believed we were an integral part; and go beyond the mundane in moving towards higher ideals. To do all this the first criterion was to remain ‘small’. The economics of scale—the bigger the institution the cheaper the output and, therefore, the greater the profit—does not hold water when it comes to education! As a small institution, we would be laughing, playing, learning—happy not having to police the grounds with a hundred ‘Don’ts’. Happy children make happy adults.

Vidyodaya started with seven children and in the first five years did not have more than fifty. We have since gone up to seventyfive, but we feel that is our limit.

If our goals of education are to live in harmony, to be cooperative, to be democratic, then all this and more have to be practised right here, in the very functioning of the school. We believe that education should be a process not a product and that the objectives must form part of the process itself. Only what exists at the beginning of a process exists at the end— the very means must incorporate the ends. If we want children to be truthful, kind, helpful, concerned, enjoying whatever they do, and be active members of society, they must have this experience right through school.

From the very beginning we wanted all the affairs of the school to be conducted democratically, discussing all matters with both children and teachers. In a small school, children take care of each other, they teach other, they do not have to hide anything because everything is discussed openly. There is no authority that children have to be afraid of. The children have their parliament with elected representatives and they handle all the disciplinary aspects of the school. Besides, we have always had handicapped children in the school because they are special gifts that we must learn to treasure and take care of and they have participated fully.

The school itself has academic work for half the day and craft, games or other activities in the afternoons. The class structure is through groups rather than classes. Children are grouped according to their capabilities sometimes in different groups for different subjects. This flexibility allows children to move ahead at a much greater speed. It also allows for ‘crosslearning’—that is, students teaching each other. Teachers must now plan not for the class, but for individual children. This compels the school to keep its attention onevery child.

The school does insist on academic success but its priority is still focussed on character. Thus when we report on a child it is the child’s qualitative aspects that are mentioned, not its marks. We do not give marks, but we have a system of tests. Academic learning is only one aspect of our life and as we are aware of this, we are constantly looking to find other areas in which children show talent and aptitude. Their perseverance, cooperation, creativity, willingness to try new things, imagination, ability to express themselves orally, or otherwise, sense of wonder, a team spirit, consideration for other children, particularly the younger and the handicapped, these are, to us more important than information tucked away in the head.

Knowing that all students are not purely academically oriented, we place a great deal of importance on cocurricular activities too. There is music, drama, drawing, walks, games, craft, gardening and above all vocational exposure.

There are three aspects of the school that we would like to describe here:

The first is prayer. This is how we begin the day. It may consist of singing, chanting, meditation, exercises and so on. But it is essentially a session for reflection. We focus on the lives of the children or the community around, on events in the nation or the world and how they affect us. For instance, when we heard of the shocking incident of three students who were burnt to death in a bus in Tamil Nadu, and all schools were closed down, we spent the day in prayer, in drawing, and in writing to the parents of those who died. We reflected in quiet contemplation— did the seeds of violence lie in us?

The second aspect is the nature of our celebrations. We feel all celebration has been reduced to what the market prescribes and certain essential qualities are lost. A celebration, we feel, is a time to get together, to do things together. Celebration also gives a rhythm to life and something to look forward to. Thus we celebrate a festival from each of the major religions including the tribal. In addition we also celebrate Gandhi Jayanthi. For instance, on Gandhi Jayanthi day we spend some time reflecting on certain essential principles in Gandhiji’s life, then we try to practise them. We clean the campus, decorate it, involve ourselves in manual work, cook together. We also involve parents and friends and it has become a local festival where over two hundred people participate.

The third aspect is programmes of vocational exposure. At adolescence children want to do more than sit in confined surroundings. Exposure to vocations gives them an opportunity to try out various latent talents they have. Between the ages of 11 and 14 years, they have an exposure programme, when they go to various workplaces such as shops, small industries, service centres etc. for a month or so. They do these as projects, so that they retain much of their experiences. Only when they have finished a round of all the places, which may take up to 2 years or more, will they be allowed to choose a place to work in for half a day for a long stretch, say a year. This makes the whole schooling experience meaningful to both parents and children.

In our school we have given importance to our relations with parents. We expect them to be participants in this teaching-learning process. We call upon them every month to discuss what they feel about their children’s development and what they can do to better the atmosphere in the school. These parents are very involved. In fact they spend between Rs 60 to Rs 100 per child per month to send them to school. Except for textbooks, transport, and school fees, which are partially subsidised, nothing is given free.

ACCORD, an organization with which we have been associated has been working with the tribal community in Gudalur for the last six years. Our holistic approach of working together cooperatively, the small size of the school and therefore the individual attention that is given, the importance to non-academic activities and so on, attracted the attention of the tribal community here in Gudalur. We had already been working with them for over six years. The leaders then asked whether Vidyodaya could admit tribal children as it went well with the ethos of the tribal culture. This was readily agreed to. Now we have sixty-one tribal and twelve non-tribal children.

The process of Vidyodaya becoming an adivasi school began with the training of tribal youth to become teachers. A batch of ten men and women are undergoing a two-year training with us. They are also being trained in school management. Thus in a few years the school will be managed and run by the adivasis themselves, thereby enabling them to pass on their culture to the next generation. The time has come for adivasis to have their own institutions and show the world their own culture which has helped to sustain them for centuries. This is of particular importance these days, when the demand for sustainable alternatives is strong.

People often ask what is this adivasi culture that we are trying to promote? This is a very difficult question. There are some basic values which we have had to arrive at and which were already in existence in their culture—for example, cooperation, nonaggressiveness, being inclusive rather than exclusive, being non-hierarchical, having a relationship with nature and so on. But how does one integrate all this into the curriculum? To begin with we believe that knowing their history and how they came to be placed at the bottom of the social ladder is very important to restore their dignity. With help from the ‘culture team’ of ACCORD, we work with elders who come and teach the children their songs, stories, riddles, games etc. for one afternoon a week.

We have also been reading about aboriginal communities in Australia where they have begun their own schools and provide ‘western’ education as an option. We are right now trying to organize a group of teachers and community elders to go to Australia and visit these communities. We certainly have much to learn and we are still in the process of working out as many ideas as possible before formalising theminto a curriculum.

We believe it is important to know how and for what ends one will use information. That is where values come into focus. The question we continually ask ourselves is whether we are all the time trying to become better human beings in this process called education. A question that is difficult to answer, but one which will keep us on the right path. We have, therefore, no regret at all on having walkeda different path.