Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: A giant step to solving India's educational challenge

Dear Prime Minister

Shanti Bhavan is an Indian school which has just seen its entire 10th class achieve First Division in the ICSE exam results just released.

ALL the students in the school are Dalits!

Are this year's results a fluke?


But that is less than likely, given that this is the second year in a row that the school has achieved this astonishing success.

In India's entire academic history, Shanti Bhavan is the first school for Dalits to achieve First Division in the ICSE exams for 2 years in a row. Over 1,500 schools in India and abroad take the ICSE annually.

You may wonder whether these students are, perhaps, from exceptionally RICH Dalit homes.

Actually, all are apparently from families facing extreme poverty - the parents are employed as sewer cleaners, quarry laborers, and so on. Many are, or have been bonded-laborers, trapped in debt to landowners and money-lenders.

Apparently, even though something like 25% of our population is Dalit, less than 5% of those who take the ICSE are from the "lowest castes." Graduating from high school has been difficult for Dalit children because of poverty, but an even more important factor is the social injustice that is rooted in our languages, scriptures and culture.

The Founder of the school, Shanti Bhavan, is Mr Abraham George whose family originally hails from Kerala even though he has created the school in Tamil Nadu.

"With this success", he writes in the Press Release announcing the results, "the door is wide open to our children, and they now have limitless opportunities to pursue higher education at top universities".

Well, that might be a bit of hyperbole, since it is not entirely impossible for a school to be available near a Dalit area, but a "top university" is far less likely to be available locally - so travel, accommodation, fees and the rest will have to be found if any of these Dalit children is to actually make it as a student into such a university.

However, Mr. George is right in indicating that, in principle, it is now possible for these children to find open doors at the top Indian or even foreign universities.

Dr. Dagmar Etkin, a former Harvard instructor and an environmental scientist, taught Chemistry and Environmental Studies to the 10th grade students at Shanti Bhavan. "The children of Shanti Bhavan are as intelligent and (now as) educated as any of their peers. They would fit in perfectly in a class of freshmen at Harvard" (brackets mine).

She added, "I cried when I saw their huts and the overwhelming poverty. It was difficult to believe this is where my students had come from. The ICSE results prove that Shanti Bhavan's model is working."

The Press Release closes with an appeal to individuals to donate money so that the good work of this school can continue and be extended.

Naturally, I support such an appeal for such a school - and I hope that you, Sir, can do so as well.

However, I wonder if the following might not be a better idea.

On the basis of value-for-money, should not the Government of Tamil Nadu hand over all poorly-performing government schools, one by one, to Dr George? If and when he has made an equally outstanding success of these schools, perhaps the Government of his State of origin, Kerala, might be willing to do the same? And what about the rest of the States in the country?

Alternatively, perhaps all Central Governemnt money which goes as subsidy to schools that are not performing well in ANY part of the country should, step by step, be handed over to Dr George?

The man and his team must be doing something right! Why not give him the resources to replicate that success right across our nation?

Naturally, as I believe in the merits of competition, I am not suggesting that all other schools should be shut down (government or private).

I suggest merely that all schools receiving government subsidy but not performing as outstandingly well as Shanti Bhavan should, gradually (with the respective government subsidy) be handed over to Dr. George.

At the very least, Dr. George's contribution should be recognized by the award of a Prize for National Integration, as he is a Keralite but has created the school in another State.

For your interest, the school's website is:

Yours sincerely

Prabhu Guptara

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