Saturday, January 27, 2007

Helping poor Indians crack toughest test

Big bucks not needed for good education

Santosh Kumar, son of a landless farmer from the dirt-poor Indian state of Bihar, has got through the entrance exam of the country's most prestigious engineering school, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). When you consider the fact that some 230,000 students from all over India compete for barely 5,000 seats in the country's seven IITs every year, you realise the significance of Santosh's achievement - he ranked 3,537. IIT graduates have gone on to head companies like Vodafone, Infosys, Sun Microsystems, United Airlines and McKinsey. There is hardly a US-based Fortune 500 company which does not have an IIT alumnus in its senior management.

Santosh and other underprivileged students in a state where nearly half the population cannot read or write have been helped by a small, derelict training school in the state capital, Patna. The private coaching school, named after famous Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan, has attained a cult status among academics and students for consistently churning out students who crack arguably one of the world's most competitive exams.

Most of the students are like Santosh, whose elder brother, Niranjan, never went to school. His younger brother, Saurabh, emboldened by his brother's feat, is pursuing his education. "We don't know what my brother Santosh has passed, but people say he will get a respectful job and earn good money when he starts working," says Niranjan.

Patna's four-year-old Ramanujan School of Mathematics is the brainchild of a local maths teacher, Anand Kumar. Consider the results of this 30-seat school run out of a ramshackle yard - during its first year, 2003, 18 of the 30 students cracked the IIT entrance tests. Next year, the number rose to 22. In 2005, 26 students sailed into IITs. Last year, 28 students passed the exam. "This year, my school may well hit a jackpot with all my 30 students passing the entrance test," said Mr Kumar, 34, who has never been to an IIT, but won critical praise for his work in mathematics.

Word has spread about his training school far and wide - some 5,000 students turn up from all over Bihar for a place in the school, run out of a thatched hut with fraying wooden benches and creaking tables. "We select 200 of them initially to train with us, and then finally, 30 are chosen depending on their talent, family background and education," says Mr Kumar.

The school charges a paltry 4,000 rupees ($89) annually from its students for the seven-month training, compared to other private coaching institutes who train students for IIT exams for nothing less than 40,000 rupees ($890) a year. But the handpicked 30 students who finally sit for the exam are given free coaching and food.

Anand Kumar says he set up the school after he himself was unable to cough up the money needed to finance his higher education when he received admission to Cambridge University. "I tried very hard to raise the money, but since I came from a poor family I failed. So I wanted to realise the dream to help poor students to crack the toughest engineering exam in the country," he says.

His school is run on a shoe-string budget - students often stand up because of a shortage of benches while Mr Kumar and his group of teachers give lectures. Among the teachers is also one of the senior most policemen in Bihar, additional director-general Abhyanand, who uses only one name. Mr Abhyanand, who himself went to an IIT, teaches physics without taking a salary from the school. "My remuneration is seeing the growing numbers of students coming from poor, rural families who succeed. I hope they pull their families and relatives out of penury," he says.

He is not wide of the mark - 11 of the 28 successful students who cracked the IIT test last year were from the lower castes, the bottom-most rung of Indian society. The parents of students like Anupam Kumar (rank: 2,299) and Priyanshu Kumar (rank: 2,379) and Suresh Ram work as auto-rickshaw drivers, watch mechanic and construction workers respectively.

Writer Sandipan Deb who has written a book on IITs says these students are "exposed to a whole new world" when they arrive on the IIT campuses. "The first thing they realise is that just because they spent their lives in a village does not make them any less bright than the kids from the metropolises. This is a huge confidence booster," he says. The training school's feat is amazing in a state where more than two million children are out of school, and the literacy rate is a shameful 47%.


British pupils to learn the best of British

The nation was plunged into an uncharacteristic celebration of Britishness yesterday as new lessons in British history and the national identity were introduced to schools and Labour politicians with an eye on promotion vied to demonstrate their patriotic credentials. It was all very un-British.

Amid growing concerns that young people lack a sense of belonging and are in need of social and educational glue in today’s multicultural, multiracial society, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, announced that compulsory lessons in British history would be added to the citizenship curriculum under the heading Identity and Diversity: Living Together in the UK. The new lessons for pupils aged 11 to 16 will cover ethnicity, religion and race, and will explore Britain’s national identity through a study of immigration, the Commonwealth, the Empire and devolution, along with the extending of the popular vote and women’s rights.

