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September 2004

The future of Auroville’s education

In conversation with Carel

Auroville cannot offer its teachers a sufficient income. This calls for a mandatory rethink of the future of its education. Is an Auroville International Boarding School a solution to the problem?

SuhasiniIn the June-July 2003 issue of Auroville Today, Helmut Ernst, a Friend of Auroville who lives in Germany , proposed to create an international educational campus in Auroville as a means to develop the city within 15 years. His ideas were received with interest, but found no takers. Now, a year later, Auroville may be forced to reconsider. The immediate reason is not so much a concern for the growth of Auroville, but a concern for the quality of the education Auroville provides. That quality is directly related to the quality of the teachers, most of whom depend on the income (called ‘maintenance') provided by Auroville to meet their costs of living. For years that maintenance, now in the range of Rs 3,000-4,500 a month has been too low. In the article ‘Meeting the basic needs' in the March issues of Auroville Today this year, a poignant letter written by one of the teachers stated the problem:

“Hello. Just a short note regarding economy. Lately I have been listening to and talking to many teachers who are really worried about their finances. I know it is not only the teachers, but these are the people that I have been talking to. As you know this is a work that requires a lot of commitment and focus. But some people are wondering if they have to try to think of a second job in order to make ends meet – some are already doing it and are stretched beyond their limit. At the same time, we have a couple of young teachers who do not have houses and they do not have the money to build a house. What should they do? If they leave our schools, the children and Auroville will suffer. I don't have any general solutions – but something has to be done or we will not be able to get and keep teachers.”

The new Kindergarten ‘Nandavanam’ in Centre Field, at walking distance

What can be done? Auroville's education depends primarily on three sources of income. The Government of India contributes about 35% of its running costs, 12% is received from incidental donors while a staggering 53% is coming from Auroville's own resources. Auroville's portion, paid by the Central Fund, is generated from profit sharing by Auroville's commercial units, guesthouse contributions and other donations. From Auroville's total monthly income, the schools get the lion's share.

The problem is that an increase of the schools' budget cannot be expected. The White Paper on the Auroville Economy presented by the Dutch Professor Henk Thomas and the Indian Chartered accountant Manuel Thomas in May 2002 convincingly demonstrated that major improvements in the commercial sector, Auroville's main income generator, cannot be envisaged in the foreseeable future. Neither can Auroville rely on additional income from the Indian government – perhaps rather the contrary. In consequence, Auroville's financial constraints neither allow for adding more teachers, nor for an increase of teachers' maintenances. As teachers cannot be expected to continue teaching without a sufficient income, their choice may be either to take up an additional job, or leave school altogether.

Auroville architect Suhasini Ayer thinks that another option is not only feasible, but promises to turn a costly service into a money generator for Auroville. In 2003 she won the “Innovative Primary School Design” award from Designshare, a US based organization that offers consultancy in school designing, evaluation and information sharing, for her design of the Auroville Kindergarten. The prize not only brought a nice certificate to hang on the wall, but unexpectedly an invitation to be part of a design group for an international boarding school in Goa . She accepted. “It opened my eyes to another reality, that of the commercial importance of education. In Goa , a complete new campus is being designed for 600 children at an approximate cost of Rs. 22 crores. Schooling will range from lower Kindergarten to 12th standard. Salaries for teachers range from Rs 40,000 a month upwards, and the head teacher will earn Rs 170,000 a month. The feasibility study demonstrates that the total investment will be paid back in 5-7 years, and that thereafter, the school will be a great economic engine. It made me rethink Auroville's system of financing its education. It is not a question of copying the Goa model, but to study which elements could be used, which not and how such an idea can be adapted to Auroville's situation.”

Seeing my eyebrows raised at the idea of such a concept for Auroville, Suhasini explains: “The boarding school concept is a very common phenomenon in England and India , though not in the rest of Europe or the USA . In India , private boarding schools are on the increase. They generally offer excellent education. The trend is that such schools are being established all over India , as large commercial institutions have realized that education is a highly attractive venture. Some boarding schools offer education starting from Kindergarten; others, such as the Kodaikanal International School which has educated many Auroville children, do so from the 7th standard onwards.

“For Auroville, I would propose that we think of starting an International Boarding school from 6th standard onwards. That would mean that Auroville's primary schools would educate the children up to age 11 or 12. From age 12 onwards, Auroville's education would not only target Auroville children, but also children from all over India and abroad whose parents are interested in the educational system that Auroville offers. The fee structure should be such as to guarantee a decent income for not only the high school teachers, but also for the Aurovilians teaching at the other Auroville schools. Such a boarding school would make the Auroville education not only self-sustainable, but ultimately profitable.”

Doesn't the concept of a boarding school clash with the educational ideals as outlined by Mother? “I don't think so,” says Suhasini. “Firstly, the principle that some people in Auroville pay for the education of their children is not new: parents who are Long Term Guests or Newcomers are already requested to make a contribution for their children's education. Also Aurovilian parents are regularly approached for donations. Then, if we look at the example of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram itself, we see that its International School , set-up by The Mother, is a boarding school. She even said that for many children it was better not to stay with their parents! Lastly, Auroville's educational ideals could lead us to formulate our own curriculum, which includes the freedom to teach without exams. The school would teach all its students in accordance with its curriculum up to say the 10th grade. After that, the student could be offered the choice to continue the school's curriculum – with no exams, or to study for one of the internationally recognized certificates so that the student would be able to pursue higher education in India or abroad. This is the system which will be followed by the Goa International School . This school is accredited by the International Baccalaureate organization. Students who wish to study for a certificate work to get this Baccalaureate, which is accepted for admittance by universities in Europe , USA and India .”

What about the mixture of Auroville and non-Auroville children? The economics of such a school would probably indicate a ration of 1:4 so that a minority of Auroville children would sit in classes together with a majority of non-Auroville children. Says Suhasini: “I think it would be a big advantage for the Auroville children. The Auroville children will already have been imbued with the Auroville culture during their period in the Kindergarten and the primary school and will carry that with them. The school's curriculum will be tailored to Auroville's requirements. The teachers will be Aurovilians, except for those subjects for which there are no qualified Aurovilians. The teachers will be well paid, and where we do not have qualified people, we could hire them from outside, something which we cannot do at present. The set-up would allow us to provide a much completer education than is done now.”

She illustrates her ideas by giving details about the Goa school: “They have a huge compound of 55 acres which is used for the primary section (lower kindergarten to 5th grade), the middle school (6th to 10th grade) and the high school (11th and 12th grade). The campus has besides classrooms, sport facilities, an administration building, dormitories, a kitchen/cafeteria, an auditorium, a library, a media centre, shops, accommodations for staff, and service buildings such as for laundry. Rules for entering and leaving the campus will be strictly monitored. The students are to run a number of the departments themselves, as part of their curriculum. For example, they will run the shops that sell the things children need, so that they learn about shop management; they will run the library and learn about access to information; and they partly run the media centre. The latter is a special development of the Goa school. In the media centre they get classes in hardware and software, learn to use computers, design their own websites and so on. The interesting thing is that the children will be stimulated to teach other children – which appears to work better than if they are being taught by adults.”

The compound for an Auroville International boarding school could be smaller if Auroville would only aim at a boarding school from 6th standard onwards. Says Suhasini, “I would like a discussion to start among the Auroville educators about the future of Auroville's education and about the modalities of an international boarding school which, in my opinion, is the only way out of our present predicament. A feasibility study should be made, the required investment budget drawn up and a campus location found. If Auroville rejects the idea, fine, but than it has to come up with another solution for the present and future problems. For Auroville's education can't continue as it does.”

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