There is probably a popular misconception that alternative schools are all alike and that while they differ from mainstream schools they are similar in themselves. It is closer to the truth to think of alternative schools as a diverse set of responses to the perceived issues, concerns, and deep philosophical differences between the founders of these schools and mainstream education. Having said that alternative schools may or may not be similar to each other; I want to go on to say that most alternative schools are focused upon a set of core values and seek out pedagogical processes that are aligned to these values. Differences in the core values may result in differences in the pedagogical approaches found in the different alternate schools.
As an alternative school, Poorna is based on a vision of education that actively promotes greater equity and social justice. In order to be caring members of a social group, children need to feel understood and secure and need to be able to work with others. We are aware that actions speak louder than words… and we must practice what we preach! Thus our approach is child-centred, holistic, and inclusive. No doubt this makes the work of teachers at Poorna that much harder.
In terms of social inclusion Poorna has always accepted children from families who are not able to afford the fees for private education. At present, well over 25 per cent of children across the different age groups are from economically weaker sections of the society. Has this posed a challenge for our work? Yes, and it has been one that we have willingly shouldered. One of our core values is that every child must feel unconditionally accepted as a member of the school community. To this end we have worked at the level of teachers and students to understand how inclusion can become a part of our daily interactions both in the context of classroom learning and in the context of the informal social interactions that form the bedrock of relationships between students from different backgrounds. Explaining how inclusion is practiced at different levels across the school perhaps could form the topic for a future article.
Our approach to visible differences between children in terms of dress and appearance is not to gloss over these by prescribing a uniform and create a superficial semblance of sameness. We choose instead to celebrate diversity and actively converse with children when dress and appearance become linked to negative labels. We want children to understand that all types of legitimate occupations are valuable in society and that no child need feel ashamed that their parent is earning through manual work. All children participate in the work of cleaning the school premises and teachers too are encouraged to do this even though there are designated staff members whose role it is to maintain the premises. Every Wednesday, children of one age group cook and serve food for the entire school including visitors who may be present in school on that day. The food preparation, serving, and cleaning up are all done by the children themselves. Care is taken not to use manual work as a punitive measure and nor is it spoken of in derogatory terms. One of our students who is now in college, was proud to inform a visiting journalist that her father is a construction worker.
During school trips that require parents to contribute towards the travelling expenses, we ask for and receive support for children whose parents would not be able to afford the expense. Fee paying parents at Poorna are told at the time of admission that the fees they pay will also cross subsidize the education of children who can’t pay for their education. We are proud to say that our parents have always been eager to contribute towards the welfare of less privileged children in many ways.
Many of the children who come to Poorna, do not come from homes where English is spoken and since the medium of education is English this too has been an area where we are constantly trying to reflect on our practices to see what we can do to ensure curricular justice. Stemming from our core value that each child must feel equally accepted, we do not place any restriction on the languages that may be spoken by a child while at school. Children are encouraged to express their feelings, needs, and thoughts in whatever language they like and teachers avoid overtly correcting a child in terms of grammar or pronunciation. This has the happy consequence of children becoming comfortable in English but also in other languages that they hear their friends speak. Likewise, while teaching writing, teachers may ignore spelling and grammar if the main objective of the lesson is to encourage creative writing. Of course, teachers may specifically choose to focus on spellings or syntax during other classroom activities. This space for creative expression allows children to grow in confidence while focused attention is given by teachers to improve specific skills in non-threatening ways.
So, the 25% reservation for children from weaker sections is an aspect of RTE that is wholeheartedly welcomed by Poorna. However, some other concerns must be mentioned. One of these is the worry that school inspectors will make a very narrow and mechanical interpretation of the infrastructure that is required of schools. While fully agreeing with the need for schools to have good classroom spaces, libraries, and laboratories, we at Poorna were taken aback when the school inspectors questioned the architectural style of our building. Our building is designed to reflect our philosophy of open learning and therefore our classrooms do not have doors. The classrooms articulate into the building and are therefore weather proof, so we were at a loss to explain to the inspector why we felt doors were not needed. Each classroom space is designed to accommodate a maximum of 15 children and although this is well within the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) norms of the RTE, the inspector felt our classrooms were too small for 30 children… which of course they were! I would like to suggest that school inspection officers be oriented to the spirit of the RTE so that they can make a reasoned judgment about the adequacy of the alternate school’s infrastructure rather than going by the rule book.
Another area of concern is the threat to alternative schools posed by a similar narrow interpretation of the curriculum by the state’s educational bureaucracy. No doubt the RTE is well intentioned in its stipulation that children must be taught a standard curriculum. If one goes by the spirit of contextualization and decentralization in the 2005 National Curriculum Framework, then one may rightly conclude that there is scope for a varied and contextually valid interpretation of the National Curriculum guidelines. However, if a state, while framing the RTE rules, becomes heavily prescriptive in terms of curriculum, textbooks and pedagogies to be followed, then most alternative schools will find it very hard if not impossible to maintain the progressive nature of their classrooms. Alternative schools should be allowed to flexibly interpret the curriculum so that genuine learning takes place and at the same time curricular choices in terms of crafts, farming, arts, etc., can be exercised by students in these schools.
The author is a Founder Trustee, Poorna Learning Centre and faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.