Sir Keith Ajegbo, a Home Office adviser and author of the reforms, said that the new classes aimed to tackle feelings of marginalisation among young people from white and ethnic-minority backgrounds by encouraging them to discuss potentially sensitive issues in the “safe” environment of the classroom.

“It is the duty of all schools to address issues of ‘how we live together’ and ‘dealing with difference’, however difficult and controversial they may seem,” said Sir Keith, former headmaster of Deptford Green School, South London.

A “Who do we think we are?” week will encourage pupils to explore their differences and common values. Predominantly white schools will be encouraged to “twin” with schools that have a more diverse intake.

Sir Keith’s review amounts to a damning criticism of the way that citizenship has been taught in schools since its introduction in 2002 in response to a perceived lack of political and engagement among young people. Too much provision was patchy and too few schools had separate citizenship lessons, preferring to lump the subject in with personal social and health education. This, he said, was unacceptable, adding that more teacher training and specialised teaching material was needed to put things right.

Mr Johnson, a candidate for the Labour deputy leadership, agreed that pupils should be “taught explicitly about why British values of tolerance and respect prevail in society and how our national, regional, religious and ethnic identities have evolved over time”.His comments make him the latest in the line of Cabinet ministers to seize upon Gordon Brown’s theme of Britishness, after surveys suggesting that many people now struggle to identify typical British values. The idea is a key part of Mr Brown’s plan to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

At a separate event at the University of Oxford, Jack Straw, who is still considering whether to stand for the deputy leadership, called for a stronger “British story” to reflect the heroic nature of the country’s history and foster a greater sense of citizenship. Britain, he said, had much to learn from the way countries such as the US, Canada and Australia told their national story.

The British story would encapsulate the rights and responsibilities that went with the “non-negotiable bargain or contract” of being a British citizen. In a clear reference to religious fundamentalists, he said that it would challenge those with “a single, all-consuming identity” that was at odds with Britain’s democratic values.

“We have to be clearer about what it means to be British, what it means to be part of this British nation of nations and, crucially, to be resolute in making the point that what comes with that is a set of values. Yes, there is room for multiple and different identities, but those have to be accepted alongside an agreement that none of these identities can take precedence over the core democratic values of freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality that define what it means to be British.”

The Conservatives welcomed the “grounding [of] citizenship on the teaching of British history”, but teaching unions gave warning that teachers could not be left to carry the burden of integration alone.


Australian parents still fleeing government schools, despite high costs

Parents sending their children to southeast Queensland's leading private schools are facing fee hikes of up to 14 per cent. For some, the cost of private education will top $13,000 for senior students this year. Even at more affordable Catholic schools, rising fees are putting pressure on struggling families, according to Parents and Friends Associations of Queensland executive director Paul Dickie. "The cost is a big problem for parents," Mr Dickie said. "Some will find it extremely difficult. "Any increase is going to restrict the number of families that can afford to send their kids to Catholic schools."

This year most of the leading private schools in southeast Queensland have lifted their fees by around 7 per cent. That has pushed the cost of a senior education well above $10,000 a year for at least eight of the most prestigious institutions.

The Southport School is one of Queensland's most expensive, charging $13,115 for students in Year 11 and 12. Headmaster Greg Wain admitted some families would have trouble paying that. "Not all our parents can pay the fees easily," he said. "Some do struggle and we're very cognisant of that." Mr Wain said the higher fees reflected increased salaries for teachers, rising interest rates and new technology costs. "Certainly for our parents, there's an expectation that there be national to international level facilities, including such things as swimming pools, rowing programs, leadership programs and extensive music programs," he said. "All of them are quite expensive to resource."

While The Southport School offers an all inclusive fee, other private schools also impose regular levies, which add thousands of dollars to the annual bill for parents. At Brisbane's Anglican Church Grammar school at East Brisbane, parents will pay $12,982 to educate a child in Years 8 to 12. Churchie also charges a non-refundable enrolment confirmation fee of $1150, along with levies for book rental and outdoor education and a $300 compulsory annual contribution to the building fund.

One of Brisbane's leading girls schools, Somerville House at South Brisbane is charging $10,620 for students in Years 7 to 12 this year, with added technology and excursion fees and a voluntary building levy.

If students are boarders, the financial slug at most schools will be at least as much as the tuition fees. But Independent Schools Queensland operations director David Robertson said the increasing cost of private education was not deterring parents. "It would seem the enrolment growth in our sector is continuing, which would indicate that parents still believe they are getting good value for money," he said.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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