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Going Global, Losing the Local?
a look at the growing phenomenon of  international schools in India

My mother and her much-older siblings walked long distances every day in the hot sun or pouring rain to go to school — Malayalam-medium schools in the Kerala of the 1930s and 40s. They, however, grew up proficient in English and eventually left the boundaries of their native state and set up homes in other states in a newly-independent India, bringing up children or pursuing respectable careers in the government. My father and his siblings on the other hand bicycled to school – an English-medium convent school in Vizag. They grew up leading a middle class genteel lifestyle, with my grandfather achieving considerable professional success as a doctor in pre-independent India, outside his native state. While the schooling that my maternal and paternal sides received was different, their cultural sensibilities and the professional opportunities they got were very similar. The latter did hinge significantly on their ease and comfort with the English language.

Moving on to my generation.... Four decades ago when I was in school, the 'convent schools' by then at their peak, were seen as the epitome of a well-rounded western (read, good) education in India. They even had a certain snob value since the most well-off people sent their children to these schools. But there were also many children from salaried class families, like myself, who shifted schools every few years. There were still others from less privileged backgrounds who also went to these schools, receiving tuition waivers or subsidies unobtrusively. And we all learnt and grew up together, vaguely aware of our different parentage, but without it unduly hampering our interactions. Apart from fostering a very sound foundation and easy fluency with the English language, the missionary schools I went to nurtured in me a love of music, a strong work ethic, a sense of aesthetics and an eye for detail – all of which stand me in good stead to this day.

That was the 60s and 70s! In the 1980s, by which time I had become a teacher, there was an imperceptible shift of favour from the convent schools to the 'public schools'. These schools were not the public schools modelled on the lines of the British public schools. These schools were products of an Indianized elite who wanted to send their children to schools that offered a well-rounded English-medium education with equal emphasis on academics, arts, sports, and service. The convent schools, while still in popular demand, had begun to be seen as symbolic of a colonial past.

In the 1990s after the much feted liberalization of the economy, many new schools were set up that called themselves international schools. They boasted of international curricula, a certain proportion of expatriate teachers, an eclectic mix of Indian and non-Indian students, world-class infrastructure and facilities including air conditioned classrooms and buses. Before this phenomenon, the only international schools in the country were the schools associated with the different embassies in New Delhi and a token school in each of the metros and one or two hill-stations, primarily serving the children of diplomats and other international passport holders. They formed a tiny community catering to an exclusive clientele who went back to their home countries for higher education. Such schools had little interaction with their Indian counterparts – they were self contained and self sufficient.

The 2000s have seen a further mushrooming of these schools, now varyingly called world and global schools too. Many of these however don't really satisfy the norms of international schools that were mentioned earlier. Some of these are wannabe schools who are attempting to grab the attention of an increasingly aspirational middle class who wish to ensure that their children get the best possible school education and a certain social status that will stand in good stead for a global career and lifestyle.

The reason for this extended preamble is to set the context for examining the reason and relevance of international schools and the accompanying education fairs that do the rounds in all the Indian metros as well as neighbouring countries. The school market is not an entirely transparent one, partly because of the unfriendly government regulations but also because of the many vested business interests in schools today. Schools are seen as the sunrise industry of the 21st century.  People setting up schools today, especially international schools are businessmen, builders, corporate houses, and politicians. Their purpose, while never overtly stated, is to make profits, not necessarily to educate the millions of young children below 15 years, who desperately need the life opportunities that a good school can provide. Schooling in India is increasingly stratified and divisive and the essential social and ethical purpose of schools is somewhere getting fuzzy!

Government schools lie at the bottom of the pile and serve only the poorest of the poor. Even poor and illiterate parents are opting out of government schools for their abysmal accountability and admitting children to low cost English-medium private schools paying fees. A friend remarked ironically, “If the poor are rejecting something that they could get for free and are paying for the same service elsewhere – that truly is an indication of the failure of the government school system.”

