Anoothi Vishal / New Delhi June 28, 2008, 0:52 IST
Indian classrooms are now opening up to the world.
When Jessica Pealchen, a class eight student at Lotus Valley International School in Noida, returns after her summer break next week, she will be telling teachers and classmates of a holiday spent differently from Indian schoolchildren.
While her peers may have been off to "smart" foreign or domestic locations — or at the very least, to their grandparents — Jessica and her mother were in Mumbai to see "the large slum".
By the time she is back, she will hopefully know it's called Dharavi, and may even have numbers such as one million (the slum's population) on her fingertips — but that's another matter.
Jessica's choice of holiday destination is not the only thing that separates her from other schoolmates in the suburb. For one, there's her nationality (she's German); for another, her background (she's travelled all over the world, thanks to her father's job with Volkswagen; she was last at the American School in the Caribbean, where they hardly ever "studied", and spoke only Spanish); and, of course, her language.
Having studied Hindi for three years, she knows enough to get by, but just. "Sometimes other kids call me ‘German Shepherd' and names in Hindi, but I am not bothered," she grins effortlessly as only a schoolkid can, "My friends have taught me all the bad words in Hindi so I know if someone is using them."
Adults may worry over displacement angst but Jessica is clearly thriving on her multicultural experience in a school with students from 10 different nationalities. She loves the Indian-Chinese food they serve in the canteen every Thursday, likes math, has friends whose homes she visits, and is clearly a favourite with teachers.
Jessica's parents have told her that "In the old days, schools in Germany too used to be like this, with rules and discipline."
In class four, brothers Liam and Ashton Pansearohud are probably more ambivalent towards the "rules and discipline". In South Africa, where they had earlier studied, they didn't have to contend with such issues.
"We were never punished," they say, fidgeting outside class, but also mindful that had it not been for schooling in India, they would never have got a chance to do "so many things…horseriding, golf, swimming, tennis", activities that their very fancy school offers alongside interactive smart boards in classrooms, central air-conditioning, the Advanced level suite of examinations and, in junior classes, a playway method of teaching.
In the last five years the rise of "international" schools in India — with or without affiliation to the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme — is well-documented.
With money from the corporate sector pouring into this very lucrative business, none of the "excesses" that used to get talked about even a year or two ago — wi-fi classrooms, laptop-carrying pupils, air-conditioned school buses with security, extra-curricular activities ranging from shooting ranges in the premises to yoga for the tots, and campuses to rival five-star hotels in their look and feel — seem as eye-popping as they did when these schools first started changing the face of education in India.
But while such schools have always attracted NRIs and moneyed Indians of a certain class and aspiration — children looking to go abroad, seeking IB or International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) tags — they are now emerging as magnets for foreign students from the Asia-Pacific region and, more recently, from even Europe and South America, "countries such as Italy, Germany, France, Spain, even Chile, which are close culturally to the Indian ethos", as Alka Varma, head of admissions at Pathways, an elite school in Gurgaon (with children from an astounding 53 countries this session), says.
Sandeep Dutt, author of the Guide to Good Schools of India, trainer in the field of education and bookseller by profession, whose English Book Depot publishes and supplies tomes to most of India's "good schools", says the education sector is sitting on a boom "the kind that you have seen with IT or medicine, without government intervention, solely through private initiative".
So if IT is outsourcing talent and "five-star" hospitals attracting substantial "tourists", schools in India too are not lagging behind. In fact, with the rapidly increasing number of foreign students — primary to high school level — India is emerging as a popular destination for education, even if you discount the over 15,500 "colleges" of higher learning.
Numbers, of course, don't always tell you the whole story. While CBSE lists 8,979 schools affiliated to it (till March last year), including those abroad, experts like Dutt put the number of elite private schools "of a certain standard", with boarding facilities, at just 100-200, with about 500 students enrolled in each.
Of these, 10 per cent on average are expat students — though Woodstock in Mussoorie always had American students, newer ones like Pathways in Gurgaon, and the Mahindra United World College India, off Pune, have a much higher percentage of foreign enrollments.
Both the number of foreign students in these existing schools and the number of such schools itself is rising phenomenally.
