Alternative Schools in India; Some Advantages and Disadvantages
This post is about alternative schools in India, with a focus on Krishnamurti schools, the advantages and the disadvantages-particularly from the point of view of my experience and the experience of a few other people I know who went to Krishnamurti schools.
The school I went to is classified as an “alternative school.” I went only for the last two years of my school life, whereas A was there for much longer (I met him there). I went to a fairly mainstream school in Bombay before that, though it did try to be different within the mainstream idiom.
What people define as “alternative” can vary-and this can simply mean an “alternative” board e.g IB rather than the Indian boards, or they might mean a style of education such as Montessori.
It cannot be stressed enough that children and young people can experience the same schools and styles of education very differently. Also, it must be remembered it has been some years since I went to school (!) though I am still in touch with my old school and what is going on there.
The post is inspired by a discussion on Poppin’s blog. Some questions arose there that I thought I’d address at greater length here.
What is a Krishnamurti school? Krishnamurti was an Indian philosopher who strongly believed that children should learn in an environment free from fear. He started some schools which are run by the Krishnamurti Foundation India. There are some other Krishnamurti schools, that are not a part of the Foundation, but are inspired his teachings. The schools are not religious, or based on any religious philosophy. Here is a link to what the KFI website says about the “K” schools.
I thought I’d tackle some of the common points (some of them myths) that arise when there is a discussion about alternative schools first:
The schools all have an international curriculum:
This is not true for all of them. A lot of them follow the ICSE system (as opposed to CBSE), an Indian board. For the 12th standard, the ISC board is followed. Rishi Valley School, The Valley School, The School etc of the “K” schools all follow an ICSE syllabus. The Rajghat School follows a CBSE syllabus. A lot of the newer alternative schools in India also follow the ICSE syllabus, such as the schools that follows the Steiner-Waldorf model. A few schools, such as Shibumi and Centre for Learning follow IGCSE/ GCE exams (administered by Cambridge University) and A levels.
Alternative Schools Are all very Expensive:
I think people often conflate alternative schools with “international” schools and automatically assume that they will be expensive. There are some very expensive international schools in India, that do follow alternative models, at least in so far as they are “alternative” to the more conventional schools. But there are alternative schools that have been around for ages, such as the K schools and Mirambika that charge around the same as lots of other schools. Some of the alternative schools are boarding schools and thus charge more, but are not necessarily the most expensive boarding schools around. Some alternative schools offer scholarships and take children when the parents are unable to meet the full fees. Rishi Valley School’s policy on funding is as follows:
In a typical year there are about 6 scholarship students, including children from families engaged in social work in remote parts of the country. Fee reductions are made available so that fees are adjusted to family incomes provided students qualify on the entrance tests.
Fees are not discussed before admission is offered. Families are encouraged to view fees as a contribution to sustain the school rather than a fee for a service. We have successfully put in place, with parents’ cooperation, a fee structure that reflects the family’s financial situation.
Children who go to alternative schools will not be able to enter good institutions of higher learning:
In my view this is nonsense, though some will disagree with me. People from my class went on to the finest colleges in India and abroad. I went to one of the best colleges in India straight after school and then to one of the world’s top universities. As did A. As did many of our classmates. The principal of my Indian college told me she particularly looked out for students from my school (I’m sorry if this sounds like showing off, but there is no other way to say it). Of course there are some who didn’t get into a “top college,” but then not everyone from a mainstream school gets into the best colleges, and this is due to a range of a factors. There is, also, of course, the question of whether one can always really judge a person’s intelligence by the college she gets into…
Children who go to alternative schools will not get get jobs (by this people mean the person will not be able to climb the corportate ladder):
Also nonsense, in my view. Not only are several graduates from alternative schools climbing the corporate ladder, they are pretty well off as well. In fact some of them are doing better than conventionally educated kids. It’s true that some alternatively educated children think of different career choices. But why not? Not everyone is cut out to do a corporate job. So what if they became scientists, academics, film-makers, dancers and musicians? Not all conventionally educated kids are cut out for corporate jobs either. The difference is that in an alternative school you may get a better chance to develop your talents and at least think of a career where you might put your talents to good use, instead of mindlessly doing something you hate, just because it’s the done thing.
