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Auroville Experience

December 2007

Studying outside Auroville

- Carel

An increasing number of Auroville children are doing their high school education outside Auroville. Among them is a growing contingent of Tamil children. In individual talks with Auroville Today, four fathers talk about the issue.

“I fought it. I am an Auroville-grown kid myself, and the whole idea of sending my sons to a school in Pondicherry was very unacceptable. It took me almost a year to get used to the idea.” Rathinam, one of the executives of Auroville Fund, is normally soft-spoken. But on this issue his emotions come through. “I agreed with my wife that our children should have the education that would give them access to any college in India or abroad, so that they could do what they wanted. This means that they need certificates. The only option in Auroville is Future School , but we are not happy with the British ‘O' and ‘A' levels they aim at. We prefer an Indian certification – firstly because we are here in India , and secondly no one knows for sure if the ‘A' levels will be accepted for admission into Indian colleges as so far, no student from Auroville has attempted to join an Indian college with an ‘A' level certification. I talked to friends to see if we couldn't bring about a change in the Auroville educational system but we did not have the energy pull it through. Time was running out and my son Abhimanyu was on the point of leaving Transition middle school. When he finally said he wanted to go to a Pondy school, I gave in. My second son followed him a few years later.”

RathinamRathinam is one of the increasing number of Tamil Aurovilian parents who opt to send their children to schools outside Auroville. While some Western Aurovilian parents send their child to the Lycée Français in Pondicherry or to the Kodaikanal International School in Kodaikanal, many Tamil Aurovilians prefer a ‘regular' school in Pondicherry . “The choice is not that big,” says Rathinam. “Many schools do not accept Auroville children because we cannot produce the required certificates.” They were lucky that Abhimanyu got admitted in one of the five top schools of Pondicherry , a school run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church , where also other Tamil Auroville children are studying. Is Abhi happy? “He is, but we aren't,” says Rathinam. “We are not happy with the school's strictness – for example, the students are not allowed to ask questions in class – and we really had to get used to seeing our sons in a school uniform complete with necktie and shoes! But both my sons are doing well.”

RamanRathinam's feelings are shared by Raman, who is a member of the Working Committee, and Bhoomi, who runs the Auroville Boutique in Pondicherry . “It's all because of society pressure,” says Raman. “We decided to send our son Sundarananda to a Pondy school as we want him to pass exams to do further studies. We have seen that people who have a good education have more freedom, even in Auroville. We want him to be at par with everybody else. But the Pondy educational system is far from ideal. Sundar has to sit in a small space of 50 x 50 cm for the whole day. There is a lot of rote learning. Often he has extra classes, up to 8.00 or 8.30 in the evenings and on weekends. He comes home late and misses a lot of Auroville activities like sports. He does well academically, but I don't think he is really happy.”

BhoomiBhoomi has a similar experience. “I was brought up in the Auroville education system, I was one of the ‘lost generation' of kids that did not receive a full education when the schools closed, and I do not want that to happen to my children,” he says. “I want my kids to have a regular certificate – an Indian one, not ‘O' or ‘A' level.” Bhoomi brings his two children every morning to the Petite Seminaire in Pondicherry , but, he says, he would bring them back to Auroville immediately if there were an educational set-up in Auroville which meets his demands. “I am not happy with the Pondy educational system, but I know my children are doing well so I go along with it. I want them to have the possibility to study what they like later on. The Pondy school will give them the school transfer certificate, which will allow them to take part in the admission exams of any college in India .” An additional advantage, says Bhoomi, is that the Pondicherry schools provide more supervision and less freedom to the children. “In Auroville,” he says, “the freedom is often too much.”

ShankarShankar is head teacher at New Creation. Though his children are still at Transition, the time will soon come when he and his wife also have to take a decision about the children's future. “The true difficulty is society pressure: there is a belief that children should have the possibility to travel, join firms, make money and generally have a much better job than their parents in Auroville,” he says, “so the parents opt to go for beaten paths. Education has become an earning tool. This is a new concept in Tamil Nadu. The result is that children are not educated to become cultured individuals who can think for themselves but they are pressurised to learn a particular skill that is connected with their future earning. That requires certification, diplomas, and very intensive stereotyped training.” Speaking about regular schools he says, “The schools want to show a 100% success rate. So they have an agreement with the parents: parents pay the fee, the school insists the child does what it says and is moulded into the required system. It is an agreement between the school and the parents and the child is the football between them. The child, unfortunately, has no say.”

