Random Education Thoughts

I would describe the Mercedes Benz International School in Pune to be the Rolls-Royce of schools in India.

They follow the International Baccalaureate Organization’s curricula. About half their students are Indians and the others are the children of expatriates working in multinational firms in Pune.

It is the kind of school that if you have to ask what the tuition fees are, you probably cannot afford it. With only 167 students, it is as exclusive as it is expensive. The annual fee is mind-boggling—to me at least—over half a million rupees a year. The top fees is Rs 5.7 lakhs ( approximately, US$ 13,000) and the one-time fixed cost is Rs 3 lakhs.

I visited them for a few hours yesterday. The Director of MBIS, Mr Michael Thompson, is English. Over coffee and biscuits he explained what the school was all about. Later we walked around and had a look at the neat little campus nestled in among a lot of IT companies in the industrial area called Hinjewadi. Infosys, Wipro, and others of that ilk are beautifully laid out in what is called the “Rajiv Gandhi IT Park.”


The Mercedes Benz school is very far away from where I live. Physically it is about an hour away, or about 30 kms on the other side of town. In a very different sense, it is farther away from me. The school that I went to when I was small had a fees of Rs 70 a year, undoubtedly somewhat subsidized by government grants. The MB school is about 10 thousand times as costly. Even accounting for inflation, I would say that the MB school is about a thousand times more expensive than the school I went to.


Why is everything in India named after the Gandhis? The huge national park in Borivali in north Mumbai is called the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Did not know that Sanjay was a great nationally renowned nature lover. If I had not known better, I would have figured that he must have been the John Muir of India.

Pretty much half the things around India are named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. What astonishes me most is when educational institutions are named after the family which does not have a single graduate degree among the whole lot of them. Not that they could not afford to go to college. No, they all attended colleges and attempted to get degrees but failed to get one.

On second thoughts, given the moribund state of the Indian educational system, perhaps naming educational institutions after the luminaries of the Nehru-Gandhi family has a certain aptness to it.


The kids in the Mercedes Benz schools were having fun. One large group was having their lunch in the school cafeteria. A smiling, happy, noisy bunch of I guess 8 to 10-year olds. We walked past another bunch which was evidently the school chorus and band. They were led by a couple of music teachers, one a Canadian-Indian and the other Danish. We looked around the classrooms and the labs and the library. Everything was neat and tidy.

I regretted not bringing my camera with me. But then this school was very similar to the very upscale schools that I had visited during my recent visit to New Zealand. I had pictures of those schools and this one was in no significant way different from them. I made a mental note that I would have to write to Gordon Dryden, mine host in Auckland, who had taken us to all the schools in NZ.


Since I don’t have a car, I had rented one for my visit to MBIS. On my way back, I was thinking about what I had seen. A world that I live very far away from. Education that costs every year the equivalent of 30 times the annual income of the average Indian.

The traffic on the way back was, needless to say, absolutely horrible around the Shivajinagar area where they have been doing some road construction work for the last two years or so. The dust and the din is awful and makes one wonder what went wrong that we have to suffer this.

But I should not complain. In the stopped traffic an old man with a very shriveled face appeared at the driver’s side. I dug into my pockets and handed the few coins I had to the driver to give to the old man. He turned away with gratitude on his tired face. On my side of the car then appeared a little girl, about 7 years old. She had in her hands a couple of packets of Q-tips.

I shook my head to indicate that I did not want any. But she pleaded with her eyes, asking for some help. Usually I carry about fifty rupees in change to give as handouts but I was out of change. My wallet I recalled had only one-hundred rupee bills. I was not totally sure that I had any lower denomination bills. For some reason, I was against giving out a Rs 100. But I did not want to reach for my wallet and check. If I had done that, it would have raised her hopes, only to be dashed if I did not give her any money after all. I sat there feeling miserable shaking my head no until she gave up and went to the next vehicle.


