Educating the Educator: Inwoods in India

On 5th December 2016 four Inwoods staff left together for India in a buzz of excitement and apprehension, and with the help of that splurge of ‘holiday’ energy to embrace something different together. What questions would arise outside our usual context and environment? What lessons were we about to learn, or unlearn...?

The first stop was Bangalore to a delightful welcome by the Shibumi staff, who made life far too easy for us with transport arrangements, homely boarding facilities, delicious food and, most strikingly, our absolute inclusion in all aspects of their school life. We attended staff meetings, parent dialogues, classes, walks, hike, presentations and solo moments. The last day was a celebration that included us, the staff, and a whole host of people connected to the school in some shape or form, past and present. This aspect of inclusion and openness was our first lesson. We saw that it aids a non-divisive atmosphere, invites the verbal as well as the non-verbal, and touches the heart.

A core intention at Shibumi, that is currently much alive in dialogues and discussions, is how to bring awareness to all aspects of the day, and as a result, the atmosphere is generally calm, the pace slow, the interactions meaningful and non-confrontational, and the classes feel both leisurely and alive with interest. Many adults seem to be involved in this process but it doesn’t feel crowded with overzealous guidance. Awareness is the healthy natural functioning of the brain which is quite independent of thought and has its own movement and intelligence. Lesson number two: Once this is seen, it then informs every activity with the child, every conversation. Any forced learning of awareness is not awareness.

The days clocked by far too quickly, but we couldn’t miss the opportunity for a weekend trip to Rishi Valley where bird-watching, dialogue, rocky walks and surprise encounters with current and former friends occupied most of our time. Rishi Valley school is large but beautiful, and with an ancient reverent quality that seems to attract people back there time and time again. We also managed a glimpse of the primary school and its fabulous facilities for art and craft, and stole some photo shots of their inspiring wall displays.


Back in Bangalore, we were escorted on a whistle-stop tour of the Valley School and its equally magnificent Art Village, where we witnessed wax casts being made over a simple open fire, and a traditional hand-loom working intricate patterns and colourful threads. The craftsmen invited us to touch or have a hand in these age-old processes. Students were sewing, sculpting, painting, batiking, weaving, and woodworking as we toured. In England my two nieces attend a primary school in which art and craft do not exist in the curriculum except for 5 days once in the year. At Inwoods we bring this interest on a smaller scale freely to the children’s day, despite the anxieties that it may be taking time away from ‘academic’ studies. Third lesson: education is not about fitting our children into the commercial world of money, pleasure and status. Can we awaken the unambitious, unrewarding love of learning in all its forms of creativity, beauty and expression?

It was time to leave the city and head further afield to the rural location of Tiruvannamali, where Marudam Farm School nestled among small villages, with the ancient, impressive Arunachala Hill in view from all angles of the grounds. Here we had to take a moment to catch our breath, not from the travel, but to register that we had invited ourselves into an educational environment that was much more than classes, classrooms and campus activities. The rocky hill, that appears so grand and indestructible, was in fact a very dry and barren sight not so many years ago, with non-decomposable litter strewn around the paths all the way up to the top. Thanks to the Marudam team of adults and children, their reforestation efforts over the years are now evident in the healthy young trees populating the hillside, and the clearing of litter is now a regular cooperative task, especially following rubbish-heavy festivals that the hill has to tolerate. Lesson number four, community efforts beyond the boundaries of the school environment can be a vital and joyful part of education.

There are about 100 children at Marudam, only 17% of whom pay the full fees, the rest are sponsored for all the years that they attend the school. This means that most children come from the local hard-working families of the surrounding villages and towns. English isn’t given prominence over their mother-tongue, though there is a high turnout of volunteers from international backgrounds. Unlike the many pretentious English-medium schools in India, Marudam has a lovely harmonious blend of the local and the international, equally valuing the positive traits of both. We were all so incredibly welcomed into the life of the school and the family of resident staff, who get together each evening to cook, eat, laugh, argue, and sometimes sing. Staff, Arun and Poomina, and their two children, found themselves alone together in their ‘family’ home only one day in a whole year! Lesson five: be open and unashamed of facing life transparently with others; it dissolves inhibitions and dares the capacity to reach out and drop those prejudices.

Moving on from Tiruvannamali, and now just two remaining staff, we headed for Solitude Farm in Auroville, where Duncan, former Brockwood student (now known as Krishna), has created the most admirable permaculture farm. Also a musician and entrepreneur, Duncan, and his wife Deepa, host many concerts and events, and run a café providing organic farm-fresh food. It is a lush and inviting place to learn the essence of food-growing and the significance of our relationship with the land. Sixth lesson: go home and grow some food in your garden (or, if you haven’t got one, and in that spirit of cooperation, in your neighbour’s). Touch the soil, work with the hands, learn about plants, and strengthen the heart connection with mother earth. Our future will need these valuable skills.

