To adherents of the Hindu faith, the elephant headed God Ganesha, sometimes referred to as Ganapati, is regarded as the remover of obstacles. Because of this association, whilst I know very little about the Hindu religion, whenever I see representations of Ganesha I tend to think of him as a conveyor of optimism. In a country that despite its late twentieth century surge in economic growth, continues to face many socio-economic challenges, the need for optimism and people who are prepared to challenge difficulties is paramount. Sadly, I meet a good number of Indians for whom the obstacles to achieving a satisfactory life, or one in which they can affect change, seem too great.
There are fortunately, a number of exceptions to this generalisation, one of whom is my good friend Savitha Ravi. A few years ago, when I first met Savitha and her family, she was embarking on a mission to create a school to which all children, regardless of need or ability would be welcomed. Although her vision was clear, she was in no doubt about the financial, intellectual and bureaucratic obstacles that would be in her way. Yet right from the start I felt that this was a lady on a mission and that she would find the means to circumvent or charge full tilt at anything that got in her way.
Savitha started small, with a few very young children in limited space, but her optimism and determination soon attracted colleagues who wanted to support her, and parents eager to send children to her school. Today Pramiti school in Bangalore is an inclusive establishment housed in two pleasingly aesthetic buildings, and catering for the needs of more than sixty children. The name of the school is taken from the Sanskrit language and means “right conception”. Right from the start of her venture Savitha conceived of a school that would be committed to social justice, inclusion and equity. Whenever I am in Bangalore, I try to make the time to meet with Savitha and if possible visit the school.
This week I had an opportunity to spend a morning with children in classes at Pramiti, and to follow this by joining in a discussion with teachers and other staff about the work of the school, and the latest set of hurdles that they are attempting to cross. Whenever a difficulty was identified in the conversation, Savitha and her longer established colleagues immediately turned these into opportunities to find new ways of addressing challenges. Creative thinking has always been a part of the armoury of Pramiti and has served the children and staff well now for several years.
Listening to the conversation, and contributing what little I could in my role as friend of Savitha and her staff, and a member of the School Board, it seemed to me that the challenges they faced fell into two categories. The first of these relates to the well-rehearsed anxieties expressed by some parents, who when selecting a school for their child, are alarmed by the possibility that those children with special educational needs might detract from the learning of their offspring. Savitha deals with such a situation calmly, but firmly, by making clear the philosophy of the school and pointing to the many achievements and successes of pupils. There is now competition for places in the school and many of the earlier perceptions that an inclusive school would not be able to address the needs of such a range of children have largely been confronted and overcome.
The second challenge is much more pervasive as I witnessed on this latest visit that coincided with a visit from the Block School Inspector. I often feel that the British gave India a bureaucratic system of administration, but the Indians have since developed this into a fine art! Discussing the paperwork and regulations with Savitha, that is imposed by various official bodies, I became acutely aware that this poses a far greater challenge to the school staff than any pedagogical related issues.
All I can do is sympathise with Savitha, whose creative mind struggles to tolerate the procedural nonsense that slows the progress she could otherwise make. Whilst efficient management systems and standardised procedures have their place, when they obstruct the kind of creative thinking and development that benefits children and families, they are of little value and need to be confronted. Working in a university environment where committees dominate and expand at an alarming pace, and appear to have as a major objective the stifling of creativity and generation of flummery, I am only too familiar with the challenges to be overcome.
Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of Savitha’s book, because whilst she is ever conscious of the walls that are built before her, she always believes that these can be knocked down. She sees what is right for the children, staff and families in her school and steers a course with their needs always at the forefront of her mind. Such determination is not only commendable, but also serves as a lesson to us all as we take a deep breath and face the next round of committee decisions and bureaucratic clap-trap, which is intent on stifling progress towards greater inclusion. I am told that intoning the Ganapati mantra may assist in the process and even help me retain my cool. Perhaps I will give it a try!
Om Gang Ganapataye Namaha.
Om Shree Vigneswara Namaha.