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Rejuvenating LENS

Rejuvenating LENS

In school, although a regular reader of LENS, I was never a member of the LENS squad that published the wallpaper. So, last fortnight (5 September), when I interacted with Loyola students about the publishing of LENS, I did not tell them about “those glorious years”; instead, I spoke to them about the future of LENS.

Not because LENS was bad in my time. In the 1980s, LENS used to be elegant — typewritten on a letterhead, with a green band a few inches from the top, the name “LENS” left-aligned and in maroon, a graphic of a lens to magnify the “L”, the expansion “Loyola English News Service” written beneath the logo, and available on the notice-board in front of the school office in the main building. Despite such attractiveness, the first word that comes to my mind when I think of LENS, is “irregular”. Because LENS was sometimes available in the Silver Jubilee Block, but often not. LENS was sometimes published every week, but often not. In my middle and high school years, LENS was like a 60+ in history from Fr Pulickal — you long for it, and you’ll get it one day, but not today.

A few years later, I learnt from other old boys that LENS had turned even more irregular — it got published well in the odd year, but in some years it did not appear at all, and the LENS squad was no longer a ‘star’ squad that students competed to join. This year’s school newsletter brought out before Onam holidays lists a few staff advisors for LENS, but doesn’t mention even one student’s name.

It seems funny, because the LENS largely disappeared at a time when desktop publishing wove itself into our lives, and opened up numerous ways of publishing LENS smarter. Today, than ever in the past, it is easier to snap pictures using digital camera, key in articles using MS Word, choose multi-column option, and get a neat printed look that rivals the frontpage of any mainstream newspaper. Also, it takes just an hour to get the e-version ready and publish online, to reach out to old boys and former teachers scattered across the world.

In an earlier post on the Great School Campaign, I had argued that the school was getting stronger in hardware (more computers, in this context), but probably weaker in software (poor training to bring out LENS). Rather than just whine, we decided to do something. We got in touch with a student who had published LENS this year. Noel and his friends were not officially in the LENS squad, but they had displayed initiative and talent. The school too welcomed our idea to rejuvenate LENS.

That’s how, last fortnight, I was speaking to Loyola students about the future of LENS — the heights it can achieve in two years. I talked about journalism principles, shared tips on reporting, editing and design, and outlined the possibilities of a web edition. That Friday evening, we took stock of where LENS is, and where LENS can be. We’ll now try to travel from point A to point B.

The rejuvenation of LENS is also an experiment where old boys partner with the school to make Loyola a great school. Because we aren’t satisfied with Loyola being a good school.

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Visit http://lens.loyolites.com to catch the first issue of 2008. To stay tuned, subscribe to our free, monthly e-newsletter.

He Who Pays the Piper

In my blogpost last month on evaluating the school, I had surveyed the readers to know their views on the Great School Campaign. Here are the results of the two-question survey.

1. Do you feel there should be a Campaign to make Loyola a great school?
86.7% (52 votes) said “Yes, I am in favour of a Great School Campaign.”
“No. Loyola is already a great school”: 10% (6 votes)
“I don’t care”: 3.3% (2 votes)

2. Who should lead the Great School Campaign, if there is one?
The top preference was for Loyola Old Boys’ Association (LOBA) to lead the Great School Campaign.
LOBA: 38.3% (23 votes)
The Principal or Vice-Principal: 18.3% (11 votes)
loyolites.com: 18.3% (11 votes)
None of the listed options: 13.3% (8 votes)
Parent-Teacher Association (PTA): 8.3% (5 votes)
School Leader: 3.3% (2 votes)

Many of those who chose “none of the above” favoured a combination — for example, LOBA and PTA, or the authorities and PTA. Other candidates proposed to lead were “a former teacher”, and “a senior and distinguished alumnus”.

60 people participated in the survey. Thank you, guys!

Will LOBA take the next step?

* * *

I feel that there should be a Great School Campaign, and that the PTA should take the lead. Let me explain why I (still) favour the PTA, and not LOBA.

Due to the aura around Fr C.P. Varkey’s reform efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of us believe that the Jesuits lead the school. But that seems to have been an exception as much as exceptional. I feel that the Jesuits are led by parents and the prevailing social environment. That’s why I favour the PTA to lead the Great School Campaign.

