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School cool
- The new schools may look like an amusement park. What do they teach?

Press a button and the wall starts to sing a nursery rhyme. Close to it is a colourful zoo of life-size models of animals. A lion family rests in a cave surrounded by chimps, elephants, rhinoceroses, alligators and camels. The singing wall is a corridor between classrooms. A play area is done up with soft floors, swings, slides, see-saws, soft air-filled jumping boards, slides ending in a tub of coloured balls and play tunnels.

It may look like an amusement park or the kid’s zone at a mall, but it is Indus Valley World School, one of the many high-end new-age schools that are opening in the city. Calcutta is catching up with other Indian metros.

Drab walls, wooden desks and chairs and blackboards are passe. “We got an Australian company to do the designing. It’s not just about looking good, or being a nice environment — everything from the curriculum is visually represented. Having something in front of their eyes makes it easier for the kids to grasp the subject,” says Usha Mehta, the principal-director of Indus Valley.

“Just like five star hotels there are five star schools. But our school is not so luxurious. We aim for a balance,” says John Bagul, the principal of South City International School, which takes in students up to Class V. The school is centrally air-conditioned. So are the buses. At The Heritage School, even the infirmary for the primary section with its little bed, bright curtains and toys looks cosy. It is a far cry from the “sick room” of yore.

Only Lakshmipat Singhania Academy, which started in 1996, is more than a decade old. Heritage started in 2001, Indus Valley in 2007 and South City in 2009.

E-learning

The senior section at Indus Valley (the school admits students up to Class VIII) has an almost office-like sophistication. The tables and chairs can be adjusted to the height of each student.

But it’s not merely the look. The schools consider themselves pioneers in innovative teaching methods. Technology is used extensively. All the classrooms at Heritage have a computer and television screen.

South City and Indus Valley have done away with the blackboard and have installed interactive boards in all their classrooms, which are attached to a computer and a projector and function like a touchscreen. “Not only can you write on it but each day’s lesson is also stored in the machine to form a data bank,” says a teacher at Indus Valley.

The school has a system of student voting. “After the lessons, students are asked questions and given options for the right answer. They have a voting device, a series of buttons, which they press and the answers are registered in the teacher’s computer against each student’s name,” she says.

This protects the child from embarrassment in case he or she doesn’t know the correct answer, the teacher explains. Though this may not necessarily teach him that most of life’s problems can’t be solved by pressing a button.

Lakshmipat Singhania says the school follows activity-based teaching methods. “If the students are studying a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, we take them to Santiniketan,” says principal Meena Kak. “We give very little homework in the junior classes, and if the children pay attention in class, they would not need a tutor,” she adds.

Happy parents

Most parents love it. “Once a week they have a shower at school, where they dance under a shower and sing and let their hair down. Stalls are set up in school and the children go shopping,” says Tandrima Bhattacharya, the mother of five-year-old Agneesh, who studies in Heritage. “Because we are new, we are open to changes. We are a progressive school,” says Seema Sapru, the principal of Heritage.

Upscale parents don’t mind the cost — monthly fees are usually between Rs 2,000 and Rs 9,000 per student. Or the long hours — school starts early morning and goes on till late afternoon. Such schedules suit many parents. “Most families these days are nuclear and often both parents are working. We keep the students on campus after classes are over, engaged in some activity or doing homework,” says Meenakshi Atal, the vice-principal of Heritage. Indus Valley also offers a day boarding facility for children.

Parents are happy the schools offer not only cricket, football, basketball, tennis and table tennis, but also rock climbing, archery, rifle shooting and swimming and a golf putting course. Then there are salsa, bharatanatyam, violin and tabla and a variety of activity clubs.

The different boards under which exams can be taken are a bonus. South City offers the ICSE and the Cambridge curriculums. “We are permanent residents of Canada. So we chose South City for our daughter because she can study the international curriculum,” says Jagjeet Singh Bhatti, the father of three-year old Preet, who is here for a few years. The toddler had also made it to one of the older schools, but her father says he didn’t like their “attitude”.

Many parents now do not want their children “disciplined” the way they themselves were. They want education that would enable their kids to be “global citizens”.

Dress no code

The new schools are different in their attitude to uniforms. Since the economic class is almost homogeneous at an affluent school, perhaps it makes the uniform, ideally the great leveller, redundant.

If there is a uniform, it is no longer blue skirts and “ballerina” shoes for girls. Lakshmipat Singhania started allowing senior girls to wear trousers some time ago. At Indus Valley, too, the girls wear pants. The pre-primary and primary students at Heritage wear denim shorts and bright red T-shirts.

A free and international school environment is not new in the city. Calcutta International School, started in 1953 but was known by its present name from 1971, which recently moved to its new campus near Ruby Hospital, was the pioneer.

From the very start, the school did not prescribe a uniform. “We want to nurture the individuality of the students and so we never had a uniform,” says director Anuradha Das. “We tell the students how they should dress on each occasion, though,” Das adds. The courses are also a little different. Teaching is project-based to enable students to research independently and write. “Most of our students go abroad, so we prepare them for that,” says Das.

The school was opened mainly for children from abroad or those who would go abroad. But the newer schools cater primarily to city kids, though South City is also an international school.

Tandrima says that she appreciates the environment at her son’s school, which may be high-end but is free from in-your-face luxury.

Reality check

But the swimming pool at a school does not go down well with everyone. “The new-age schools may have something to do with our new-found prosperity. I think it’s good to have different kinds of schools, as long as they are imparting quality education,” says Devi Kar, the principal of Modern High School. “The parameter of judging a school is whether they are giving the right education and not how big their swimming pool is!” she adds.

She says that her school has restricted the use of technology for the nursery section, for it is easy for small children to get lost in an audio-visual presentation as in a movie. Teachers have to be creative and not teach just for examinations.

Many feel that with the new-age schools, lifestyle is intruding into the classroom.

“What is the percentage of parents who can afford these schools? Such institutions will create a class of elite children. Education should be for everyone,” says educationist Basudeb Bhattacharya.

A child from a middle class home in an affluent school in the city feels troubled that his other classmates are always going to Singapore or Bangkok, when he can’t. “Children should be exposed to people from different social strata in school, but at these high-end schools they are surrounded by the children of other affluent families,” says Radhika Dagadthey, a teacher at a city school.

Author Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, who has written some of the most popular children’s fiction in Bengali, takes the old-world view. “School life is about discipline. Children who study in luxurious schools may not be very hardy. We try to copy the western world, but people in the West are very hardy,” he says.

He feels that the new trend will not affect the old system.

But it already has. La Martiniere for Boys recently allowed its students the freedom to wear “coloured clothes” on Friday.

Another common fear: how do the students who step from an AC room to an AC school to an AC bus stay in touch with reality?

Says Bagul: “We took our students to the municipality school recently to interact with other children their age. There was no problem in communication.”

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