Inspiring school reform stories

EducationWorld April 2019 | Books

Not just grades: schools that educate differently, Rajeev Sharma, Penguin Random House; Rs.599; Pages 387

The problem about education reform is that everybody has strong views on education and parenting. After all, we have experience of education as children and later in life of parenting. This book is a useful resource for parents, educators, social workers, and policy makers who often get stumped by questions about school improvement and management because of their complexity and inter-connectedness in a rapidly changing social milieu.

Prof. Rajeev Sharma is a teacher at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, a seasoned practitioner of how to educate and/or update his readers in a professional manner. He defines the numerous dimensions of this problem and offers “solutions through stories”. These innovative stories written over two decades by Sharma and his colleagues, are presented as case studies derived from IIM-A’s School Leader Development Programme.

The book begins with the author’s throwback to ancient India (circa 2000 BCE) when upper caste children were schooled in free-of-charge gurukuls or ashrams where students would spend as many as 12 years inculcating discipline and studying a variety of subjects including animal husbandry, agricultural practices, banking, medicine, philosophy, mathematics etc. But with the advent of official British rule in the mid-19th century, the ‘beautiful tree’ of the gurukul system was uprooted, as described by educationist Dharampal in his eponymous book (1983). The imperial government instituted the system of publicly funded primary-secondary schools which suffered benign neglect because a literate population was inimical to the perpetuation of British rule.

Unfortunately, benign neglect of education continued in post-independence India with successive Central and state governments according low priority — and funding — to public primary-secondary education. Despite several high-powered committees (Kothari Commission (1966) and Subramaniam Committee (2016)) recommending that national spending (Centre plus states) on education be raised to 6 percent of GDP, annual education expenditure averaged 3.5 percent of GDP (cf. 6-10 percent in OECD countries) for the past 70 years after independence.
The outcome of continuous neglect of public education is that students’ learning outcomes are going from bad to worse. According to Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report 2018, which tested learning outcomes of class I-VIII children of 300,000 households in rural India, 27 percent of children in class VIII cannot read/comprehend class II textbooks, and a mere 44 percent can manage simple three-digits by one-digit division sums.

Against this dismal backdrop, in this enlightening book Sharma highlights ten schools scattered across the country which have pioneered progressive practices to provide holistic education, inclusivity, autonomy of teachers, remedial teaching, citizenship education, etc. Interestingly, the case studies include a diverse mix of schools — government, private unaided, private aided, NGOs and several managed under corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Among them: Chandrabala Modi Academy, Ankleshwar; Loreto Day School, Sealdah; Nilobray Vidyalaya, Ralegaon Siddhi; Bombay International School; Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Vidyamandir, Jamnagar; Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School, Thane; Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Delhi; Parikrma Humanity Foundation, Bangalore; Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul, Hariyala, Gujarat and TVS Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Madurai, all of whom had signed up for IIM-A’s School Leader Development Programme.

Though each case study is educative, some stories are exceptional. For instance, the CBSE-affiliated Chandrabala Modi Academy, Ankleshwar (CMA, estb.1992) sited in the arid Bharuch district of Gujarat, which witnessed increase in student enrolment from 300 to 1,000 over a ten-year period (1992-2002).

Under the leadership of the school’s founder-principal S.K. Bhattacharya, CMA developed a curriculum which blends academic with co-curricular activities with special emphasis on the ‘social dimension’ of education. Today, CMA students are effective activists involved in community service and have run successful campaigns against child labour, drug abuse, aided earthquake victims, etc.

Another transformational case is that of the Delhi state government-run Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya. This school, which has mostly first generation learners on its muster rolls, has introduced exemplary teacher incentivisation and peer mentoring programmes. Appointed principal in 2004, Usha Mittal has successfully motivated teachers and students to assume responsibility of ‘adopting’ academically weaker children and enabling them to catch up with their peers.

Not Just Grades also highlights the unique inclusive education programme of Loreto Day School, Kolkata. Decades before the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 made it mandatory for private schools to admit poor children in their neighbourhood into primary classes, Loreto Day School had initiated an inclusive education programme.

In 1979, principal Sister Cyril admitted 70 poor children with no access to schooling, free-of-charge. Since then, under the school’s missionary Rainbow programme, street children are taught and mentored by student peers until they are ready for classroom study. Additionally, in a departure from standard school recruitment practice, the Loreto management gives maximum weightage to teachers’ values and emotional intelligence rather than professional qualifications.

Although case studies of India’s top-ranked private schools are not presented in this book, Not Just Grades offers critiques of India’s rote-learning and exams centric K-12 education system, and features inspiring stories of school reform. It’s a readable and useful resource for creating a new crop of school leaders and educators who believe in institution development and wholesome, nurturing learning environments for children.

Mudit Mehrotra

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