The pragmatics of planning

Ranjini Krishnaswamy

One of the most important functions of a school head is planning the school calendar. Now this can be as simple or as complex as one makes it. For example, in a State-run or a government-run school, there is not much scope for flexibility as the major decisions, events and holidays have already been made. But I digress, let me start at the beginning.

The first thing to do is to mark out all Saturdays (assuming the school has a five-day week) and Sundays; next the vacation periods – Diwali and Christmas, and summer and winter breaks. Now this can vary depending on the State. For example, in West Bengal and Karnataka, Dasara is an important festival. In Maharashtra, Ganesh Utsav is given importance. But by and large we find that most schools give around 60-65 days long breaks. Then one has to figure in the holidays for Good Friday, Ramzan/Eid, Gandhi Jayanthi, etc. This comes to about another 10-12 days. So in effect, around 75 days are part of the vacation period. If one adds the weekends, then you are left with only about 200-220 days. It is indeed a tall order to teach, test and evaluate all that needs to be taught; plus include all the co-curricular activities that form part of the school curriculum.

The next important factor to be kept in mind is that most State run schools/State board schools start in June and end by April. ICSE schools usually have the freedom to begin their term either in March or June and end by February/April. CBSE schools invariably start around March 15 and go on till May 15 and then have a long break only to open by mid-June or early July, depending on the school location. International schools, on the other hand, have their breaks in June-July and reopen in August.

CBSE Schools
With respect to CBSE schools, certain things are non-negotiable like Central Government holidays. In a CBSE school it is mandatory that these holidays are followed. Again, the CBSE has clusters – city/state/region/national and a host of co-curricular activities are organized for the schools accordingly. It is important for the school to take part in these events, because it gives the school a presence, creating visibility. Also, the student participants get a token amount as a prize and this helps boost their morale.

But all these pose challenges for the school head. Again as far as CBSE is concerned many teachers are sent for Board corrections, leaving the school with several teachers short, making it very difficult to run the school during the months of March and April.

ICSE Schools
As far as ICSE schools are concerned, a fair amount of flexibility is allowed. So long as the requisite hours are put in there is little interference. Yes, here too challenges arise when teachers go to correct Board papers. However, a creative Head can use these months effectively to finish all the non-academic activities so that the rest of the term proceeds smoothly. There are competitions at the zonal and national level in which pupils can participate, and the preparation can start when academic pressure is not acute.

Having been the head of an ICSE school for around 25 years, I can state with confidence that we as a breed are truly empowered. The Board has certain guidelines and working hours which are mandatory; but beyond that, one has the freedom to plan and execute as one wishes. However as a principal of several years standing, my advice to all heads is to take your time planning, but once dates and schedules have been laid down in the calendar, avoid changing them unless there is no option. When one makes changes in the school calendar, you are sending out a message that you are not clear about what you want to do and that it is alright to make changes for whatever reason you may think necessary.

A good school head starts planning for the next year almost as soon as the current year begins. This gives a sense of perspective about the events to be organized and conducted; changes to be made due to the difficulty in executing the events and so on. Does that mean then that no change should be made to the school calendar? No, not at all. Plan your events month wise, not date wise. This gives you a sense of the timeline as well as the freedom to play around with the dates.

In fact, all parents of the school where I was the head knew the scheme of events and also how to be prepared for it. For example, they were aware that we started the school calendar for the middle school with the co-curricular activities and concert. This worked for us because all the senior teachers were out on corrections and the senior students were busy doing their projects. This could be supervised by a substitute teacher and since the students were aware of the importance of the projects, they took it seriously despite their own teachers not being present. The rest of the school was keen to return for the new term on a not-so-academic note and were excited about the concert and taking part in it. Parents too were supportive since they knew the school routine.

Again, administration is only one of the duties of a school principal. He/she is a principal because of the educational background that he/she possesses. The problems arise when one permits a clash of roles – the academician vs the administrator. In the process of being a good administrator, often the school head loses touch with his/her real function – nurturing – Tomorrow. Never ever stop teaching, even if you are taking a few classes a week. This keeps you grounded and you are aware of what is actually happening in the school. CCTVs may show you what is happening but it cannot help you understand feelings and emotions of the students. Children are able to easily tell between a good head who is truly concerned about their wellbeing and one who goes through the motions of being caring. My office door was always open, indicating that I was available to talk. Most people, whether students or adults hesitate to go to the principal’s office, so if they do enter, the principal must realize that the need to speak is real. Another thing is I came in much before the first bus rolled in and left only after everyone else had left. So what, you might ask? I stood at the school entrance welcoming children as they entered the school and knew every single child by name. This was what made the difference.