Life is a random draw. She should have been in school, doing singing practice or perhaps having her lunch with a bunch of her friends talking loudly. Instead she was barefoot in the dusty street breathing in car and diesel truck exhaust for hours hoping to make enough money to survive another day to do the same the next day. Her parents had produced her and somehow she had survived the neglect so far to reach this age. One day, perhaps in less than 10 years, she will herself get into the role of producing more like her.

This is a sector of the economy. The labor sector. They reproduce themselves very efficiently. They survive on very little. They work in the dust and the heat and in dangerous conditions. Around where I live, the construction industry is booming. Huge apartment complexes are rising up as thick as forests. I admit that since no trees are being planted, this is a substitute forest. Anyway, the laborers toil away with no protective gear. Twisted steel bars used for reinforcing concrete they handle with their bare hands. Bare-footed, they wade into a pool of cement. Their children walk among all the rusted steel bits, barefoot.


There are lots of IB schools coming up in India. Pune itself has about a half dozen. Education is really big business. And for education to be really delivered well and efficiently, it has to be run like a business. Currently education is supply constrained. I am hoping that sufficient providers enter the sector so that the increase in supply will drive down the prices and competition will increase quality.


When I look at the vicious cycle of poverty that the majority of India’s children are caught in, I have only one hope and that is education. If we can educate just one generation fully, we have some hope of solving India’s problems. That is the challenge but given the uneducated leadership, I am afraid that it may not come to pass.

Categories: Education

26 replies

  1. To such schools I can only think of “Colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed.”


  2. Great post Atanu. What can I say – there are extremes. At one level – The world of expensive boarding schools, IBs, manicured gardens and well-stocked labs, and the other where the mid-day meal is a joke. Your post brings back a lot of memories of schools in rural Andhra Pradesh that I frequently visited to design a program for..

    The myths of education are too well documented for me to elaborate here. And yet, majority of the country will choose to blame parents of kids when they drop out of schools. .. sigh.


  3. Your article reminded me of something. I just thought I’d point you towards the DSS : the door step school which provides education to children of families working in the labour sector. (you can get the link off Google). They go around picking up children, taking them to a site, and providing them education all for a nominal sum.

    It also reminded me of the following anonymous quote –

    If you are planning for a year, sow rice, if you are planning for a decade, plant trees, if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

    Atanu’s response: Vikram, I had used that quote in my post “Education for a Nation” which started off with

    An old Chinese saying (I assume all Chinese sayings are old except the ones that come from the little Red Book) goes:

    If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

    In the context of development, I think the last bit should be “if you are planning for a nation, educate people.” Especially, primary education. For among all the factors that are necessary for economic development, none is so basic as primary education for a nation. Primary education is the essential basic public good engredient without which there is no known receipe for development.


  4. I’ve always wondered how Indians can be proud of their country when there are so many desperately needy people living there. I’ve concluded that Indians cannot be proud at all, despite the flag waving and ‘mera bharat mahaan’ rhetoric. We have the current, corrupt, political system and systemic inefficiencies because we demand so little and rationalize misery very easily using the concept of fate. Proud people don’t do that. Yes, I’m sure we’re proud of some of our accomplishments, but how can we take pride in our society? I can only hope that the coming generations of Indians realize that pride and active participation in changing the shape of society go hand in hand. Therein lies the true value of an education.


  5. I could go on for pages about the flaws of the Indian educational system, but I wouldn’t call it moribund. I’m impressed with how we teach mathematics and the physical sciences. I keep coming across straight-A students from all around the world unable to write a simple mathematical proof, or solve questions they haven’t seen before. I’ll admit that the social sciences are a bit of a joke (at least in CBSE), but at least the sheer volume of mindless work instills some useful work habits. I think CBSE’s biggest flaw is the English program, though. People are actually penalized for using correct grammar in exams.

    Atanu’s response: Nath, I am afraid that “the sheer volume of mindless work” instills mindless work habit, not “useful work habits.” Mindless practise can only lead to mindless outcomes, otherwise we would not be calling them mindless and instead call them useful.

    Mindless work habits deaden and kill precisely those innate drives within children that make them creative, spontaneous problem solvers. Drill is all very fine for creating killing machines as is done in the military but has no place in institutions that are charged with making productive citizens.