When Fr Kuruvila Cherian became Principal (around 2000), he tried to bring back the emphasis on extra-curricular activities. But the pressure from parents was such that the school turned around to place a premium on academic study. According to a reliable source, when the academic result was not so glorious one year, parents expressed concern at the damage to image — a school producing poor results — caused by increased emphasis on extra-curricular activities. The Jesuits panicked, and Fr Cherian was forced to leave, goes the story.

Though there has been a crackdown on Loyola teachers taking private tuition, the school itself has not shied away from organising extra classes. A few years ago, I was witness to extra classes being held for a Plus Two class, when several sports day competitions were going on in the main field. More shockingly (for me), when student interest in the youth festival declined — initially in the late 1980s, but significantly in the 2000s — the Jesuits responded by slashing the number of festival days. Instead of convincing parents and students why the youth festival should be held the way it used to be, the Jesuits even okayed in-camera competitions — three judges and the competitors in a room — thereby signalling that extra-curricular activities are “extra” in Loyola. The merits of participating in an event or reciting a poem before the school were ignored; festivals were organised as rituals to select winners and write certificates.

Didn’t Fr Varkey face pressure from parents? I am sure he did. He explained his reform philosophy to the parents of the day, and won them over. His charisma may have helped, but he also benefited from the prevailing social environment. Fr Varkey may not have succeeded among today’s Loyola parents.

Consider the parents of today. Most of them grew up in a competitive era, and they believe that competition has only intensified since then. Also, most of them enjoyed reasonably good, private-school, English-medium education, and for their kids, they set a higher standard of success. Add to this today’s social values — the worship of wealth (the hype surrounding salaries emanating from an IIM diploma), and a tacit acceptance of getting what you want by hook-or-crook (result-oriented actions). All this is a planet afar from the Loyola parents of the 1970s and 1980s, and the environment they raised their kids in. Is it any wonder that Baker is out and big is in? Is it any surprise that children should play less and playgrounds should be fenced because cars have to ply on the school’s road?

For good or bad, the parents are more powerful than the Jesuits — he who pays the Piper calls the tune. If you wish to make Loyola a great school, I believe that your best bet lies in convincing the parents and letting them lead the Great School Campaign. What happens in Loyola happens because the parents let that happen.

Postscript: From my LOBA experience, I would say that the worst group to lead the Great School Campaign would be the LOBA. Its leadership lacks the intellectual strength and commitment to lead such a campaign, and the organisation is powerless in the school’s scheme of things. That’s hardly surprising, since all of us have left it to the rest of us to run the organisation. But if you insist that LOBA should lead the Campaign and make it a success, I suggest that you get enough friends from various batches to turn up at the next General Body Meeting, capture the organisation’s leadership (the six key posts and the Executive Committee) and settle down to business. The real poll is offline, not online.

Evaluating the School

Evaluating the School

In 1980, a team of four Jesuits conducted an evaluation of Loyola School. Three years later, the school published the report’s extracts in Loyola School Souvenir, a 134-page publication to raise funds for acknowledge funders of the Silver Jubilee block, which was then under construction.

Here are excerpts from the 2 pages of extracts in the souvenir.

The admission policy of the school is to select the students on the basis of an entrance test. However, Catholics and close relatives of the Jesuits and of the School’s employees, and children from the immediate neighbourhood are admitted independently of ranking.

The School grants the following fee concessions: (1) Free education to the children of Loyola’s employees, (2) Half or Full fee concession to about 60 students, the norms for selection here being the economic backwardness of the parents.

The School has a sufficiently well equipped library and laboratory. The library has over 7,000 books. The School subscribes to 20 periodicals and newspapers. Rs 10/- per student is annually spent in the library. Every week 100 to 150 books are issued to the students of Stds VI to X. In the library, book shelves are kept open and are ascessible to students.

The standard of discipline is rated very good in respect of both staff and students. There is a remarkable atmosphere of freedom and fearlessness prevailing among the students. The whole campus is also remarkable for neatness and cleanliness, as well as a sense of decency and courtesy in behaviour. Wall writings and things like that are not to be seen anywhere. Smaller boys have no need to fear bullying by bigger ones. Smoking is unknown. Corporal punishment is not allowed.