TM Krishna is a product of The School, Chennai, a Krishnamurti School, and is on record as saying his schooling had a great deal of influence on him.
I did my schooling in ‘The School’ K.F.I. This is an institution managed by the J.Krishnamurthy Trust. My education and grooming in this school has influenced my perceptions and outlook towards life. The school was different in terms of the atmosphere and method of education to all other schools. I was very interested in Economics from my school days. This made me pursue a graduation course in Economics. I did my B.A. Economics in Vivekananda College. I guess if I had not taken to music I would have followed up my graduation with something like management.
Clearly, he did consider a more “mainstream” choice, i.e. management. It’s good for all of us he chose to become a singer instead!
At my school, Carnatic music was offered as a subject for the ICSE, so those who could sing were encouraged to learn it seriously.
Alternatively educated kids will not be able to take competitive exams:
This is related to the points above: I took an exam to enter my college after school and then later the world renowned university I joined. I passed them. But I have to be honest and say that opinion is mixed about this issue.
R1, who also went to an alternative school (for longer than I did), feels that an inability to take competitive exams could be a point held against alternative schools. She says, “We aren’t used to mugging!”
Shripriya who went to another “K” school agrees with this view (see further below).
But I am not so convinced, especially since R1 is herself an example of a person who is very good at cracking exams.
A, who was in an alternative boarding school since the grand old age of seven, has been cracking exams with great ease for years. He says that the school tried to dissuade him from being so competitive and he resents that (though he loved the school). Knowing A as I do, I don’t think that what the school did was such a bad thing!
Here is a quote from a student who went to an alternative school who passed a competitive exam:
Amitabh shares the news that he has got through the IAS examination, then writes that people keep asking how he gets through competitive examinations after having studied in a noncompetitive school. “The school taught me to compete,” he muses, “not with others, but with my own self. I learnt to pursue excellence.”
On the other hand there are children who are very bright, but just not good at doing exams. I think alternative schools might be good for some of them, because they take some of the tension away. See further below.
Advantages of being in an alternative school:
Again, this section is totally coloured by my experience, others may have a different opinion.
Lack of pressure:
The first and overwhelming feeling I had, when I switched from my more mainstream school in Bombay to my alternative school, was the feeling of freedom. In Bombay I carried a heavy schoolbag, was constantly tired and had this unmistakeable sense of pressure looming over me. I found it much easier to study and enjoy my classes at my alternative school. This was despite the fact that I had many other things to occupy me such as violin lessons, games, hikes, yoga, pottery etc. In fact I think it was because of these extra activities that studying became easier. I had no school bag, we all did our “homework” together at prep time after PE in the evening and it was fun.
An emphasis on a natural environment:
The K schools at least, are usually situated in a lovely landscape; the sense of space and greenery made all the difference to our lives. We had space to play, time to observe the birds (in some cases this was compulsory!) and watch the rain while we sang (the auditorium was open on all sides). A and I became friends during a paper recycling class (also compulsory) while we were making paper pulp. We composted and gardened and studied calculus and French literature. My completely concrete school with a small sandpit in Bombay could not compare.
Good Student-Teacher Ratio:
I had one on one classes with some of my teachers who were PhDs in their subjects (and who also taught well). I would spend hours learning a particular subject, far beyond the allotted time, and it was ok. As long as I finished what was on the syllabus, we went far beyond it, studying anything that interested us. Classes for several subjects were conducted under trees.
Even if we were at full class size in the classroom, there was usually only a maximum of 25 students.
An emphasis on independent thinking:
Both A and R1 came up with this when I asked them what they felt was the advantage of going to an alternative school.R1 said “it forces you to approach everything in life actively, questioning rather than accepting.” A says he wasn’t tied to any single belief, religious or otherwise and also metioned being questioning about everything.
An ability to attract highly qualified teachers really committed to education:
There are many PhDs in math and science, historians and linguists, who have a passion for education and give up lucrative careers to teach and to teach in a way that is inspiring.