In fact, experts "safely" say that as many as 70-80 more such schools are to come up in the country this year (on an average, a school set up on 25-30 acres of land needs a three-year gestation period; the annual percentage growth is thus more conservative, estimated at about 15 per cent per annum).
The schools themselves report an increase in the number of foreign admissions in the last few years, and a change in student profiles.
Kodaikanal International, a Christian multicultural residential school in Tamil Nadu, has always had a substantial presence of American students, but this year dean Sam Balachandra is amazed.
"There is now a trend towards students from Europe, probably because our students have gone to Europe with good IB results," he offers. There's also another segment seeing a rapid increase: students from Asia-Pacific, Korea in particular.
"We used to have 10-15 students from Korea, but this year we already have 20," Balachandra says. Consultant Gulab Ramchandani, credited as the founder of the new schools movement in India — he has designed schools from the likes of Assam Valley to Bawa Lalvani Public School in Kapurthala to Jain International in Bangalore — agrees.
"Earlier", says Ramchandani, "a significant market was the Middle East and schools would host fairs there to attract students." But now that has stopped "since those countries have also got good schools".
There were always students from Nepal, Thailand and the Saarc nations, he says, "but these days, I see a lot of Korean students. By and large, they don't create any problems. They may show off a new phone once in a while but are clean, no drugs."
One reason for students from Korea and also Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia enrolling in Indian boarding and elite day schools is the medium of instruction: English. "Where else is proper English spoken any longer? Certainly not in the US or UK," laughs Pramod Sharma, principal, Mayo College, Ajmer, who has entertained enquiries from Korean students but says that seats get filled with Indian students and those from Saarc countries.
Sharma adds that upward mobility in the countries is through English, so parents send their wards to Indian schools, generally recognised as being able to bestow good skills in the language. (Reports in the foreign press suggest that primary and secondary students in South Korea are increasingly taking TOEFL exams because they need the scores to apply to "special purpose" high schools and, finally, universities abroad.)
So high is the demand for Indian schools that middlemen and "consultants" seem to be having a field day. "There is obviously a lot of money to be made," Sharma says, explaining how e-mails go around seeking bulk admissions for foreign students.
"If a school normally charges Rs 1.3 lakh per child, foreigners are prepared to pay Rs 2.5 lakh per child plus a commission of Rs 50,000 to whoever gets the admission done."
Even at the extra cost and in spite of international schools charging several times more than most CBSE or ICSE affiliated private schools in the country, these work out to be much cheaper for foreign students than schools in the US or the UK.
One of the biggest trends in private schooling in India is the IB affiliation. In education hub Pune, the Mercedes-Benz International School and the Mahindra United World College used to be the only IB schools. Now, at least five new ones have entered this space in the last two years, including MIT Gurukul and Indus International School, Symbiosis International and the Sharad Pawar International School.
Even the hoary Doon School has become an IB World School since 2006. Apart from being an elite-magnet, the affiliation encourages more international students. Even without that, educationists are united in dubbing the Indian education system "the best in the world".
What they imply is that schools here subscribe to an Eastern ethos while allowing for modern teaching methods and ensuring five-star comforts for students. This is a blend that students (and parents) from culturally conservative countries appreciate.
Hui-Jeong-Gim, a class eight Korean student at Lotus Valley, will probably agree with that. She has been in school in India for four years, speaks English in a markedly Indian way, and says that though she was "initially very shy", she now likes her classmates because "they also respect their gods like we do".
Kodaikanal's dean Balachandra remarks how assimilation is an issue with Korean students, "Their parents insist they stay in separate dorms, not with the rest, otherwise they'll not have any friends." Teachers say that while students from Asian cultures are diligent, they're aloof.
For students from the West, that's not an issue — but there are others. At the MIIT Gurukul, only vegetarian food is served and William Fernandes, head (admissions), admits that "there have been instances where we have had to counsel the students and parents on a vegetarian diet". There are counsellors to help foreign students accustom themselves to Indian culture.
At the Mahindra United World College, where the ratio of foreign : Indian students is 70 : 40, the rural setting is used to establish bonds with a "real" India. Students are required to participate in community service and group games. In the picturesque Western Ghats, colliding with India at close quarters, who can deny that this too is education?