What immediately strikes one about Loyola is that here there seems to be a conscious, systematic and consistent pursuit of certain goals. Imagination, ommitment and drive seem to characterise the school’s leadership. This is shown in every aspect.

It goes without saying that in terms of academic achievement Loyola must be given Very High rating. The contribution of the School to educational thinking, taken in a broad sense, through its bold experimentations innovative programmes, (and numberous seminars by the Principal to as many as fifty schools and parent groups) must be considered significant.

Nearly 90% of the respondents characterize the School as outstanding academically and in discipline, and about 25% as Fostering creativity and critical thinking.

The souvenir presented these extracts with the heading “Know the School Better”. Three things struck me:

1. All the extracts showed the school in a positive light. I’ve quoted only a few here but there was not a single sentence in the others too about any weakness or discomfort in Loyola. Didn’t the entire evaluation report have any? If it had, why were such points not published in the souvenir?

2. The article did not give any details about the team of Jesuits that conducted the evaluation. Were all four working in Loyola in 1980? 😉

3. The evaluation was conducted in 1980, and extracts of the report were published in 1983. Even when published so late, no information was shared on how many people of different groups (Jesuits, teachers, parents, students, old boys, outsiders) were surveyed.

It could be that the entire report was placed before the Parent-Teacher Association before publication in the souvenir. There are several missing pieces and I hope more facts will come to light to clear the air. Till then, let us examine the revealed bits.

Earlier, while writing about politics in Loyola, I mentioned the Jesuits trumpeting their virtues, sometimes with good reasons. Prior to it, in the context of LA Fest, I had sneered at the culture of whitewashing that plagues recent school magazines. Read along with the publication of 1983 (of the evaluation), I discover that the school has a history of practising “Ashwathama hatah”.

Such reluctance to tell the whole truth surprises me. If the school stood out in the early 1980s (in Kerala, if not in India) it was rooted in an honest and critical look at existing practices, and challenging of entrenched beliefs. The stopping of corporal punishment, for instance, would not have happened if all were busy sweeping stories under the carpet.

On the bright side, the extracts in the souvenir reveal that an evaluation took place. I do not know whether it was a regular practice of the Jesuits. But elsewhere in the souvenir, we learn that staff evaluation and planning started in Loyola in 1979. It is remarkable for a school to have a culture of self-evaluation. I remember that a few days into every academic year, a lengthy staff meeting was held. Students played to their hearts’ content for hours. Looking back, those afternoons benefited us off the sports field too.

Or did they?

“Staff planning and evaluation” still exists for sure. This is what happens when some visionary kicks off a good practice; people follow it as a tradition.

The spirit of the evaluation — to look critically and constructively at one’s own practices — must be applied to the evaluation process itself. The school can, for example, widen the scope of the evaluation. How about including parents, teachers, old boys, students and outsiders in the evaluation in 2008? Will the school lose more than it might gain?

Re-read the extracts from the evaluation of 1980. There’s not a single sentence there that helps a good school think ahead. Its publicised findings are a listing of outcomes of reforms initiated between 1976 and 1979; they contain no insightful reflection to take the school forward.

Could it be a coincidence that the school, in terms of education, eschewed reforms and went into ‘maintenance’ mode soon thereafter? New Principals and Vice-Principals — many of them good individuals — came and went but none took the school to noticeably great heights. They focused on strengthening the hardware: facilities such as a mosaic basket-ball court, a rebuilt tennis court, a large playground, or a large auditorium. I suspect that it took their attention away from the software: education, curriculum, training and other invisible, yet key domains. Maybe the school needed a good dose of hardware then. Maybe it needs a similar dose of software now.

The new auditorium of Loyola School - opened 2008

I often hear old boys say “Oh! Loyola is not such a good school these days. My neighbour, whose son is in Loyola, tells me…”, or “There is no longer an emphasis on extracurricular activities” and so on. From the other corner, I hear current students and those who passed recently speak highly of the school. Each of us consequently has pet theories and grouses grounded in anecdotes than any fact, or meaningful survey.

