A column of numbers scribbled in chalk on a blackboard in a classroom at a boarding school nestled in the hills of Darjeeling serves as a grave indicator of the decline of the concept of a British-style boarding school for boys in West Bengal. “Everest: 31; Hillary: 31; Hunt: 32: Tenzing: 33...” These are the numbers of students in attendance at the houses in the primary wing of St Paul’s School in Darjeeling in recent times. The entire list adds up to 127 students. Today, there are all of five students in Class I at St Paul’s. Such dwindling numbers in what was widely recognized to be among the most elite of boarding schools not only point to a fundamental shift in the perception of boarding schools across West Bengal but also serve as a stark reminder of how institutions that fail to evolve across the decades face the spectre of extinction, as new schools rise nationwide.
Shomie Das — a former educationist who taught Prince Charles in England and ran India’s best public schools, including Mayo College, Lawrence School, Sanawar, and Doon School — says that, by and large, the students at these institutions are far too cocooned from the rest of the world. “The residents still live in a Tom Brown’s School Days world,” he says. St Paul’s, for one, fits that bill. Established almost 200 years ago and spread across 65 acres on an extinct volcano called Jalapahar, it is even cut off from Darjeeling and once possessed a culture steeped in Church of England values. It was built on a prefectural system with a view to moulding young minds and limbs. As in most boarding schools, those who attended St Paul’s experienced their share of bullies in the dormitories and pranksters in the classroom. There were punishment drills on the soccer field, and an ethos of discipline that combined academics and a variety of sporting facilities that even some modern country clubs do not offer.
The goal was to develop young gentlemen who do not cheat on their homework, play by the rules and herald the right values when they go out into the real world. L.J. Goddard — the longest serving and possibly the most influential rector of the school, from 1934 to 1964, a period of transition from British-occupied to Independent India — was the stuff of legend because of his focus on “straightening out” delinquent, runny-nosed schoolboys. On one occasion, when he noticed an excessively-concerned mother regularly walking her twin sons up to school and back, his firm admonishment was, “Ma’am, if I could just shoot you, I’d make men out of your boys.”
Had Goddard been around today, he would not recognize the student body he spent a lifetime building standards for. Sunirmal Chakravarthi, the principal of La Martiniere for Boys in Calcutta and a former teacher at St Paul’s, visited Darjeeling recently and ran into a rowdy group of boys during the Diwali vacations. “The boys were not dressed like Paulites, they didn’t talk or act like Paulites, and they were out of school boundaries after dark,” he says, adding that since he was out of the system he had no authority to preach discipline and order but was disappointed with the laxity in student discipline. Sumant Dalmiya, an ex-student who graduated in 1971, says that, at one level, nothing has changed with the infrastructure of the school: “The lockers in the dorms, the beds, the cupboards… nothing has changed.” He does not mind the furniture being 40 years old, but his point is that he sees no changes in the lifestyle of the students, even when the world outside has changed.
Goddard’s approach may have worked in former years when the local environment was supported by the old economy embodied by the tea plantations, and West Bengal was an epicentre of trade and commerce. But no torch-bearer has carried the light forward for St Paul’s. Today, the old-world values, which were given more weight at boarding schools, have lost out to modern technology, teaching methods, and new infrastructure that includes both facilities and faculty, says Chakravarthi. “The first sign of trouble for St. Paul’s began in the mid-1990s when the science department was on the verge of shutting down because there were no students coming back to specialize in it.” His broader point is that in the rat race to get into the medical colleges and and IITs, tuition after school is a facility that is unavailable in most boarding schools.
The incentive for a teacher to teach in a city like Calcutta, where he or she can notch up ‘tax-free’ revenue that is equal or greater than the salary of a schoolteacher, is far greater than the lure of the calling that once used to drive many educationists to move to the hills and smaller towns away from the hurly-burly of the larger cities. “Today, the best teachers aren’t at your boarding schools,” Chakravarthi says, adding that the political strife that plagued Darjeeling in the 1980s and has recently resurfaced raises even further barriers for those that are wiling to make a leap of faith. A single class in La Martiniere has 250 students while the whole of St Paul’s has around 550. Mount Hermon School, a co-educational boarding school in Darjeeling established in 1895, has a student body of 350. Other residential schools like Goethals, St Augustine’s School and Dr Graham’s Homes all have the same story to tell.
According to Education World magazine’s latest all-India rankings for boys’ boarding schools, St Paul’s, Darjeeling, was 9th out of 24 schools, and North Point or St Joseph’s 8th. This is a wake-up call for the governing board when a school that was once one of Asia’s top schools struggles to make it to the top 10, says Dilip Thakore, the publisher of Education World. “But St. Pauls has a much worse ranking than it should have, thanks to the political environment in West Bengal and in particular 30-plus years of uninterrupted Communist-led state rule that led to a flight of the middle-class, which adversely affected the quality of faculty available.” Thakore may be right. What is driving students away from institutions like St. Paul’s isn’t just the political environment, but also the emergence of top-notch institutions across cities, both big and small, which are winning students away from Bengal.
The Royal Global School in Guwahati, started in 2009, admits day-scholars and boarders and is already charging some Rs 4 lakh in fees and has 800 students in attendance. St Paul’s, Darjeeling, founded almost two centuries ago, charges Rs 2.5 lakh and has less than 600 students. Sarala Birla Academy in Bengaluru, a secular school for boys, started in 2005, is spread over 70-odd acres of greenery, has an 18-bed hospital, 24-hour power back-up, a nurse on call round the clock, and fees ranging from Rs 4.2 lakh to 6.5 lakhs. There are others, like the Mallya Aditi International School, Oberoi International School, and Dhirubhai Ambani International School. Yet, it’s not that the all-boys boarding school genre is going out of style. The Doon School, founded in 1935, is as popular as ever, and recently ranked first on Education World’s list of boys’ boarding schools and has been in that position for years. “It’s mostly the Bengal schools that are hurting. They are too old-fashioned, they just don’t communicate with the external world,” says Thakore, pointing to institutions under the Delhi Public School system, which issues two or three press releases a day.
Apart from the political agitations in Bengal, the exodus of large corporations and the emergence of top-notch schools in adjoining cities, why are these schools, once regarded as the most elite, crumbling? Kabir Mustafi, a former student and teacher of St Paul’s and the former headmaster of Bishop Cotton School, Simla, says that in recent years, rectors or principals were never equipped to be able to run schools like profitable ventures. Their core expertise was in teaching, not managing labour problems or local politics: “How can one expect a man of the cloth to get excited about the prospect of raising funds and managing money?” Public relations, getting noticed politically, and staying in touch with international trends in education were hardly the mainstay of the principals of boarding schools, but these are things that a school cannot do without today.
Even as the country readied itself for festivities around Independence Day celebrations this year, schoolmasters across boarding schools in Darjeeling were sending students home as a reaction to an urban shutdown started by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha as part of the struggle for the separate state of Gorkhaland. Once again, parents would see the hills as no place for children.