For months, Jessie*, a Chennai-based artist and mother of an 11-year-old boy was baffled at her son’s aversion towards his school. It was, after all, the third one she had enrolled him in after he faced bullying in two previous ones, which affected his morale and performance too. It was in July 2020 she finally got an answer – alternative schooling.
The basic premise of alternative schooling is that it provides choice to learners – from maths, science and social studies to pottery and gardening - to customise their schedule. It entails parents and children designing a learning structure with focus on things they want to do, rather than a pre-decided curriculum such as in traditional schooling.
Another highlight is that this mode takes a child’s individual pace into account as there are no periodical exams or tests for assessment.
Alternative schooling organisations in Chennai like The Learning Community at Quest and Beyond8 emphasise on narrowing down choices to fit the child’s aspirations and interests. This method of education is a hybrid – a mix of home-based video tutorials and centre-based activity lessons.
Started four years ago by Srikanth and Sharanya Dilip, Quest allows parents and children to break away from conventional schooling systems for education that is offbeat and focussed. "It could be art, thread-work, movie-watching etc. We had all the resources in place and families could come and explore and then choose to learn what they wanted to," says C Srikanth, co-founder of The Learning Community at Quest.
Meanwhile, Beyond8 started with offering specialised courses like entrepreneurship in addition to conventional schooling curriculum in the past. But they found that additional courses were temporary fixes to a system that needs a complete overhaul. “There is no focus on the learner in the current system,” says Raaji Naveen, cofounder of Beyond8. “The conventional education system does not incorporate the learners' voice or choice, and is curriculum-centric, not learner-centric. The current learners' generation and the next generation are going to be very high in expression and inclusivity. They have choices to make and want their voices to be heard.”
While the focus is on learning whatever the kids want, such alternative schooling organisations also provide the children with options to earn a certificate at class 10 or 12 levels, usually through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) or the International General Certificate of School Education (IGCSE).
A common thread that runs between such providers of alternative schooling is that the conventional school education system is outdated.
“The current education system was put together at the time of industrialisation, which required people to be able to obey orders, be part of a huge assembly line etc. This is no longer required, but education hasn’t changed to reflect that. The current education system is designed to meet the requirements of a workforce of the past and not of the future,” says Naveen Mahesh, cofounder of Beyond8.
Drawing parallels with the system of education that the members of elite society had in the past, where private tutors would come home and teach them whatever they were interested in, Naveen says that it is imperative that a similar arrangement is made available now. “In a conventional school education, everybody looks the same; they study the same content and will be assessed in the exact same way. So, we want everybody to be alike. But everybody doesn't need to learn or love the same things. The basic premise of alternative schooling is that,” he points out.
Sharanya adds, “Conventional schooling does not provide the answers for the world tomorrow. Our objective is to bring out the innate potential of the child. Once you bring it out, the children will become confident individuals and then they can actually take on the world.”
Alternative schooling educators point out that conventional schooling also finds takers because it keeps children occupied for a good part of the day, especially when combined with after school tuitions. This leaves parents free to work. However, does alternative schooling demand round-the-clock attention from parents? Not necessarily.
For instance, Srikanth explains that they have a full-time programme that runs from 10 am to 4 pm for children between six and 18 years. "Children are like home-schoolers. Parents who want to home-school their children but don't have enough resources to do so, we facilitate education for them. Parents, us and the child curate the education for the child. That's how it works here," he says. Quest also has an after-school programme that accommodates children between the ages of four and 18.
Further, since alternative schooling is customised according to the wishes and interests of the child, there is more proactive engagement from the children themselves, Raaji adds. “Because it is a self-determined learning journey where self-regulation is a key skill, even the parents are left freer. Children are actually excited to come and learn and create and think and do because they are in charge of it,” she explains.
For Jessie, enrolling her son in an alternative school has helped immensely. “I was very stressed because of the bullying he was facing at school. They don’t usually teach how to be confident or deal with bullies either. But since he started attending an alternative education school, I see tremendous positive change in him. He is happy with it and so am I,” she says.
Raaji is confident that in due course of time, more people will seek out this mode of education. “If we want the society to thrive, we need citizens who can think independently, take responsibility and be useful components in a social structure. While conventional schooling is more likely to make one into a consumer, with alternative schooling, we look to make children active citizens. Both are part of society, and happy in their own ways,” she says.
Sharanya adds that alternative education also dispels the myth that examinations are the be all and end all of a child’s future. “The fear that if you don't write exams, your future will be spoiled. That fear needs to be dispelled. That's a slow process,” he adds.
While the enthusiasts bat for this system of alternative schooling to become the order of the future, experienced educators voice concern over the concept. B Ramdas, a Founding Trustee of Viswa Bharati Vidyodaya Trust (VBVT) says that while the concept certainly is pathbreaking and the need of the hour, it is imperative to play by the law of the land.
“Our Right To Education (RTE) Act makes it compulsory for all the children to be enrolled in some school and not be outside of the system. Hence, in the long run it is only practical to have the children inside the (conventional) schooling system,” he explains. Ramdas and a few of his friends have been involved in the growth and development of alternative schooling concepts across the country with the help of a strong network of like-minded individuals and organisations for over 25 years.
He expresses confidence that in the coming years, the existing education system will evolve to match the idea of alternative schooling as provided by some organisations at present. “The K-12 schooling system (kindergarten to class 12) will slowly evolve into something similar to the alternative schools. It will require breaking the existing system and rebuilding it. I am all up for breaking the existing system to rebuild in a better way, but as of now, I think the law of the land is clear,” he says.