By a different standard

Gurveen Kaur

Perhaps one can do no better than ask people to listen to the old Hindi song “nirbal ki ladayi balwan se, yeh kahani hai diye ki aur toofan ki” (lyrics Bharat Vyas, 1956) to understand the challenges of running small alternative schools.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the chances of survival of a small alternative school are minuscule – especially when it is not affiliated to an established philosophy.

A small alternative school is often built by an individual or a small team, passionately committed to education and the children/individuals they work with. However, that doesn’t always leave time for the routine jobs essential for the survival of an organization. For one, they cannot run away from fundraising that adds to their work and comes with its own set of compulsions. Operating on shoestring budgets makes teambuilding and team-retaining difficult which affects them adversely.

While the more established, mainstream schools are evaluated by what they do (sometimes only claim to do), small alternative schools are judged by their shortcomings – regardless of their successes in transforming the lives of students who were cast out of mainstream schools as failures. People conveniently forget or ignore the fact that it is often to redress the lacuna of larger mainstream schools that people start and/or seek alternative educational spaces in the first place. In addition, as if it wasn’t enough for small alternative educational spaces to meet the challenge of surviving against the established, better endowed organizations, they are also judged by criteria that are appropriate for conventional schools but contrary and unsuitable to their educational philosophy.

It is true that many small alternative schools do not survive. Some close down within the life-span of their founders. However, the inability of many such schools to survive does not prove that the ideas forming the core of these schools are untenable or impractical or worthless. They merely point to the enormity of the challenge of swimming against the current.

Should we conclude then that it is futile to set up alternative schools? Well, only if we ignore the contribution that these alternative schools make:

  1. Providing joyful, holistic education for students who leave as more stable individuals with the necessary academic skills and a zest for learning.
  2. Enabling many dropout students re-join the educational system and survive.
  3. Inspiring conventional teachers and schools to explore more joyful, child-friendly ways of teaching.
  4. Opening the possibility of exploring other ways of teaching-learning – for instance, working collaboratively instead of being driven by fear and competition.
  5. Becoming an occasion for public education by providing an intellectual space for questioning and critiquing conventional education.
  6. Leading to the emergence of individuals who then demand improvements within mainstream school.
  7. Inspiring and encouraging other individuals to start their own alternative centres.
  8. Being a testimony to the fact that the people have not become passively dependent and uncritically accepting of the system/government but retain the capacity and initiative to come up with new and better ideas.

Hence, perhaps the question we must ask is not whether small alternative schools are sustainable but whether they are worthwhile and make a difference – in the years of their existence.

The author works at Centre for Learning – A Place Where Learning is Fun, Secunderabad. She is passionate about finding/exploring ways to make education more personally meaningful. She can be reached at

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