Sunday Anchor

In a class of their own

For parents of today, finding a “good school” for their children is a quest that requires a lot of thought and effort. But in the past few years, what defines a “good school” is seeing some change in metros and other big cities. Though serpentine queues for admissions to mainstream schools with a track record in producing academic results are only getting longer, the demand for “alternative schools” is on the rise.

Tucked away in a silent corner on the outskirts of Bangalore, The Valley School, run by Krishnamurti Foundation India, which believes in a philosophy of holistic learning, received 250 applications for admission to 13 or 14 slots in Class One in 2013.

“We never received more than an average of 100 applications till 2012,” S. Jayaram, Principal of the school, says.

It is not just this school where applications are pouring in. Shibumi in Bangalore South has closed admissions till 2015-16 because any more admissions will upset its student-teacher ratio. Poorna Learning Centre near Sathnur on the outskirts of the city reached saturation at 140 children in 2014-15, as opposed to 90 last year.

Schools described as “alternative” do not subscribe to any single philosophy, but one common thread that runs through them is that they do not keep academic performance as the only yardstick for a child’s growth and believe in child-centric learning. This principle seems to be attracting parents across major cities in India.

“Over the past decade, there has been an increased awareness among parents who are looking for a stress-free study environment,” says Sheela Parthasarathy, Montessori Head at Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School, Chennai. As she puts it, parents too are learning — that examinations happen by the way, but learning is a life-long process.

K. Srilatha, Professor at the Department of Humanities, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, shifted her daughter K. Ananya, 12, from a well-known mainstream school in Chennai to Cascade Montessori Resource Centre at Adyar in the city. “She is a very interested learner. But for her temperament, I sensed that she would do well in a place which is not so regimented,” Professor Srilatha says.

Fifteen years ago, people like Ramdas Rao, former Professor of English at Bangalore University and human rights activist, put their children in alternative schools when they returned from abroad and found the schools here too regimented. Now, a much larger number of middle-class parents in India look at alternative schools as a good option.

For instance, Smruti Koppikar, a senior journalist in Mumbai, who enrolled her daughter in an alternative school, recommends the alternative option to all parents who look at education as a means to make a child a better human being since this method of schooling gives a broader perspective to young minds. Vipula Mehta, mother of a six-year-old in Bangalore, is on the lookout for a school that provides “freedom and space that inculcates a love of learning.” Both feel that schools that provide such spaces are too few, though there is a growing demand.

Mr. Jayaram, however, sees this enthusiasm with a spot of caution. He says the increasing interest “is not always for the right reasons.” While some parents are invested in the philosophy of alternative systems, there are those who approach them because enrolment in such a school has a certain prestige value.

One reason for the spike in interest in his own school could be because an educational website ranked it among the “best schools in India.” In fact, competition to get into the school is contrary to its philosophy of a competition-free environment for learning. “We prefer to remain out of the limelight,” Mr. Jayaram says.

It is important to make a clear distinction between “alternative schools” and “schools that adopt alternative teaching methods,” adds Rohan D’Souza, a teacher at the Centre for Learning near Magadi outside Bangalore. Many parents approach them seeking the latter, unaware that they are guided by a philosophy that looks at learning in a non-competitive and child-centric way.

In fact, most of these schools do not wish to be branded as “alternative schools” as their focus is on an entirely different outlook towards education. “I would say our method is progressive rather than alternative,” Mr. Jayaram says.

For parents, a key change may be the slow dissipation of the fear that “alternative” schools make children incapable of facing up to fierce competition. “They certainly don’t become misfits,” says Neeraja Raghavan, who has taught in alternative schools and co-edited Alternative Schooling in India (Sage Publication).

Also, most of these schools, at the levels of Class 10 and Class 12, provide entry into mainstream examination systems through the Indian Council of Secondary Education, the National Institute of Open Schooling, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education or the General Certificate of Education administered by Cambridge University and so on.

However, yet another old criticism against alternative schools that they end up as elite spaces has not entirely gone away. Professor Rao says the socioeconomic background of parents they attract tends to make them exclusive, though the education philosophy that guides them may not be. “That is why their efforts at inclusiveness appear like tokenism,” he says.

Mr. Jayaram says the way to approach this criticism is “to be aware of it and make a constant effort to be genuinely inclusive,” adding that his school is not exclusive in terms of intake, with a mix of children from the immediate neighbourhood and those admitted under the Right to Education quota for the underprivileged at the entry level. Poorna has 40 children who are provided free education, while places like the Centre for Learning and Shibumi have fee structures that reflect the family’s financial situation rather than a fixed one.

Sharad Jain, a founding member of Shibumi, says the question of exclusivity cannot be dismissed because it is largely the upper middle-class section open to experimenting that is drawn to these schools. “In fact, children who come to our schools may themselves turn around and question us and our methods. In fact we want them to [do that],” he says.

(With additional reporting by Vinaya Deshpande in Mumbai)

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