In 1986, the Malayalam film Doore Doore Oru Koodu Koottaam, a satirical and quite hilarious commentary on the state of education and schools in Kerala of the time, won the national award in the ‘Best Film on Social Issues’ category. The Mohanlal starrer, set in rural Kerala, showed a school in utter decrepitude in all aspects—the building in shambles, leaky roofs, broken desks and benches, students bereft of any sort of higher ambition save availing the free mid-day meals, and teachers engaged in lucrative side-businesses during school hours—the character played by Mohanlal himself arrives there with a fake certificate….
And this was Kerala, which had long made a name for its universal commitment to a culture of education and literacy.
When the education scene changed as part of the post-1991 neo-liberalisation tide in the country, in Kerala the sector came to be overridden by religious institutions that were granted near-complete autonomy over school managements. The inner character of education changed as the “functions or responsibilities previously owned or carried out by the State” were handed over to private actors. Things were driven by a narrower vision—more coloured by the functionalist, job market-oriented, professional education logic than one anchored in a social, humanistic one.
The results of the State’s retreat were not surprising. Although adopted with the primary objective of redressing the lacunae in the earlier system, the new education system soon veered into the high lane of profiteering. The notion of education as a basic human right was trampled upon and it fell out of reach of the economically and socially backward.
Even in this scenario, such was the innate education consciousness among Malayalis that many poor parents secured private school admissions by paying huge “donations” that they managed by selling their valuables. But that scarcely did anything beyond securing admissions: the class divide manifested itself in various ways in the exclusionary atmosphere of private schools.
In order to boost their schools’ ratings, private institutions burdened their students beyond limit. The system churned out regular batches of “egotistic specialists”, focused on exam success and bereft of essential social/practical experience and wisdom. Also, religious symbolism/observances/biases crept into schools as never before, alienating the students and parents hailing from other backgrounds. The old universalist atmosphere was slowly, but surely, dissipating and giving way to our contemporary, polarised world.
It took nearly two decades of this uneasy, but not always directly tangible trend peaking in Kerala for conversations to begin stirring around how private schools had divided Kerala society into education haves and have-nots at one level, and fostered sectarian/communal thinking in society at another, and how both in combination could eventually undermine our democratic polity if left unchecked.
A Critical Rethink
A creeping sense of dismay was common among educators and social thinkers, and there was no dearth of critics. Pradeep Kumar, the now three-time LDF MLA from North Calicut, was one of them. He had been a crusader against turning education into another blatant business enterprise even during his student politics days.
But then, he decided to act on it.
After a comprehensive study of the issues besetting Kerala’s education, he launched an initiative he called PRISM—short for ‘Promoting Regional Schools to International Standards through Multiple Interventions’. The year was 2008 and the basic idea behind PRISM, as the name suggests, was to pump fresh life into government schools.
Interestingly, while his overall mission was founded on his socialistic reading of the State’s responsibility, he relied on professional management methods. He conducted a gap analysis study of a handful of Kerala’s government schools, comparing actual performance with the goal and the potential.
The pertinent questions involved: if, for quality higher education, students preferred government institutions like the IITs, AIIMS and JNU, why then were we not able to provide quality primary/secondary education in our government schools, which already existed in prime locations throughout Kerala? Why did the government and even the teachers in government schools hold a fatalistic view of these institutions—imagining that they were beyond redemption? Of what use were A-plus grades if the students who secured them wilted and were even driven to suicide when faced with alternative realities in life? What should be the ultimate aim of school education?
Pradeep Kumar was one of those who felt a fundamental rethink was in order. He spoke for many critics of the modern system when he laid out his vision on the true dharma of schools to this writer: “Schools and school life should lay strong foundations in a student’s life that will make him/her win in life and not merely secure high grades. Good marks in exams will happen in any case, but there are other vital gaps that must be covered. Those students facing special difficulties or special life situations at home could be given special fostering. Schools should primarily be able to identify the special talent of each student and provide the stage and opportunities for the flowering of these talents. Schools should be places where children can feel their unique worth, wake up to their true calling, pursue their passion, try out their experimentations and where they feel encouraged to dream.”
Fine sentiments, but the question was how. Beyond generalities, Pradeep Kumar had a sense of the specific path to be taken.
“Earlier, the funds for government school development came from the local self-government and panchayat levels. These were very meagre. But in 2010, Kerala’s government school revamp program was categorised under the Innovative Projects category of the Kerala State Planning Board, after which direct government funds began to flow for the purpose of the re-modelling of government schools, which many had written off.”
The Nadakkavu Girls High School, the first school that became functional under the PRISM project, has brought to the table exceptional achievements by its students in the fields of arts, sports, event management and entrepreneurship. The latest feather in the cap has been the school team’s selection by the Silicon Valley-based The Indus Enterpreneurs (TiE Global), the largest entrepreneurs’ organisation in the world, to the top eighth position in The Young Enterpreneurs (TYE) international competition held in 2020. What was earlier the domain of only elite private schools in India has been successfully cracked for the first time by a government school from Kerala.
“If we could effectively turn around one government school under the PRISM project, we knew others would follow,” says Pradeep Kumar. That conviction didn’t take long to bear fruit.
