India’s best boys boarding schools

EducationWorld December 2020 | Cover Story

The biggest upset of EWISR 2020-21 is the toppling of The Doon School, Dehradun, ranked #1 since 2007, from its premier podium position in the boys boarding schools category

Although gender segregated schools are increasingly going out of fashion in the new age of women’s lib and equality, some of India’s vintage all-boys boarding schools sited in salubrious hill stations in the best traditions of Great Britain’s famous boys boarding schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Rugby, have acquired formidable reputations that endure within post-independence India’s elite, upper and aspirational middle classes.

However, in recent years, vintage all-boys boarding schools established in the 19th century (Bishop Cotton Boys, Shimla, St. Paul’s, Darjeeling, among others) have been eclipsed in the popular imagination by legacy boarding schools with Indian flavour. In particular, the class VI-XII The Doon School (TDS, estb.1935) promoted with nationalist impulses on the eve of India’s independence emerged as a role model school for the great majority of boys and girls boarding schools.

Therefore, unsurprisingly since the pioneer EducationWorld India School Rankings (EWISR) were introduced in 2007, TDS has been voted the #1 boys boarding school, except in 2014 when that year’s sample respondents awarded top rank to Bishop Cotton, Shimla. However over the past decade, the total score gap between TDS and runners-up who have replicated its best practices has been closing.

Last year (2019-20), the pronouncedly culturally nationalist The Scindia School, Gwalior (SSG, estb.1897) was jointly top ranked with TDS, and this year’s 11,368 sample respondents have decisively voted SSG #1 with a clear margin. This is undoubtedly the biggest upset of EWISR 2020-21.

Informed monitors of the national education scene attribute the erosion of TDS’ formidable brand equity to the school’s board of governors, breaking with latter-day tradition and appointing two expatriates in succession as headmasters of this all-boys boarding school, promoted (by brilliant Calcutta barrister S.R. Das) eight decades ago out of nationalist impulses and as a reaction to several vintage boys boarding schools established by our erstwhile masters expressing reluctance to admitting the progeny of even upper class natives.

In 2009 after notable academic Kanti Bajpai, currently professor at National University of Singapore, retired, having served a six-year tenure as headmaster of this class VI-XII school, whose alumni are a veritable Who’s Who of the Indian establishment, the school’s governing board appointed Dr. Peter Mclaughlin who served two three-year terms (2009-16) and Matthew Raggett who was reportedly sacked earlier this year. Clearly, the appointment of these two red brick university graduates of no special merit as headmasters of this premier boys boarding school in succession has disappointed well-informed EW sample respondents who have dislodged it from its usual position in the annual EWISR.

Following the termination of Raggett’s contract in March, the TDS board of governors chaired by Sunil Kant Munjal, chairman of Hero Motorcorp Ltd, has made amends by appointing the highly articulate and experienced Dr. Jagpreet Singh, a former TDS teacher and hitherto principal of the Punjab Public School, Nabha which he quickly raised from obscurity into a EWISR Top 10 institution. Under Singh who has an excellent track record and is highly regarded within the country’s primary-secondary education community, there’s a good chance that TDS will recover its good reputation and assume its normative #1 ranking in future EWISR league tables.

Be that as it may, in the sprawling campus of the Scindia School, set within the ramparts of Gwalior Fort in the Hindi heartland state of Madhya Pradesh, lamentations about TDS being dislodged from last year’s shared podium, are unlikely to be heard. With top scores under the parameters of teacher welfare and academic reputation and near top-scores on all other parameters, SSG has been voted the country’s top ranked boys boarding school by a comfortable 12 points margin.

“We are delighted and humbled by the solo #1 ranking that your informed 11,000-plus sample respondents have awarded SSG this year. It’s very satisfying that the institutional objective that we have set for SSG — to develop into the country’s foremost centre for primary-secondary learning, creativity, and innovation — has been validated by your knowledgeable sample respondents. I believe that our top ranking this year is due to the continuous support and encouragement extended to the management and teachers by our students, parents, old boys and the Board of Governors. Credit must also be given to our entire faculty and support staff who have ensured that teaching-learning has continued online during these challenging pandemic times. We value our cooperative and progressive teachers very highly. Therefore, I’m very pleased that SSG has been awarded the highest scores under the parameters of teacher welfare and development and teacher competence,” says Dr. Madhav Deo Saraswat, an English and Hindi postgraduate of Agra University, former teacher at TDS, and principal of SSG for the past five years during which this all-boys residential school that has 550 students and 67 teachers on its muster rolls, has consistently risen in the annual EWISR league tables.

