There are the conventional schools of every size and shape that throb with the effort of making children ace the mandatory board exams. And there are the handful which stand apart, set their own standards and have a niche following that swears by the success of the alternative approach.
Maria Montessori introduced the city to her system of schooling, which believes in giving the child the freedom to explore, about 75 years ago. For those who feel school is a place where one experiences the wholeness of life, there are schools that follow philosopher J Krishnamurti's ideas.
At Good Earth, "the intention is to provide an atmosphere free of authority and fear which enables the child to grow and flower in goodness."
There is a large fan following for the ideals espoused by the two schools, but only few can partake, as the schools keep a low teacher-student ratio of around 1:10.
"The Krishnamurti schools are extremely fortunate in that one of the central pillars is an invitation to teachers, students and parents to 'question everything'. When this happens consistently, something changes in the institution. It is not possible to do things only the way they are being done in a large number of schools. This approach may be the reason for a somewhat different atmosphere," G Gautama, former principal of The School KFI and director of The Chennai Education Centre, KFI, said when asked about the uniqueness of the school.
While the Krishnamurti schools have a deep philosophy, the teaching-learning methodologies are left to the individual teacher. The Montessori system, experts said, offers more structure.
Abacus Montessori in Perungudi, Navadisha Montessori School in Velachery, Patashala in Nungambakkam and Sishya in Adyar have helped spread the word about Montessori education among parents and converted their children into brand ambassadors of the system. However, it wasn't always an easy road. Maria Montessori brought her system of schooling to Madras, as Chennai was then called, 75 years ago. The Besant Arundale School followed it early on, and Bal Bharathi and Guindy School, the management of which later formed Rishi Valley School, were run on Montessori's ideals.
"But when we began Abacus Montessori in 1987 it was like starting all over again. We weren't even sure whether we should use Montessori in the name, though we wanted to acknowledge the system," said founder principal Amukta Mohapatra. Now, there are at least 15 schools following the Montessori system of education.
The schools do not just facilitate learning. They take pains to help parents understand the basic philosophy behind the Montessori system of education. "If the parents are given a clear picture and if they are convinced they stop comparing their children with others and give them time and space to learn on their own terms," said Jayashree Radhakrishnan, founder principal of Vruksha Montessori School in Alwarpet.
Despite the demand, many Montessori schools don't want to grow. State regulations hold them back, and those that do are able to expand do so only with the help of the parents who are convinced that nothing but a Montessori environment will do for their child.
Most Montessori schools follow their unique methods only up to Class 8 because state government norms require all students to take the board exams to qualify for higher education. From Class 9 onwards, these schools make the transition to blackboard teaching to help children face exams. Most are affiliated to the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations or Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education.
"By the time they come to Class 9 the children are able to make their own choice of subjects and do well in the boards too," Radhakrishnan said.
At the end of their time in school, the children's cherished possession is the conduct certificate. "They don't reduce the child to one word (good) like other schools do while issuing conduct certificates. We get a detailed report of how our personality has developed, our potential and what has helped mould us," said R Sivaguru, an alumnus of Good Earth who treasures his CC and has kept it safe 15 years after he left of school.