Above the government schools, come the affordable (low-cost) private schools, next middle level private schools catering to the lower-middle and middle class socio-economic strata. Next come the upper-end private schools that cater to children from the well educated middle and upper middle class families who are mainly salaried professionals. Right on top, in a rarified zone, are the international, world, global schools. These cater to the affluent business communities and the expatriate populations in India and neighbouring countries like Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia. In much the same way as the poor are opting out of government schools, India's privileged classes are also in a rejection mode – they are rejecting a 'desi' way of education. They are willing to pay exorbitant fees varying from Rs.3 lakhs per year to 8 lakhs per year, perhaps even more, in order to insulate their children from the 'conventionality' and 'mediocrity' of an 'Indian mindset', and an 'Indian way' of working and living. There seems to be a growing disaffection amongst the privileged classes in India towards the 'Indian school'.

Undoubtedly language, i.e., English language as the de facto lingua franca of the world, has been a reason for the rise of international schools in India. In his book Learning from Conflict, Prof. Krishna Kumar states, “Competence in the use of English is the single most important marker of a young person's eligibility for negotiating the opportunity structure that the modern economy has made available. Those who lack competence in English have remarkably limited scope for moving into higher income and higher status roles in society.” This is reinforced in international schools through the exposure of students to western stereotypes, culture, and lifestyle. The textbooks, the furniture, teaching aids, food all promote an affluent metropolitan culture. In fact the 'schooling industry' has spawned a parallel industry of products, services, and supplies to these 'global' schools, with purely business motives. The clientele of these schools use them as an easy springboard for getting admission in universities abroad. In an environment of stiff competition and reservations, securing admissions in good Indian universities or professional colleges for courses of one's own choice is an increasingly bleak prospective for the average student. Therefore, those who can afford it prefer to study abroad, especially since, in India there is a cache attached to a 'foreign' degree. So, international schools do seemingly serve a vital purpose.

However, the flip side of this is that children in most international schools live in a certain twilight zone, getting the semblance of an authentic global schooling, but removed from the realities and contradictions of their neighbourhood, community, city, and country. Concerns about fairness, equity, and equality are rarely raised or discussed. And the international curricula are not really to blame for this, since they do allow for regional contextualization especially with regard to social sciences and languages. This happens because in the absence of adequate numbers of thoughtful and competent teachers with a contemporary world view, many international schools go only through the motions of offering an excellent education. However what one often sees in these schools, barring some prominent exceptions of course, is quite average, even mediocre teaching. The teachers in international schools, apart from the few expatriate teachers who are employed at much higher salaries paid in dollars, come from the same pool as that which serves the convent and public schools in India. They haven't been previously exposed to or trained in contemporary teaching practices that are expected for delivering international curricula. Despite the crash course training these schools do provide after recruitment, the teachers are not adequately supported or mentored to enable them to shed conditioned ways of teaching and adopting more learner and learning centred approaches. To exacerbate the situation, many of the teachers come from fairly modest backgrounds with rather conservative mindsets. This results in a socio-economic disconnect between the teachers and their students who have been exposed to a different value system. Parents, especially the NRI and expatriate parents are rather critical of the 'Indian' teachers and look down upon them. In fact, an invisible caste system has been created amongst teachers in international schools. The elite class are the expatriate teachers with foreign passports and international qualifications, next are the Indian origin teachers with international qualifications. Following them are the Indian teachers with Indian qualifications. Last come the Indian staff without a teaching qualification who also get to work as teaching assistants. Such an organizational structure doesn't help establish an ethos of collaboration, mutual respect within the schools. Notwithstanding the fact that these schools cater to only a tiny segment of our school-going population, the subtle discrimination these schools breed, is a matter of concern especially when the promoters and owners of the schools are themselves Indian.

In the final analysis it's pertinent to ask whether international schools play a vital role in India. I believe they have the same relevance as they did in the 70s and 80s – for a small minority of young people – diplomats' and expatriates' children who need to be globally mobile. For the majority of our schools – government and private, what we really need are high standards in line with the best in the world – especially in terms of curriculum, teaching, and assessment. The rest can be achieved with the internet and cloud-based technologies. Our children can learn alongside students anywhere in the world, with our schools partnering with schools from other parts of the world. That would be truly going global, while living local.

I can be reached at : mayamenon@teacherfoundation.org
This article has appeared as a cover story in the Teacher Plus edition of April 2013


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