With SSG promoted to the very top of the legacy boys boarding schools league table this year, the second spot is shared by TDS and Mayo College with the latter maintaining its #2 ranking of 2019-20. This minor reshuffle apart, the Top 5 table comprises the very same institutions as last year. Welham Boys is ranked #3 (cf. 2 in 2019-20), followed by St. George’s College, Mussoorie at #4 (3) and Bishop Cotton Boys, Shimla and the low-profile Sarala Birla Academy, Bengaluru (7) jointly ranked #5 pushing St. Paul’s Darjeeling to #7 (5).

Evidently, despite the blue chip Mayo College (estb.1875) being ranked #2 all-India and #1 in Rajasthan (pop.68 million), Lt. Gen. (Retd) Surendra Kulkarni, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, the straight-talking principal of this vintage school promoted 145 years ago to educate progeny of the royals of pre-independence India’s 500 princely states, is less than euphoric about Mayo’s next best place on this year’s podium, despite its top rating under the parameter of leadership. This has prompted Gen. Kulkarni to question the credibility of the sample respondents.

“There are apples and oranges which can’t be compared even within the category of boys boarding schools. Indeed very few schools in India can be compared with Mayo College under a wide range of parameters. For instance, you have rated Welham Boys higher than us under the parameter of value for money. Please compare the fees of the two schools and see what they offer on a 30-acre campus vis-a-vis our 186-acre campus. Second, for Welham Boys itself, you have given the school a huge jump under the parameter of leadership this year. Has Sangeeta Kain done something magical in a year in the wake of Gunmeet Bindra who was ranked #1 for her leadership during the past five years? I have taken the trouble to point these things out because your magazine is the one a majority of people refer to for rankings. You have created a fantastic business model but you could create a legacy which becomes the gold standard in credibility,” advises Kulkarni.

In defence of EWISR 2020-21, Kulkarni and other critics of the world’s largest schools rankings survey, should note that the survey is based on the perceptions, not intimate factual knowledge, of 11,368 sample respondents. Parents of school-going children who constitute the majority of the sample respondents database can hardly be expected to have detailed education domain knowledge, and they vote according to their perceptions shaped by anecdotal evidence, informal dinner table conversations and bazaar gossip. In the circumstances, institutions that invest in brand building, devise communication strategies and public information campaigns will inevitably be higher ranked than publicity shy institutions averse to scrutiny. Regrettably, Mayo College falls within the latter category.

The remainder of the Top 10 table is made up of Birla Public School, Pilani at #6 (6); St. Paul’s, Darjeeling #7 (4); Birla Vidyamandir, Nainital #8 (5); Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehradun #9 (8) and the B.K. Birla Cente for Education, Pune (BKBCE, estb.1998) which has risen high in the public esteem to be ranked among the Top 10 (14) countrywide.

In this connection, it’s noteworthy that four low-profile boys boarding schools promoted by the well-known business house of Birla are ranked among the Top 10. Various branches of the Birla Group seem intent upon making an impact in K-12 education by way of gender segregated institutions. None of the Birla schools nationwide is co-ed.

“The entire school management and staff thank your sample respondents for elevating us to the national Top 10 table and ranking us the premier boys boarding school of the industrially advanced state of Maharashtra. We value this recognition by EducationWorld whose veracity and authenticity are unparalleled. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the management, staff, students and parents whose strong support has paved the way to this great achievement. EducationWorld has ranked us Maharashtra’s #1 boys boarding school since 2015-16 and since then we have committed ourselves to maintaining this ranking in the state which has a large and diverse population of over 110 million,” says Dr. S.K Sanyal, an alumnus of Bombay and Osmania universities who acquired over two decades of teaching and admin experience in several institutions countrywide, including St. Joseph’s, Kolkata, St. Xavier’s, Mumbai and YPS, Mohali before he was appointed principal of BKBCE in 2013.

Beyond the Top 10, several schools have made impressive advances in this year’s boys boarding league table. Among them: Atmiya Vidya Mandir, Surat at #13 (18) nationally and #1 in Gujarat (pop. 65 million); Rashtriya Military School, Chail (Himachal Pradesh) #16 (18); the previously unranked Gurukul, Kurukshetra (Haryana), Sainik School, Golpara (Assam) and St. Hilda’s (Boys), Ooty (Tamil Nadu) at #17, 18 and 23 respectively.

Although in normal times, state rankings are not of great importance for boarding schools, in these pandemic times they assume some importance as anxious parents may be disinclined to send their children to distant residential schools. In the circumstances the #1 rankings in their states of the schools named above in EWISR 2020-21 is not inconsequential.  

Also read: India’s best girls boarding schools 2020-21

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