A Visit to the Aurobindo School in India

In March, Principal, Richard Waters visited two schools in India, gaining an insight into alternative education there. This first of two articles looks at the Aurobindo School in Pondicherry.

In Pondicherry in India’s south-east, the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education is a peaceful oasis amid the hectic atmosphere of Indian life. Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry in 1914 after a period in gaol in Calcutta for leading a nationalist campaign of non-violent resistance against the British. During his incarceration he achieved accelerated progress in his practice of Yoga due to his dedication and the lack of distractions. In 1924, he was joined by a French woman who became his most dedicated follower and Aurobindo gave her the task of establishing the school in 1942.

It was The Mother, as she became known, who designed the Centre’s program which has many similarities with SOTE: it has a 1:5 teacher/student ratio; it is built around a spiritual community; it emphasises an open approach to learning and the focus in on the student’s total development: intellectual, artistic, physical and spiritual.

One unusual feature of the school is a physical education program lasting from 4.30 to 7.00 pm, seven days a week. It was The Mother’s belief that children had to be robust physically for the body to be able to handle the powerful impact of spiritual experience. The Mother, too, developed the free progress system where students advanced at their own pace and learned to self-assess their academic achievement.

We first visited the KG (Kindergarten) where there were 3 teachers to 15 children and at once felt at home in the atmosphere. The Directress explained the approach and it was evident from witnessing the classes and the loving relationship between teachers and children. We also had the opportunity to visit the primary and secondary school and spoke to the Registrar (Principal) who was also one of the trustees of the Ashram. He told us that most of the teachers were former pupils of the school.

One of the most impressive activities of the school is a forest reclamation project located about 15 kms from the school. Over a period of 20 years, the area — which had been devastated by deforestation, overgrazing and the removal of virtually all vegetation for fuel — has been restored by the use of Australian drought-resistant species such as Eucalypts, Acacias and Casuarinas. The children spend some time there each week, helping with the revegetation in some way or just enjoying nature.

From the beginning, the School took a very conscious decision to remain independent and not to affiliate with the Government system. This meant the school could develop its own program without formal assessments and other restrictions on its approach.

The teachers are volunteers but have all their needs looked after by the Ashram, including accommodation, clothing, meals and health care. The Ashram runs a number of businesses which help to fund its activities. These include leather goods manufacture, paper and fabric marbling and a recycled paper factory which employs hundreds of local people.

The most noticeable thing about the Centre is the quality of the caring relationships between the teachers and the children. I am sure that is why it felt so familiar. I hope we shall be able to build on the link we have established in the future. It certainly left me with a positive feeling that we are not alone in what we are trying to achieve with Total Education.

About the Author

Richard Waters has been principal of the School of Total Education since 1978. He has taught at both primary and secondary levels and has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers. He is also a teacher of senior Study of Society and History.

This article was originally published in the May 2005 edition of the SOTE Newsletter. (Published on web site: August 2010)