With the new academic year in the offing I read several advertisements where schools were seeking to attract students to their institutions with the promise of a foreign tour or two included in the curriculum.
I recalled a recent news item about several schools which had sent students to Nasa just as the summer vacations began, something like a break after the stress of final exams and the suspense of report cards.
The article also mentioned some schools affiliated to schools abroad — in the UK, Australia and the US — and were planning exchange opportunities for their students.
Schools are supposed to be levellers, but where is the egalitarianism in this? For every child that can afford to go, there at least three who cannot, even in the more upmarket centres of learning.
At an age when peer pressure is at its strongest among children whose parents are giving them the best, it is just not enough that ‘best’ does not translate into expensive foreign excursions. Consequently, resentment builds up against classmates and parents alike; parents who are already paying exorbitant school fees commanded by elite, reputed schools and cannot stretch themselves any further.
Feelings of guilt, frustration and unhappiness mount; it worsens when there is more than one child from the family in that school, who is also eligible to go on the same excursion.
Teachers and schools are to be held culpable. Have they ever thought of subsidising the travelling expenses? On the contrary, there is the attraction of a free ticket for a teacher for every 15 or so students, therefore the more the merrier.
When I brought up this subject with some of my friends, a few felt that I was oversimplifying the issue and that children have to learn to do without some things which their friends may have. Now this is easier said than done when travel and adventure with close friends on foreign soil is the sacrifice.
Thus it is that in our country, India, while the poor may not be getting poorer, the gap between the haves and the have-lesses continues to widen and opportunities for the latter continue to diminish.
What is the point of children as young as 8 and 9 years old being taken to Nasa, in the US? Any lessons to be learnt will be better retained and enjoyed when they are older. Instead, let schools avail of richer opportunities at home itself. Rather than tying up with overseas schools let them examine tie-ups with low, inadequately funded village or urban schools.
And let their advantaged students share the accommodation, food and hospitality of the less privileged children. Surely the urban ‘high end’ school can help with subsidising the boarding expenses for a week? Let their children help whitewash the village school or dispensary, or lay a proper road over a dirt path, or teach the basics of hygiene, or conduct a short adult literacy course.
Perhaps even help build a toilet block, or take up a rainwater harvesting project. Let them see for themselves the difference they have made to the place, compare the lives they lead with the hardships these youngsters face.
And yet, how many dissatisfied, bored, or angry young people did they come across among them? No fancy toys but the most basic make-dos fashioned out of stone and wood and cane, yet they play with abandon, not having owned anything better.
I am therefore very heartened to learn that there is at least one very well-known school in my city, one with very strong credentials, which has continued with its founder’s resolve to ensure parity among all students.
Himself one of seven siblings, brought up by a single parent after their father’s premature demise, he knew first-hand how a child feels if he cannot join his classmates in a venture his parents cannot afford.
In this school, all field trips are included in the curriculum at the outset of the academic year and paid for along with all other fees; no demand for further payments are made on parents for any activity thereafter. I was in fact pleasantly surprised a few years ago when a satisfied parent told me that unlike other schools this one never asked for donations or additional fees during the course of the year.
It is no wonder then that this particular educational institution has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, from one small school to three large ones in huge campuses, producing good academic results, happy children and satisfied parents.
Vimala Madon is a freelance journalist based in Secunderabad, India.