At Auroville, I said goodbye to the last of the team and headed into an unscheduled solo adventure, while my companion colleagues returned to start the new term at Inwoods. My task was to continue to explore the educational terrain of south India alone in a leisurely and more personal mode. Ten days were spent at the Retreat Centre at the Valley School where an enriching seminar on awareness in education took place. Representatives from various K schools circled the beautiful, glass-walled room of the dialogue space, where we navigated like one mind into the depths of some of the most important educational questions. Inwoods has many of the essential features to host a unique learning environment: beautiful natural surroundings, small numbers of children, simple spaces equipped with good learning resources, lots of contact with nature, opportunities for silence and reflection, no pressures of tests and comparisons, no rewards or punishments, no competitive spirit, no one method that the child has to fit into... however… Lesson number seven: The right conditions may be present in a school, but more importantly, are we as adults able to interact without leaving a mark, without casting one’s shadow on the child?

Back to Marudam. Now almost like family, I was invited to join a school-group hike and camp in a piece of wilderness about 25km away. Concerned about the encroaching town of Tiruvannamalai, a few years back the school purchased 4 acres of land in an area of outstanding beauty, with possibilities for fabulous nature excursions. The group I found myself with consisted of 7 mixed-aged children and 4 adults. We slept and ate outside on the hard surface of a humongous piece of rock, overlooking a landscape of forest and rocky hills. Below us were deep caves to explore in the late afternoon. During the day, we leapt from one rock to the next, careful not to fall into the gaping crevasses below and found quiet resting spots to observe the plants and wildlife. The children were like dexterous animals in the way they nimbly manoeuvred through this rocky terrain, while the adults trustingly followed them. The children were also fully included in the chores of the camp: chopping vegetables, starting the fire, cooking, washing pots, etc, which they did with ease and enthusiasm. Lesson number eight: Immersion in nature in its wildest form and simplicity of interaction is essential in giving back to the young their right to deeply connect with this wondrous planet.

Back to civilisation, and a 5-hour bus trip to the Theosophical Society in Chennai to join The (annual) Network Group - a fellowship of around 50 like-minded individuals from the southern states of India who are active in the field of education with an ‘alternative’ approach. It was a remarkably diverse group, diversely engaging with each other in words, song, dance, walks and beach-litter clearing. Heartwarming and touching stories of life-long individual journeys and struggles to bring meaningful education right out to the most rural locations and challenging situations were shared late into the night. Here are some statements to give a flavour of the intentions of these Network folk: society should have wholeness rather than fragmentation; cooperation in place of competition; avoid egocentric individual behaviour; responsibility before rights; feeling of service; urban and rural settlements to be manageably small; protection as well as regeneration of ecosystems; reverence and respect for other living beings; the importance of bringing about social change; freedom to learn; the spirit of a school is that it is forever evolving... Lesson number nine: The importance of bringing people together from a multitude of backgrounds to connect, reconnect and keep alive the most fundamental questions concerning our responsibility to society.

On the 15th of February I head off for my 24-hour journey home. The closure of this valuable trip begins as I enter the plush departure lounge of Bangalore airport and face the excesses of the commercial world again. And so I travel back home, in excessive style across the sky, contemplating the expenses of this journey, and whether they can be justified by a positive impact on our little school in the UK. I arrive as the sun rises and head into the British landscape in anticipation of the quiet and beautiful Hampshire countryside. Crocuses, daisies, snowdrops and a blue sky beckon me outside for an afternoon walk with colleagues. I hear that some inspired changes at Inwoods include an extended quiet, solo, sitting moment in nature that starts the day, and that woodwork has been included in the curriculum as well as the ITRS (Inwoods Tinkering and Repair Shop) where a clock, a heater, and a globe have so far been mended. Generosity has been introduced as the theme for the term in which children are exploring related topics to this at home and at school, ready to share at our Spring Celebration.

Responding to the day-to-day tasks of a small school, with its numerous layers of responsibility and variety of skills needed, is a challenging task. The limited time can easily be filled in just getting through the days and weeks. Tenth lesson: It requires a quality of mind and heart working together to relate meaningfully with life at every moment, whilst also keeping an eye on the bigger picture and ensuring that we include opportunities to reach out with compassion to the wider world.