Rathinam points to a positive side of outside education. “In Auroville, typical Tamil life styles and concepts are gradually merging into another type of society. Our children are now learning the typical Tamil ways and life. We can't teach that in Auroville, as we are already mixed. That is an advantage.” Comparing Auroville children to their Pondicherry friends he says, “I did not know it, but it appears that the Auroville children are actually very bright. They are good in academics and their knowledge of English far exceeds that of any of their classmates. I've come to realize that Transition is a very good school indeed, offering a very high level of education. The academic level is excellent, and contrary to what we always believe in Auroville, the children behave well and have a lot of inner discipline.” It is a notion which Shankar supports. “We often hear that Auroville children lack discipline. But what type of discipline are we talking about? Is it about sitting quietly in the classroom and obediently doing the exam? Or is it a discipline that wells up from the being itself because it was properly educated? Auroville children may be rowdies at times, but they don't lack inner discipline.”

Many Tamil Aurovilians are sore that Auroville does not help with the costs of outside education. “Education is free within Auroville, but outside we have to fend for ourselves,” says Raman. Fees differ widely. At the top is the Kodaikanal International boarding school with Rs. 4 to 5 lakhs a year (€ 7300-9100) – an impossibly high amount for most Aurovilians. About half a dozen Aurovilian children study there. Pondicherry education is comparatively cheap. “I pay on average Rs 32,000 a year,” says Raman. “This is a substantial amount if your income consists of a community maintenance of Rs 5,000 a month. My personal expenditure has come down, and I live now on a tight budget.” He regrets the limited vision that is prevalent in Auroville towards paying for outside education. “These are Auroville children. They are born here and spend their adolescence here. We should look at their development, not if that development happens in or outside Auroville. For they will come back to Auroville when their education is completed.”

All agree that Auroville should develop a schooling system so that Auroville children do not need to go to outside schools. One option was proposed by former Aurovilian Gordon Korstange three years ago [AVToday # 181, February 2004]. He suggested that Auroville develop its own high school curriculum, a course of studies that would be both uniquely Aurovilian as well as global. Once the student has completed it, he should be helped to prepare for the outside exams of his choice if he so wished. “The idea is very good,” says Shankar. “We could even follow the American credit system. Why is it necessary that a student is connected to a specific Auroville school? Can't we design a system where the student, for example, learns humanities at Last School and science at Future School and another topic from a private person somewhere else? This would help to break down those invisible walls that now separate the various schools and benefit all students.” Shankar hopes that the Auroville School Board will get such a curriculum together. “Believe me,” he says, “if that is done, no child will want to study outside Auroville.”

“I would support that very much,” says Rathinam. “But there is also another initiative that just started. One of Auroville's schools, the New Era School (formerly known as After School) has applied for affiliation with the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The CBSE system offers the possibility to design one's own curriculum and it aims at issuing certificates. When we talked to the Chairman of the Auroville Foundation, Dr. Karan Singh, about it some years ago, he was very positive about this move and encouraged us. New Era School is still an outreach school for non-Auroville children but we hope that in time Auroville children will also join. It will take three years before it is recognised. It has just started this year.”

A major problem, it appears, is educating the parents about the uniqueness of Auroville education. “The parents will need to be told what education truly means,” says Shankar. “This will take time. How many parents can think about education without thinking at the same time of earning opportunities?”

Finally Shankar points to another development in India where alternative schools are becoming popular. “There are many non-Aurovilian Indian parents who don't like the regular Indian schools and who now have started to look at Auroville,” he says. “They wonder if their children can receive their higher education here. So far the Auroville schools have mostly refused. But there is a big demand. People are ready to make substantial contributions to have their children study in Auroville. But we aren't yet ready. Once we have our act together, then we can easily open up to outsiders.”

“Going out is not the answer,” says Raman. “Many Tamil parents are waiting and watching. I hope that in the next few years we can find a solution to this problem.”


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