Loreto Day School in Kolkata, India exemplifies the power of education and its positive effect upon communities and the wider society. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer at this great school and witness the work it is doing first hand. The school was set up in 1979 under the direction of an Irish nun Sr. M. Cyril. During her tenure as principal, Sister Cyril has transformed this once exclusively upper class private school for girls into a model for equality-based educational change in India. Her experimental and revolutionary school:
“Was born of a certain uneasiness felt at being part of a formal school system imparting ‘quality education’ to a privileged few, while millions of their less fortunate peer group get virtually nothing at all. It has involved opening up the school more and more to underprivileged youngsters from slum areas and pavements, to produce a healthy mix of children from all social, financial and religious backgrounds, resulting in a school population of 1400 students-of which 700 are totally free and from the nearby slums. In this way Loreto Sealdah seeks to become a Resource centre for the community, creating in the process dynamic people, with the values of giving, sharing and extended love-a vibrant, living instrument for human change.” (Loreto, Shealdah, 2007)
(Sr. M Cyril, Advocate of Equality Based Education and Female Empowerment in India)
Sr. M Cyril has achieved a great deal in a society where caste and social class is paramount. She has bridged the gap between the rich and the poor and in doing so has succeeded in revolutionizing the educational system and social norms within India. It was amazing to witness her work first hand. Daughters of lawyers and doctors study side by side with street children and young girls from the lower socio-economic “slum” areas of Kolkata. The girls from wealthier economic backgrounds pay fees to attend the school. Sr. M Cyril uses these fees as a source of revenue n order to provide resources to educate the children from disadvantaged areas who then have the ability to attend the school for free. Never before, would such a system have been though workable within this divided society and culture. Yet, Sr. M. Cyril has proved unstoppable with a reputable history of outstanding achievement and excellence in regards to teaching and education in India.
In addition, Sr. M. Cyril has spearheaded the following programmes which further facilitate her high quality approach to teaching and outreach within the region. These programmes include:
- The Rainbow Program
- Barefoot Teachers Training Program
- Hidden Domestic Child Labour Outreach
- Rural Child-to-Child Education
I was fortunate enough to witness first-hand the Rural Child-to-Child Education scheme being implemented by Sr. M. Cyril at Loreto Day School Sealdah. Each Thursday the senior rooms leave early from the school and make their way into the rural, countryside of Kolkata on the school bus (which also duplicates as a mobile library). I joined the group on one of these particular Thursdays. As the bus drove further from the city you could see how the level of poverty intensified and increased. Roads gave way to dirt tracks and buildings were replaced by modest clay and straw huts. My group jumped of at the second stop as the bus continued further into the dense countryside ready to drop off more students. Such a system allows for maximum dispersal of teaching aid into areas which otherwise would be left unaided. We approached a large concrete building which was the local school and I paired up with a young 12 year old Loreto student who was going to be teaching the class that morning.
The classroom differed from anything I had ever seen before insofar as it had no tables or chairs for the students. There was no artwork on the walls, books, chalk or any other resources that a Western teacher and student may take for granted. It was a large concrete room with no air-conditioning despite the intense heat and humidity. It was a very minimal room, completely unlike any Western school you might find and indeed unlike any urban school you might find in India. For example, a 2008 UN report found that there is,
“a particularly glaring gap between the resources available to urban and rural schools. In India, the report found that 27 per cent of village schools have electricity compared to 76 per cent of schools in towns or cities. Only about half of the rural schools surveyed have enough toilets for girls and fewer than 4 per cent have a telephone”. (Indian Express, 2008)
(Rural Child-To-Child Education)
Yet the teachers and students remain unfazed by the lack of resources. This experience thought me that as long as there is a patient teacher and a willing student, learning can and will be achieved.
The children I met In India had an incredible motivation to learn and they took their study extremely seriously. The same can be applied to these rurally based children. It would seem that their parents encourage them to get an education because in India, it is the only guarantee of a better future. It made me reflect on the education system at home. For many young Irish children, including myself as I made my way through second level education, school can be regarded as a chore and in many ways is taken for granted. Yet, in India, education is not a civil right but rather a privilege that young children dream and wish to be a part of. Was it not for the work of Sr. M. Cyril and charities that carry out similar work, many Indian children would be denied their basic right to education.
From what I witnessed of the Rural Child-to-Child Education scheme, I can only account for its merits. In a situation where there is a lack of resources and aid it makes sense to incorporate projects such as this. I also think it is a very rewarding system for both parties involved. The rural children get a quality learning experience. They also experience a sense of community and caring as they realize that there are people out there who want to provide them with an education and a better future.
It is also a rewarding experience for the students insofar as it teaches them to be better citizens who have the ability to help those less fortunate than themselves. My companion was the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wanted to become a teacher. This experience gave her the opportunity to become aware of social justice issues. Indeed, the beauty of Sr. M. Cyril’s work on the Rural Child-to-Child Education scheme means that a child of a higher caste and social standing will develop the humility and desire to reach out to their fellow citizens who otherwise would have been forgotten.
Education as a basic human right s often denied. Sometimes it is necessary to break down the “forth wall” and re-invent and re-create the way in which we teach in order to facilitate the circumstances and needs around us. The Rural Child-to-Child Education scheme is a creative way of providing education in a non-institutionalized manner. Thinking outside of the box in regards to teaching and learning can only bring about positive outcomes. Sr. M. Cyril had the ability to adapt to the needs and challenges facing those who had been denied education as a basic human right.
Sr. M. Cyril has been an inspiration to me as a woman, a leader and a teacher. Experiencing her work first hand is what lead me into the field of education. I hope that as a woman and teacher I can share in her powerful vision, determination, perseverance, inventiveness, dedication and passion. She is a true revolutionary, a progressive change agent and a leading light for all women.
Please find further information via the following links:
[Video: Education in India]
[Video: Uniting India’s Classrooms]
[Video: Interview with Sr. Cyril]
Indian Express (2008) Rural Schools Crumbling because of Social Inequality [Online] Available at: www.indianexpress.com/ [Accessed 13 March 2013]
Loreto, Shealdah. (2007) Loreto Day, Sealdah [Online] Available at: http://www.loretosealdah.com/index.html [Accessed 13 March 2013]