If India’s power and business elite have one thing in common, it’s that many of them have been to The Doon School, India’s first public school modelled on the finest British educational institutions. But the ‘elitist’ tag, intended as criticism in some quarters, doesn’t faze its headmaster, Dr Peter McLaughlin, overmuch. In an interview to DNA at Hong Kong’s stately Foreign Correspondents’ Club - another British legacy — McLaughlin surveys the Indian education landscape, and charts out Doon’s roadmap as it completes 75 years as an “elite” education service provider.
As an educationist, what are your thoughts on the Right to
Education (RTE) Act that came into force recently?
I think it’s long overdue. It should have been enacted on the first day of Independence. As India emerges as a global power, the lack of access to education by the poorer sections or those who have been discriminated against is holding the country back. Part of the heartbreak for Indians is: ‘How on earth do we overcome this problem?’ It’s only going to come through radical reform, emanating from the Centre, with energy and determination on the part of the Central government. So, my standpoint — as an educator and as a human being — is that this is needed to take primary education in India forward. Quite how it’s going to play out in the states when the law is turned into regulation, we don’t know.
Are you bothered by the provision in the Act that private schools should reserve 25% of their seats for children from weaker sections?
Any piece of policy that tries to bring about a re-engineering of the social structure is bound to be flawed. It’s very tempting for the government to use the private sector to advance its agenda. I don’t know if it’s ethically right, and I think it will throw up a huge number of problems. The moot question is: does the RTE apply to the Doon School? No one will tell us, nor have we sought clarification. We start only in Class 7; we don’t have Year 1 entrance. I cannot speak for the private sector as a whole because our school is very different.
But the Doon School has always, through its scholarship and bursary programme, made itself accessible to as wide a demographic as possible. In that sense, for us, it’s not daunting. But there would be very deep implications for the school if it were to go ahead. We’re having an internal debate on whether, in keeping with the Doon School’s commitment to service, we should become a leader in embracing the RTE rather than respond in the way that most private schools in India have — that this may bring civilisation, as they know it, to an end.
Premier foreign universities seem reluctant to set up campuses in India. Is India not a lucrative education market?
Many people around the world see India as a vast, unexploited market. As the demographics of the world change, we’re seeing large numbers of very talented young people coming from India into their institutions, or alternatively, franchises coming into India. I don’t have a problem with any foreign institution that wants to come to India and serve India. One of the problems with British schools coming into India is that they want to subsidise British students. It’s a neo-colonial enterprise to finance their operations in the UK.
But the obstacles to coming here are the regulations, the tax regime and the requirements of the foreign education providers legislation. The Oxfords, the Cambridges, the Harvards and the Yales are highly unlikely to set up a straightforward franchise in India for these reasons.
What’s good and what’s bad about the Indian education
What’s good is that it’s a byproduct of rote learning. What’s been lost in the West is the value of mastering a body of knowledge. Genuine creativity and originality comes from internalising a body of knowledge and having it whizzing around in your head. India shouldn’t lose that strength; any education reform should maintain that rigour. But the cost of an overemphasis on that has been to stifle creativity and originality.
Indian students go to schools or universities abroad and flourish, so there’s something in the DNA of Indian students that’s very adaptable. I just don’t think they’re being served well in the core competencies of the 21st century by enough schools. The challenges of the 21st century are so enormous we’re going to need a critical mass of thinkers rather than a critical mass of doers.
Public schools in India, including Doon, are seen as ‘elitist’.
Apart from a few aboriginal cultures, every human society since about 10,000 years ago has been ruled by an ‘elite’. The question is: what sort of an elite do you want your country or your organisation to be run by in the 21st century? Do you want it to be a power-crazed corrupt elite that ignores the citizenry? Or do you want it to be an open elite that is meritocratic and believes in good governance? I don’t apologise for the Doon School being an elite institution, and I don’t have any difficulty with that tag being put upon me.
You wear it as a badge of honour?
Yes, I do! (Laughs) As Arthur Foot, Doon’s first headmaster said, our boys will join an aristocracy, but it’s an aristocracy of service, not one of wealth, privilege or position. It will be an unselfish aristocracy. And, of course, aristocracy simply means ‘rule by the best’. And we live that out. I’d like to think that we produce the sorts of boys who will go on to be wise, compassionate leaders of organisations or hopefully of this country. Elite institutions have a great responsibility, given that people in them will go on to run the country or organisations.
In the Platinum Jubilee of Doon School’s founding, are you
redrawing your template?
Over the last couple of years, there’s been a task force looking at the future roadmap for the school: what should the mission of the Doon School in the 21st century be? We’re keen to have DS 75 (as the Platinum Jubilee in October is known) as a platform to launch the next 75 years of the school.
We still want to serve India, but we’ve broadened the context: we’re looking to serve a meritocratic India in a global context, and we’re widening the horizons. It’s not just creating a nation, building it and consolidating it; it’s about setting in a global context and serving it and equipping our boys to work anywhere in the world.
Do you have any existential anxieties about the place of public schools in India?
No. The public schools that we’ve been modelled on have been around for five centuries: they’ve survived plagues, famines, great wars and upheavals. The Doon School will still be around in a couple of centuries, provided the earth is.