    It is not surprising that those who have benefitted from the Indian educational system are the ones that praise it as being very good. Those who did not–and they form the majority–cannot possibly be heard because they neither have the power nor the understanding of how the system is flawed and stacked against them.

    Maybe the top of the heap that comes out of the Indian educational system can be compared favorably to the top of the heap of other educational systems. But the merits of these outliers cannot be employed to justify the proposition that on average the Indian educational system is working for the children of India.


  6. Nath, Atanu

    Among all the subjects in secondary school until class X, the one receiving the shabbiest treatment is History. This is true across boards – CBSE, ICSE, state boards. The aim is simply to regurgitate voluminous junk, and spit out numerous bullet points verbatim. There is not even a token pretense of debating issues, making educative comparisons, and creative exploration. With our IT and science mania, this important subject is completely neglected. Later in life, IT actually becomes a blessing for the curious, as the web allows us to so easily explore what we aren’t taught.

    A huge missing component in the Indian school curriculum is Music. All prestigous intellectual schools in Europe have mandatory instruction in Music, and it shows. We don’t necessarily need to ape the west and learn western classical music (though its not a bad idea at all!). Our own Indian classical music is replete with brilliance, inspiration, and math.


  7. I agree to the fact that recently a lot of schools adhering to IB have flourished in the country. But I am damn sceptical about the value that they will add to the students, be it academic or otherwise. Howsoever we may crib about the inherant lacunas of our educational system still I cannot see this drop in the ocean solving anything. And contrary to what a comment says I have seen even C- students faring much better than they are expected to. Its just a frame of reference. The more you go up the quality spectrum, the more tough it gets to hold on to even shabby grades while in places like the one described grades and even studies become secondary or for that sake inconsequential.


  8. The biggest scarcity is that of teachers and not of space. To get around this,some state governments beam educational programs for primary schools via satellite (DSERT Karnataka is one of them). Although the quality of the content/programming is not top quality, it is perhaps better than what 90% of the schools offer. Morover, it is a scalable solution. The cost of setting up a “satellite school” is not very high (Rs 3000 for a Ku-band dish, Rs 5000 for a 14 inch colour TV and maybe Rs 7000 for a small UPS). With the above equipment, even a thatched roof hut can serve as the classroom (there is one such classroom in Chamarajnagar in Karnataka). As the cost of producing media has dropped (one can compose a decent video with a handycam), perhaps an “open source” effort will be useful in creating good content that could then be beamed via satellite.


  9. Unless education gives rise to teachers who get paid much more than they make now, we will keep getting these ‘shining’ schools…where the focus is more on the infrastructure than the learning and students.

    I know a personal example, my wife did her M.Sc.Education from the Regional Insitute of Education Mysore and then joined a college in Hyderabad to teach Chemistry to the B.Sc. students. She joined at a salary of Rs. 2,400 and four years later it was Rs. 2,800 !!

    No wonder she gave up on her idealism and the long hours and went ahead and did an MBA.

    A nation where undergraduate BPO workers get paid more than post graduate teachers is a time bomb waiting to happen…!


  10. Why would anyone name the school after a car?

    The other side:
    Here’s a detailed story on the Mid-day meal schemes across India.


    Trivia: The GOI pays Re.1 per student.per day to the state government for implementing the Mid day meal scheme. The remaining part of the meal is financed by the state govt.


  11. “Pretty much half the things around India are named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. What astonishes me most is when educational institutions are named after the family which does not have a single graduate degree among the whole lot of them.”
    Wasn’t Nehru a graduate? If I remember right, he practised law in India and was a member of the English bar as well.


  12. Schools like this are nothing more than a fad. IQ is mostly inherited. Schools dont matter a lot.


  13. Two points:

    First: Its not just India where there is much hand-wringing about education. practically, every day in the New York Times, there is a op-ed about the deplorable state of education in the US. world-over, there seems to be concern about education although of course the nature of the problems vary.

    Second: There seems to be rich irony in the fact that IB schools in India are importing teachers from UK and US while Indians are tutoring students in America over the Internet!


