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Feb 01

 

Auroville schools in crisis

- by Carel

 

The Auroville schools operate on subsistence levels. If Auroville want to become a learning society which puts the child at the center of its activities, among other things a substantial increase in the educational budget is necessary. But Auroville doesn't seem able to generate the money required.

In December last year the Auroville School Board, the working group that coordinates the work of all the Auroville schools, sounded an alarm. It announced that, from January 2001 onwards, there would be a severe shortfall of funds. It also announced that there would be problems admitting new students to the kindergarten crèche and to Transition primary school as some classes are full. In addition, a shortage of teachers prevents Deepanam crèche and primary school taking more children.

 

Admission problems

"The admission situation is serious. For the next school year, we have only just managed to find a place for all the children," says Kripa who is responsible for the coordination of school finances. "What we cannot foresee is what will happen now that Auroville is again open to newcomers. If newcomer families come, we may have more admission problems. Both the kindergarten crèche and most classes of Transition primary school are fully booked for the next school year. The new school Deepanam has a crèche, a kindergarten and a primary school but lacks teachers.

The situation will become really interesting in about one and a half years as last year 25 babies were born in Auroville. Some parents have already tried to register their child at various schools, and often at more than one school at the same time, in order to secure a place. This is an absurd development! The School Board recently discussed the matter. As we regard all Auroville schools as being part of one institution, each having its own specific way of teaching, we decided that all requests for admission will be centrally booked and that the teachers in the School Board will decide where a child will go, taking into account the preference of the parents."

Financial problems

If the admission situation is difficult, the financial situation which affects all Auroville schools is even more problematic. Teachers' maintenances vary from Rs 2000 (part-time) to Rs 4000 (US$ 40-80) a month, while a maintenance of Rs 6000 (US$ 130) is considered an acceptable minimum. There is no money to allow an increase. In fact, it is difficult to avoid a decrease in teachers' maintenances now that the donation given by the Gateway Trust for the purpose of increasing teachers' maintenance has been exhausted. As Kripa explains, "The Gateway money provided immediate relief to the teachers, who often lacked money to buy basic essentials. It is simply unacceptable that they will have to make a step back now that this donation is exhausted. Immediate relief may come from the income-sharing experiment known as Economy 2000, but that is not a long term solution."

Otto, the manager of Auroville's Financial Service, says "We need Rs 46.2 lakhs (approximately US$ 100,000) a year for teachers' maintenances at the present level. We have for the year 2001 Rs 37,2 lakhs (US$ 81,000), which includes a committed donation of Rs 12 lakhs (US$ 26,000) from one donor. So we still need 9 lakhs (US$ 20,000) to maintain the status quo, and 26 lakhs (US$57,000) to give every teacher Rs 1000 a month extra. While it is all very necessary that the teachers maintenances are stabilised and even increased, the same goes also for all the others who depend on the community for their income. How can we increase the maintenance of the teachers while leaving those who work for other services at the same maintenance level?" As Kripa points out, "If you look at the larger picture of those who depend on community maintenance, the teachers are comparatively well paid. But it is a comparison between those who have a little and those who have a little more. Compared to what we believe is necessary, or to what self-supporting Aurovilians or unit executives take as maintenances, those who depend on community maintenance decidedly come off second-best."

Maintenances are not the only financial burdens the schools carry. There are also the running expenses, and the costs of school meals. Taken together, the Auroville schools take 26 % of the total monthly community budgets. These budgets are covered by Auroville's Central Fund, which gets its income from donations from commercial units, individuals, interests on capital and a few other sources such as guest contributions. But while the income of the Central Fund has steadily grown over the past years, so have its expenses. Says Otto: "The Economy Group, which manages the Central Fund, believes that we really cannot expect the commercial units, who already contribute 49% of the monthly income, to give substantially more to cover the schools' expenses, let alone the necessary increase. Efforts made by the Economy Group and the School Board to raise extra money within Auroville for Auroville schools have not yielded any significant results. We may have to ask affluent parents to give regular contributions for the education of their children. But may also have to raise additional funds from outside Auroville. Alternatively, in a worst -case scenario, we may have to look at cost-cutting devices."

Cutting costs?

The Economy Group, in a meeting with school teachers, suggested that the schools devise mechanisms to assess how many teachers are needed, taking as criteria the teacher-pupil ratio. At present each school determines the number of teachers it needs according to its own perception of its needs. But while this approach is understandable, some teachers consider it is essentially wrong. They point to the fact that Auroville schools aim at giving an experimental and integral education, which means that many more teachers are necessary than is the case in traditional schools.

Take, for example, the situation at Auroville's primary schools which have, in fact, partly a high school set-up. There is one main teacher who is responsible for a class and teaches general topics, and there are many other teachers who teach special topics. At Transition all children are taught four languages-English, French, Sanskrit and Tamil-and children whose mother tongue is German are also taught German. (Children whose mother tongue is another language, often get private tuition elsewhere.) In addition to the usual topics such as maths, history, geography and sciences the school teaches music, graphic arts, computer skills, crafts and body awareness, while physical education and sports are also organised as a special program. The teaching medium is English, which sometimes causes problems for those children who have only recently started to learn that language. They need separate guidance. Then there are teachers who deal with children who have learning disabilities.

Another complication is that, like the children, the teachers come from many different nationalities. A teacher from France, for example, cannot be expected to teach English. This also contributes to a relatively large number of teachers. Then there is the experience that the maximum number of children per class should not exceed 20 if each child is to get individual attention. Also, most of the classrooms do not allow for larger student bodies. Lastly, there is the fact that the teachers wish to keep the schools manageable and maintain a good contact between the teachers and the children. Therefore the student body, in the case of Transition School, is limited to 160 children.

To avoid cost-cutting measures, the Auroville School Board together with the Economy Group plans to initiate a fundraising campaign for education. A demographic projection of Auroville's youth is being made, and the schools will provide detailed descriptions of their work in regular reports to show the uniqueness and relevance of Auroville's educational efforts.

But what if additional funds do not materialize? It is too early to predict. But if the teaching conditions become too difficult or if maintenances remain far below acceptable levels, Auroville may encounter problems in finding people to teach the Auroville children.

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