Before we give up on Broken Britain, here’s some inspiration from the girls of Loreto Day School in Kolkata. Over the last 30 years they’ve changed thousands of lives by turning their school into a multi-faith hub for social justice. They also passed all their exams. If they can do it, why can’t we?
In 1979 LDS Sealdah was a traditional girl’s Catholic school with a small group of scholarship students. This left the new Principal, Sister Cyril, ‘uneasy’, so she began to open the school up, to create a ‘healthy mix’. Now twice the size, half the pupils are from families so poor that the school not only buys their uniforms, food, medicines and books, but also pays their parents’ rent in the nearby slums.
Meanwhile, the girls daily passed hundreds of children who were living on the pavements and railway platforms with no hope of an education. So the girls began an amazing experiment, gradually drawing street children into an after school program of games and lessons. It was so successful that within a few years they had created a fully integrated school-within-a-school. The children became known as the Rainbows, a source of joy and also a revelation: with regular attendance, an illiterate ten or eleven year-old Rainbow can be ready to join a mainstream class of girls her age within a year.
Teaching the Rainbows is Work Education, a curricular subject which takes place twice a week. Girls are taught to teach literacy, numeracy, life skills and crafts, vital for survival and income generation.The huge top-floor room is filled with children, half in blue and white uniforms, half in ragamuffin cast-offs. All are intent on the lesson, holding up cards with sounds and letters, spelling out words, laughing and shouting encouragement. In a country still riven by the legacy of caste – where a high caste woman may work to support a low caste woman but not touch a cup of tea she has made – it’s an amazing sight.
Work Education can also be completed in local villages – 150 girls go on their day off every week to teach 3,500 rural children – with Childline, the Hidden Child Domestic Labour Project, or in the local slums. Girls regularly encounter cases of injustice and abuse and are challenged to get involved. They learn to use their voices and their skills, gathering evidence, lobbying and advocating for children’s rights.
Values Education is also compulsory, designed to make girls think and to promote social change. Together these two programs, equal in importance to the traditional subjects, make a curriculum of agency. This honestly recognises that the world outside the window is not ok and prepares young women to be part of the solution: Loreto graduates are confident, informed and dynamic.
The school survives from hand to mouth, on gifts and grants and prayers. It’s by no means perfect, Sister Cyril can be distinctly dictatorial and some of the education is old-fashioned and dull. But several very powerful myths have been exploded by these merry girls with blue hair ribbons: they have demonstrated beyond doubt that compassion is more productive than competition, and that doing the right thing is about love, not money.
London is not like Kolkata and many of Sister Cyril’s programs would be crushed by Health and Safety before the ink was dry. But across the UK things are not ok either. People are separated from one another by gulfs of inequality and unfamiliarity; children are abused, homeless, hungry and frightened. It’s time for our own radical vision. So let’s be inspired by the Rainbows and get started.