In all my 25 years, I made it a point to walk the talk, meet students, parents and teachers trying to understand what was needed. Am I making myself out to be a paragon of excellence? No, it is just that being a highly people-oriented person, their concerns were mine too. Today, unfortunately, processes are being given more importance and in the process, the human touch has reduced.

Today, I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. It is mostly policy, planning and mentoring new heads. As the Director of two schools, one that is established and one that I have just set up, I realize that while vision, mission and planning are important, it is equally important to ensure that the vision and mission of the school is visible in the planning processes and that they are filtered right down to all involved in the school including the ancillary staff.

State Board Schools
As far as State-run schools are concerned the school term usually begins by June 15 and the holidays, test schedules and examination periods are laid down in advance. So there is, as I said at the start, not much scope for the school head to make changes. Science exhibitions, ward competitions and zonal sports are all decided by the Education Department. Yes, over and above these, schools may have their own sports and other activities. Most schools like to participate in these zonal and state level events as it gives their pupils a platform to display their talents at a larger level.

International Board Schools:
With respect to International Boards, we have the CAIE (Cambridge Assessment on International Education) and the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme). CAIE has an examination at the end of the tenth grade (the IGCSE) but IBDP does not. Their exam is only at the end of grade XII. Nowadays, we have several schools offering both national and international curricula. Such schools usually stick to the April/June pattern. This helps in planning their annual days, field trips and so on.

With several International schools opening all over, the CAIE has especially introduced the March IGCSE examination for Indian candidates. Earlier, the exams were held in May/June and the results came out only by August leading to the loss of a year.

What conflicts if any do school heads face when planning their calendar?

By and large the academic year, if planned well, runs smoothly. The problem is when certain states have their elections and national level Board exams get affected. Last year, the entire Grade 10 ICSE exams stretched endlessly to accommodate the elections. Dates had to be changed and subjects accommodated and so on.

I also remember that last year, we had the local Municipal elections and there was an IGCSE exam paper scheduled for that day. We took special permission from the police and the local ‘powers’ that be to ensure that the paper was conducted smoothly.

Another challenge that one faces as a school head is that the teaching and non-teaching staff are called for an extended period of time to conduct census duty, poll duty and so on. Not only that, the school building along with its infrastructure is taken over by the authorities to conduct the elections. Nothing wrong with helping out, but the condition in which the school’s premises are returned is something best left unsaid. However private schools have taken a stand and refused to send their teachers for non-academic duties.
In CBSE schools, the texts used are the NCERT books and the State usually uses those edited by the SCERT. While these are of a fairly good standard, one is always hearing that textbooks are not available and pupils are left idle in the class.

In the case of International and ICSE schools there is no textbook prescribed. Each school is free to choose texts of its choice. The challenge here is that if the teachers are well qualified and creative the teaching-learning process can be taken to a new level. But in the hands of a not-so-creative teacher the whole thing is a disaster.

To conclude one can say that while challenges exist they are not insurmountable. We need to keep the following in mind:

Education, irrespective of which Board one is preparing for, should unify students and create Indian citizens with a global perspective. But because of the huge numbers in our country, education serves to divide and we have a set of young people who feel entitled, despite having done nothing to deserve it. Is speaking English, alone a yardstick for being educated?

One challenge that I find very obvious and in the face is that parents insist on running after the so called elite schools and students themselves feel a sense of low esteem because they are not in “a particular school”.

While planning their calendars, school heads need to always keep in mind the local ethos and culture which will at all times keep our students rooted. Since education is a concurrent subject, we also need to bear in mind the national leaders, their contributions and build through our curriculum an Indian student with a global vision. Any education that alienates a pupil from his country is no education at all.

If we look at things from a historical perspective, summer holidays were mainly introduced because the Britishers could not bear the heat and usually moved to cooler climes. We continue to follow that pattern blindly, without questioning it at all. In the course of my conversation with a few rural heads, I was told that they would like vacations during the monsoons. India being an agrarian economy needs as many hands as possible to plant, pick and transplant the crops.

While talking to several school heads, irrespective of the Board, one thing emerged clearly. Their message to the government is this – let us go about our business of preparing students for the future. Back off, we may take some time but we can and will do it. Don’t mix education with politics.

The author is Director, Billabong High International School, Thane and Director, Dosti Foundation School, Shil-Thane. She can be reached at jinikay@gmail.com.

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