Schools, like firms or organisations, have to improve their services, not just to compete with other schools but also for society’s progress. I believe that a Great School Campaign is needed, and that it should begin with trying to understand the school today. The first step could be an honest and critical assessment conducted by a mixed team (of Jesuits, teachers, parents, students, old boys, and outsiders). After sharing that report with the public — yes, the school is embedded in a community and non-Loyolites too have a stake in Loyola — the old boys should institute endowments, promote alumni participation in school activities or do whatever emerge as action points. Old boys, instead of pumping money in a fit of nostalgia, should behave responsibly with meaningful interventions.

In 2008, the Parent-Teacher Association, with its deep stake in the school, should initiate a comprehensive and systematic evaluation of the school. That way, when Loyola celebrates its golden jubilee three years from now, the school will have a blueprint for life after 50, not merely a glossy, colour brochure patting itself on the back. The school will benefit more from a gutter inspector’s report than another round of whitewashing. Let us not turn the clock back to 1980.

Can I ask for 2 minutes of your time this month? Please participate in a 2-question survey on the Great School Campaign. Poll open till 28 March. Results will be announced on 30 March 2008.

Update! Results of the 2-question survey are now available.

To Doon or Not to Doon

To Doon or Not to Doon

When I sit in Delhi and look at the educational map of our country, I do not find Loyola. For ours is a city school, not a national one.

In Indian history, the most famous school was located outside India — Harrow, in England, where Nehru went to at the age of sixteen. In prison in the 1930s, Nehru “stuck pictures of Harrow in his diaries and drew up lists of poets and politicians who had been to Harrow,” says Sarvepalli Gopal in his 3-volume biography of Nehru. Those lists of Harrovians would have included the poet Lord Byron, Winston Churchill, and six other British Prime Ministers.

Today, India’s most well-known school is Doon School, in Dehra Dun. Main Building of Doon School. Pic courtesy: Wikipedia
When the school celebrated its golden jubilee in 1985, the New York Times called it the ‘Harrow by the Himalayas’. After all, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had studied there. And now we know that Doon School, like Harrow, has produced not only cabinet ministers and chief ministers, but also men of letters, notably Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh.

For an institution founded in 1935, Doon School has done well. With 500 students in a given year, Doon is smaller than Loyola, but it boasts of an impressive list of alumni and is regularly talked about as one of the best schools in the country. Such popular perception has been fuelled by a mystique of elitism and sustained press coverage. Last year, the Wall Street Journal wrote about the spartan life at Doon, where “to help blur class lines, boys perform menial tasks such as pruning plants or window-cleaning.” If your mind raced to the sweeping of classrooms by students at Loyola, and the absence of press coverage, I will not blame you. All the same, I think it would be better to acknowledge that there is something right in the Doon Valley. Reading articles about the school, and thinking about its students’ achievements, gave me the impression that Doon is Loyola+.

Spot quiz: Name three good schools outside the state you live. Quick!

Doon School, I would argue, is the top national brand among schools in India. Mayo College (Ajmer) and Scindia School (Gwalior) are known in the north, Lawrence (Lovedale) in the south, and the two La Martiniere schools (Lucknow and Kolkata) in their respective regions. Among the alternate schools, Rishi Valley School (Madanapalle) is perhaps the most well-known and appears to be recognised nationally.

Unlike these boarding schools with a small number of students, South Point High School (Kolkata) — with 13,000 students and affiliated to the West Bengal education board — would be vaguely familiar to the rest of India for once being the world’s largest school. The ubiquitous Kendriya Vidyalaya is a stronger national brand than Doon, but here I am talking of the attractiveness of individual schools — there is no particular Kendriya Vidyalaya or DAV branch that I know which appeals significantly beyond its city or region.

Can Loyola become a Doon?

For sure, being well-known is not the only test of a school. But when I ask whether Loyola can become a Doon, or wonder why Loyola is only a city brand, I do not mean replicating every inch of the Doon experience or launching a publicity blitzkrieg for inches of newsprint and pixels. I only ask whether Loyola can become a model of excellence in India and sustain its position over decades. I only ask whether Loyola can become a great school, and figure prominently on the country’s educational map — a school that India cannot ignore.

What should Loyola do to become a great school? Is it the monastic experience of Doon and the boarding culture of brand schools that Loyola should emulate, or better still, innovate for its day-scholar crowd? How can Loyola’s emphasis on the development of all-round personality be strengthened? What would it take for Loyola to become a national brand?