Redesigning an Idea
The Karaparamba Government Higher Secondary School, East Hill, Kozhikode, originally started in 1907, became the second school to come under the PRISM project. Comprehensively redesigned from scratch for its relaunch in 2019, its renascence bears the imprint of not just one dedicated MLA, but of the enthusiastic participation of a whole cast of architects, businessmen and artists, besides the active engagement of local people.
With the sheer nature of its ambition, Karaparamba showed that public perception of government schools can undergo a 180-degree change. But how?
Firstly, it broke free from the staid PWD style of construction hitherto followed by government schools. Its trendy architectural style is by itself a game-changer, incorporating spatial features that encourage a spirit of freedom and creativity.
The high-ceilinged, well-ventilated, sunlit classrooms and labs, the ramps that lead to every floor and the auditorium for the physically challenged, the multiple open squares and seating areas, the green walls and library gardens all create comfortable spaces for friendly and intellectual student-student and student-teacher interactions.
With the use of sliding doors, the well-equipped library continues seamlessly onto an open-air gallery built on the outer side of the school’s rainwater harvesting tank. The amphitheatre stage has artwork done by renowned artist Riyas Komu, co-founder of the Kochi Biennale, and his team. This art ensemble has one message that stands out: that Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution, should be at the centre of our culture of thinking and debate.
Another special, empathetic aspect, not usually attended to: the washrooms, which used to be a stink in the public schools of yore, are here a breeze. The girls’ washroom section is specially provided with an aesthetic courtyard, a feature that offers them relief and comfort during the one week of their period pains; incinerators are provided for the prompt disposal of soiled sanitary pads. And the location of the girls’ washrooms right behind the amphitheatre, the school’s spot of pride, is a bold statement of gender sensitivisation.
The tiled jogger’s path running all around the school’s periphery, extending outwards from the school walls into the community, is itself an architectural statement. What it says is that this school, despite its international look and outlook, does not seek to exist as an ivory tower. In a strong symbolic way, the jogging track invites the general public right in. And the school throws open its grounds to the public for exercise and community interactions, post-school hours.
From the turn of the century, when the school’s student attendance fell below 100, to this day, when it has become an institution coveted by parents cutting across class/caste/religious lines, Karaparambu Government Higher Secondary School is today a veritable turnaround story.
The moving spirit behind Karaparamba school’s architectural recast is Brijesh Shaijal, former chairman of the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) and founder of Design Ashram, Kozhikode. Speaking to this writer, Shaijal talked of the public-spiritedness that went into the project: “The Karaparamba school is a public, pro bono initiative of the Calicut chapter of IIA. Conceived by Design Ashram, the salient feature is the free spaces available for transparent interactions among students. Outside of school hours, these spaces are easily transformable for public interactions. It has been our privilege to partake in this prestigious project and give back to society.”
Taking cue from the effectiveness of the PRISM schools, the LDF government of Pinarayi Vijayan launched the ambitious General Education Protection Mission in 2017 to reconstruct and showcase one government school each in every one of Kerala’s 140 constituencies. The larger vision is to convert public schools throughout the state into “centres of excellence”, enabled by intellectual, infrastructural and technological-level interventions. The idea is that parents, irrespective of socio-economic status, should view government schools not as the last but the first option to enrol their children. Academic excellence, defined not in the usual shallow terms, is of course part of the mix.
Shadiya Banu, headmistress of Karaparamba school, talks of how the physical, material part of a school actually enables that. “With a welcoming infrastructure in place, students and teachers can now focus on learning. This is very different from the state of government schools earlier: they were defined by their shortcomings. Teachers in PRISM schools now update their subject knowledge…and also their skills to be effective in high-tech, digitalized classrooms,” says Shadiya Banu, who has work experience in the entire spectrum of public-private partnerships in Kerala’s education sector.
When students from various socio-economic classes sit together, share food and communicate with each other, the accumulated knowledge of different communities rubs off on each other and widens their horizons. The social sense instilled from such interactions lies outside scholastic grading and helps students appreciate the differences in each other and take a critical view of societal dogmas. The sense of the individual self gets weathered into larger collective convictions.
“Students from socially and economically challenged backgrounds, a large number of whom would have eventually dropped out of school and become social castaways, get an opportunity here to experience an environment of knowledge-seeking, questioning and mentoring,” says Jalush K, coordinator of the PRISM project. At one level, the hi-tech classrooms enable them to stay abreast with the latest innovations and thoughts around the world. But the socially grounded, and yet liberating community experience the school aims to provide is the real change-making element. The overall objective here is not to pluck children out of their environment; not to churn out export-quality techno-coolies. The ‘product’ of PRISM is not conceived of as merely one for the global market, while being invested with international-level capabilities—but one whose awareness spans the arc from global to local, to the community, and in touch with the democratic, pluralist inheritance of India. Nothing can offer a better coda on that theme than the rendition of Sree Narayana Guru’s poems on the school grounds by the ‘post-Carnatic’ musician T.M. Krishna, as part of this year’s Republic Day celebrations.
(Leena Mariam Koshy is an independent writer based in Kozhikode.)