  14. wonderful post…
    SloganMurugan posed the question:Why would anyone name the school after a car? Indeed the name sounds a little funny 🙂

    Unless the teachers are paid well enough – people like me would feel inhibition in going for it – …

    Atanu’s response: The school is named after the company which started the school for benefit of its expatriates who were working in Pune. As it happens, the company is an engineering firm, which makes cars among other things.


  15. gaurav,have u ever visited a school like the one mentioned?i suggest u do…most of us(in india) study in schools where so much emphasis is put on marks and grades that we lose sight of the end result- gaining knowledge.i can remember countless nights spent cramming for exams to come out with flying colours the next day…do i remember what exacltly it was that i studied?nope..not a word…having friends who studied in i.b. schools i know from (nearly) personal experience that the emphasis is more on understanding the very roots of a subject….thereby ensuring that u never quite forget what u study…also i think it’s incredible that one can study a wide variety of subjects ranging from art to nuclear physics!!…an option that is woefully lacking in the indian educational system.


  16. Hello Atanu,

    I think the beginning years, post-1947, were most important. There were other much capable men with vision and drive who should have been appointed the Education minister but Nehru unfortunately appointed his lifelong crony, the Muslim fundamentalist Maulana Azad as Indias first education minister.

    I think the decline began with this nihilist decision made by Nehru in the very beginning years of Indian independence. As more is learned about this Maulana with the passing of time, he comes out not just a fundamentalist but also a very deceptive charlatan.

    In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi created a stalinist style HRD ministry and all hopes for vision and educational reform died permanently. Our education system now lies firmly in the grasp of babus who have mugged text books all their lives. They cannot be expected to have any vision to affect any change or reform. Our minds on the other hand is firmly in the grasp of the communist-muslim combine who write all the textbooks being read in our cbse run schools.


  17. Educating children is important. However, schools are not the right place to educate children. They are actually the worst ! Even if it’s a Rolls Royce of a school, it still controls children, and takes away their freedom. Unschooling ( more information at http://www.holtgws.com/whatisunschoolin.html)
    is a far more valuable concept – do we have the courage to implement this ? Please read Holt’s books – they may change your views about schools !


  18. Nehru went to england but he did not got any degree there. He discontinued his studies. He never practised law in India. His father is a prominent lawyer.He never was.His father’s money made him the politician.


  19. aniruddha, i am afraid i do not see how unschooling literally adds value as you claim. it is possible that unschooling leads to improved personal development but it would be nice to see documentation that unschooling can be done with some structure that leads to scientific and technological advancement as well (which most humans are after). that two of the unschooling links refer to christian/catholic influences doesnt help either.


  20. Thanks Atanu. Your Article exposes the real India. As you have said Education is a big business and the mushrooming of these International Schools infact supports it.


  21. read all the coments and yaa got admired and thought a lot about it.. read abt the expensive school in pune dont think a common man can afford it or not but surely we are loosing some focus for thousands of those who dont even get a chance to see schools. ……
    such thoughts often come to my mind and i wanted to do something for them or amdmire those who are doint it atleast ……..

    then i came to know about this site through one of my friends so i am leaving a link so that you can check them



  22. I enjoyed reading the piece and the responses. Education has lost much and gained little through the progress of history. Dharampal’s ‘Beautiful Tree’ points to an ancient model, shaped over centuries, that is rapidly gaining relevance in the small, individual centred, friendly, flexible requirement of the future. Anamolies exist at both ends of the Bolzmann’s curve and the school of the kind you have written about is anamolous. However, the tragedy is the mainsltream is established and, as an educator if i may comment, rapidly running towards a dead end. Either climb the wall and go into high cost alternatives, or collapse. The option of reinventing, rethinking does not seem to be gaining momentum.
    Salaries – sure salaries are needed! And surely better salaries are needed. But salaries are never going to get the teachers. And cultures are not built on salaries. And school is a place of adult sharing and an atmosphere. Atmosphere has less to do with money and more to do with care and dedication.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.



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