Dr Br Branden MacCarthaigh

Dr. Br Branden MacCarthaigh is an educationist and Co-founder of SERVE.


Dr Br Branden MacCarthaigh

SERVE: An answer to the horrors of modern school education in India

Source_Radical Books_SERVE - Copy

My job was to welcome the kids into school each day, so I stood inside the narrow gate and sprinkled Namastes, Assalaam Aleikums, Sat Sri Akals and Good mornings pretty indiscriminately as they passed, usually smiling in acknowledgment. Years later, I learned that they had appreciated this little ritual a lot. However, I gradually began to observe that during certain seasons there were far fewer smiles, and glazed expressions. I’m not a very observant man, so I didn’t think it through for quite a while. And then one day ping, the penny dropped. It was exams time.

Bit by bit I observed that the glazed looks were related to fear and tension. Now, I happen to believe that school should be a happy place to go to, and it bothered me to see that these exam days were straight torture for many. Periodic exams are part of the system, but so often, and so frightening – that I began to resent them. So I thought, why doesn’t somebody do something about this? And then I wondered, why doesn’t the government do something about this? Which led me to think why don’t teachers do something about this? After a while, with self-reproach I reflected, why don’t I do something about this?  I reminded myself that I was a professional, that the duty to rectify things wrong with the system was directly my business. And thus, my thoughts began to run along reform lines.

The next challenge: what to do? You can’t do away with all exams; the entire education process would simply grind to a halt. One day I had to rush out after school to do a short but important job, and I asked one of our teachers if she would loan me 15 minutes of her time it would take. She said she would ask her husband, and phoned him.  In the course of the short dialogue that followed, she commented to him, “Mere izzat ka swall hai!” And the penny that had pinged earlier now went clang! Izzat!

Think-think. I slowly recognised that every nation in the world has its own knee-jerk response, an inbuilt attitude to all interpersonal engagements. We all know of the British stiff upper lip, so beautifully exemplified in the current TV serial Downton Abbey. Quite different is the loud, even brash, American style. Germans notoriously ‘follow the dots’ – what’s done, that’s what they do. Russians – stolid, predictable. Chinese are famously inscrutable, Japanese distinctively deferential, and so on. Cartoonists make great mileage out of this fact. So, what is the Indian thing? By then, I was sure it was this — the izzat factor. My dictionary says izzat is a combination of status and prestige. There is no clear English word for it, but speakers of English often use only the second word, prestige. “It is a matter of my prestige that my daughter/ son get admission to your esteemed institution”, is a common sentence in letters of application to a school.


Now, Gandhiji tried to break down this attitude, which underpins our caste system, by doing things that others considered way below their izzat; like cleaning toilets and so on. The idea was good, but it was psychologically unwise. Leopards keep their spots. We Indians are Indians, and as such, will always respond as per the promptings of our izzat. So I set myself to think of an educational system that recognised this inalienable characteristic of ours and at the same time protected youngsters from the destructive negativity of many teachers.

First, we follow Macaulays’s system, which allots marks to successful memory work in exams. That’s ok for an English kid, an American kid, even a German kid. They don’t have such an irrepressible izzat attitude to deal with. Yes, they are hurt of course, but I have seen English youngsters and American youngsters fail in exams which was a disappointment soon shrugged off. Not us. I asked a 13-year-old Indian boy one day, what would happen if he flunked his forthcoming promotion exam into Class IX. His reply can be summed up thus: “My mother will wail. My father will beat me. My khandaan (roughly, caste) will point heavily at me and declare, ‘You have let us all down! My teachers will say, ’This! After all I did for you!’ My Principal will announce, ‘You let down the school’! And the neighbours will tell their kids not to play with me anymore, because I’m a failure.” The sad, sad reality is that every girl and boy in India writing exams carries this awareness on her/his back every time they have to sit for an exam. Is it any wonder that on those days they didn’t see me at the school gate, didn’t acknowledge, and didn’t smile?

Second, the teacher also functions within the izzat reality, and regards it as a personal offence if the youngster does not toe the commanded line throughout the school day. In practice, this means that when the results come out, some youngsters receive below commendable marks. The results are pinned on a board for all to see. The world can see that some are failures. This doesn’t just hurt, it wounds. It wounds sometimes so deeply that the student will resort to just any means to change it. Our exam system is notorious for dishonest practices. But for some inexplicable reason we go along with it. Girls will try prostituting themselves to correctors. Everybody will try things like fudging the marks, begging and bribing for more creditable results, running away, and the ultimate: suicide. In India we have the highest student suicide rate in the whole world, and graph continues to rise.

The end of the working week is hard on everyone, and it is not uncommon for a teacher to work off her/his frustrations, whether arising out of domestic or professional reasons hardly matters, on some recalcitrant youngster who is made to stand up and be verbally flogged for whatever misdemeanour is cited. I know a senior girl who had her first of several epileptic attacks that very evening after being reprimanded. The teacher goes home, relieved, but not the child. And other children happily tell their parents, who  gleefully convey it back to the parents of the already bleeding victim.

All this is our Indian reality. And so, the challenge was to design a system where this would be very unlikely to happen. I created one and called it ’Where the child is without fear’, due apologies to Rabindranath. It was when this was all fermenting inside me that the NGO I work for, SERVE, was founded. (SERVE is an acronym for Students’ Empowerment, Rights and Vision through Education.) This is not the place to spell out the finer points of this different pedagogical system, but it is quite like the famous Cooperative Learning system, only less complicated and with no expense factors involved past a few rupees per teacher. The principle is that the class is in teams, each team has a mascot (animal, bird or flower). Each one within the team has a letter-name, A B C D E F G H, and given any lesson they all teach one another. The teacher becomes operative only when the teams are quite stuck. At the end of the allotted time,  the teacher calls out, ‘All the Ds come to the chalkboard’, and a quiz follows, during which correct answers are scored on the chalkboard, and applauded by everyone.

Around that time, two of my past pupils reminded me that when I had been their teacher, I had promised them that their children would not have to undergo the sort of system they were enduring. But now they were adults, and nothing had changed for the children. One of them said, “Can’t we do something?” The other, “Let’s start some sort of group.” One was a Hindu, one was a Muslim, and I am a Christian. So, the three of us decided that we would start a group called SERVE. Whether you believe in such things I wouldn’t know, but for all three of us, this was an inspired moment, when the spirit, touched us together. And thus made it clear that religion would not be a factor in our endeavours. We have retained that characteristic to this day.

Now, almost twenty years later, we look back at the huge success of our SERVE system in Delhi during the early years of this millennium. The publication of lots of related literature, both books and pamphlets, the making of a few documentaries, the public denunciation of what is going on in schools (and colleges) in the context of education, articles in magazines of all sorts,  many lectures, and working within classrooms towards enlightening senior children especially in the matter of what their life could mean at its best, the organising of numerous courses in things related to growth and education like value education,  handling stress,  parents dealing with a youngster facing board exams,  how to study, and especially, making  the whole business of getting kids through those wretched exams with less or even no tension. Some of our efforts drew a blank; others gave the kids and us joy.

And so the work goes on, because we have not yet shaken that climbing annual graph of student suicides. As I type these last sentences, I am happy to report that I visited a very prestigious school this morning because I had heard that they adopted the SERVE system a long while back and we hadn’t even known. They want me to come back and show them how to move on with this system because it promises to alleviate, if not totally eliminate, all suffering from the Indian classroom. A consummation devoutly to be wished, no?

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