Disadvantages of Alternative Schools:
I am not sure all the points here will be viewed as disadvantages by everyone. It depends largely on what opinion one holds on “conforming.”
Being unable to “conform:”
R1 said alternatively educated kids might
find it harder to ‘settle’ or conform with the standards in society and keep up with life’s milestones – work, marriage etc. Of course, one could philosophically question whether one should feel obliged to stick to these milestones, but in real life it can get pretty hard when you deviate from them.
I think us “alternative” products have conformed, i.e. married, had kids, worked-but maybe done these conformist things in a non-conformist way, sometimes.
MaidinMalaysia, in a comment on Poppins blog, had this to say some friends of hers who went to The Valley School:
— they are original thinkers, and march to a different drummer.
i dont think they were even aware that there was a rat race and they had to be in it.
i would call them gyan-driven as opposed to moolah-driven
Now whether one sees this as an advantage or a disadvantage is up to the parents really!
A lack of good teachers
Now this may come as surprise, given that I’ve just said above that alternative schools can attract the best teachers! Sometimes they attract teachers who are “running away” from the world and have a host of issues (particularly if it is a boarding school) that leave them unable to deal with their charges.
Secondly, some alternative schools pay their teachers a very low salary, so some good teachers are forced to leave, despite their commitment to teaching and education. This is an area I think my school got terribly wrong.
CFL says its salaries are need based, “calling for commitment and openness from the staff.” I think this calls for an extraordinary level of commitment, that can be rather unfair on both teachers and students.
Teachers and their families have to survive too, and that is increasingly difficult. As for the students, on the one hand they can get a really committed teacher, on the other they can get really bad teaching, because bad salaries often attract only the worst teachers.
Students can thus be left with teachers who aren’t very good at all, and the consistency in the quality of teaching can be lacking, but it must be remembered this can happen in a conventional school as well.
Shripriya summarised what she sees as the pros and cons of alternative schools as follows:
- sense of self; not defined by the crowd. they really encourage this. it is awesome
- respect for authority, but a good amount of disdain for it as well. they used to allow us to walk out of class if we wanted. it goes to #1 as well.
- learned in a non-traditional way – going and examining leaves for science class. walking outside. unheard of in the traditional sense.
- exercise. daily instead of weekly at most regular schools.
- arts and craft – also a lot of exposure to this and very non-traditional stuff. i used to learn how to model in card board, papier mache, photography (at 7/8 years old). i mean, seriously, they made this part of the education, not something that was tacked on because it had to be.
- singing – lots of singing. singing classes, singing bhajans, singing carols. it was awesome.
- it just felt free and enjoyable. i used to love to go to school. i used to cry if i couldn’t go. now, there’s a reversal if there ever was one.
- unfortunately we live in a world where competition exists. where public exams exist. where there are, in fact, losers and winners. so, in this regard, the school was like an unreal bubble.
- it was really bad at preparing students for exams. i finally got taken out of my alternative school at the end of the 6th grade – when the first batch went through their public exams and things didn’t go so well. I went to a regular school with lots of mid-terms and test. i was paralyzed and had no clue how to take these simple little tests.
in retrospect, leaving KFI when i did was the perfect right thing. just like spending my youth there was also the perfect right thing.
My experience was the opposite of Shripriya’s in that I joined an alternative school for the 11th and 12th and thought that was perfect! I wish I had joined a little earlier, maybe around the 7th standard.
In conclusion, therefore, I think one must take each school on it’s own merits, and see whether one’s child will fit in there. It really is different strokes for different folks when it comes to schools. And there’s a vast variety of alternative schools-they can be quite different from each other, even when they follow the same model-such as the K schools.
Some articles on alternative schools in India:
Links to some alternative schools in India: (Please feel free to leave more links in the comments):
The School, Chennai
Centre for Learning
Sloka, The Steiner school in Hyderabad.
The Blue Mountains School
The Sahyadri School
Updated to add: There is a new residential K school outside Chennai-Pathashaala