Insights from a tribal school in Odisha, India: communities, curriculum and ethos

[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Schooling in Indigenous communities has the potential for great good and great damage, much of which will be realized and judged only in retrospect. It is therefore imperative that everyone involved in education for Indigenous children approach the task with sensitivity and respect, humility and openness, caution and confidence. In the case of schools for Indigenous children, one must ask: Whose school is it anyway? Where does the Indigenous community figure in the equation?

The role of the community in the governance and administration of a school is a much-debated question. This includes the designing, running, monitoring and evaluation of the curriculum and educational processes of a school. In this article, we share from our experience of initiating and running an Adivasi (Indigenous) community school for the last 20 years. We will do this by describing some aspects of the school and then reflecting on lessons learned.

The school where we work, Mitra Residential School, Kachapaju (MRSK), an MCC partner organization, is in many ways a living, evolving experiment, influenced and directed through constant discussion and debate. We do not live and work in a vacuum. We cannot pretend to live in a bubble, cut off from the world around us and the systems and structures of which we are inevitably a part. But within that matrix, there is space to be different, to choose to be true to the ethos and culture of the Indigenous community. We share here some of the determinants and variables that can influence the shape of a school vis-à-vis the community.

The genesis of the school: MRSK was born out of a community dreaming session in 1997 in a tribal village called Kachapaju. The Mitra Community Health team from the nearby Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack was seeking direction from the people. The youth dreamed of a day when their people could be government officials, teachers, doctors and engineers. The tribal elders cautioned them, saying this was an impossible dream, as the available schools hardly functioned, and those that did, destroyed the soul of the children. What emerged was a dream of a school of their own, where their language, culture and religion would be respected and nurtured and where children would grow up proud of their parents and community. What seemed like a pipe dream snowballed into reality, playing out on the platform of trust that exists between the people and Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack. The people of 16 hill tribe villages formed an association. Two families offered land. All the villages undertook manual labour to erect the first building. The school opened in July 1998. There was no doubt about the ownership. While for statutory purposes, the school would be registered as part of Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack, the heart, mind and soul of the school would be owned and governed by the people of 16 villages and their representatives.

Reflection: A lot of the trajectory of a school depends on how and why it started: who started it and to what purpose?  Who holds the reins? Does it pursue the dreams of the community and yet allow for management processes to stay within the statutory requirements of the government? On the other hand, if education or a specific school becomes a commercial venture or an ideological tool, the curriculum will follow suit.

Language: The people of the 16 tribal villages are predominantly from the Mal-Kondh community. Their language, Kuvi, does not have a script and has almost no written literature. Most schools in the region therefore use the medium of instruction to “mainstream” the children and make them “fit for employment,” using either the state language, Odiya, or English as the medium. MRSK chose to be a Kuvi-medium school, using the Odiya script. This was both a social statement and pragmatism at work. Education became multi-lingual, with Odiya, Hindi and English coming in as part of the curriculum over the five years of primary school, but the base being the Kuvi language. A conscious decision was made to celebrate and prioritise the Kuvi language, encouraging its use in informal and formal situations, composing songs and stories and printing books in the language written by children, teachers and community members. This has made the school unique and different, a symbol of the tribal community’s dignity and self-respect. The fact that the children also did well academically in professional courses allayed the doubts of those who feared reverse outcomes.

Reflection:  Languages get stacked into a hierarchy of socio-economic value. English is considered the top dog, aspired for by all, with Hindi and Odiya next and Kuvi relegated in common thinking as a backward language. A conscious decision to place the Indigenous language of the community on the top of the value chain in a school is a radical step. It gives the children and the community ownership of the school. It allows parents and community members to fully engage with the education processes without discomfort. Language is not just a medium of communication—it is the lifeblood of society.

Holidays: MRSK being a tribal school, it was decided that the school calendar should be based on the community calendar. Sundays are therefore working days at the school, while Tuesdays are holidays, as that is the day of the local weekly market. The academic week runs from Wednesday to Monday. School holidays are scheduled around tribal festivals, when children should be with their parents, participating in the village festival and learning their tribal heritage in a hands-on experience the school cannot provide. School stops, education continues. 

Reflection: In the dominant school culture, festivals are used to indoctrinate the children. Tribal children at dominant-culture schools return home with a new set of festivals alien to their parents. And these then gain ground in the villages, spread by the children trained in residential schools. Communities in India are very pluralistic, and the holidays and festivals of the dominant communities over-ride the celebrations of subaltern communities. 

Curriculum innovations: The MRSK team believes that education includes knowledge, skills and values and recognizes that these must be consciously promoted and evaluated. The government-prescribed curriculum is taken as the base, and subjects appropriate to the community such as agriculture, health, arts and crafts are added on. Education includes extra-curricular activities, including music, dance, drama and nature appreciation.

Reflection: While statutory mandates must be retained, there is a lot of space for tailoring the curriculum to the needs and sensitivities of the community. One must locate and sometimes create those spaces. Where statutory control is too tight for flexibility, one encourages the real education to spill into the community, during after-school hours and holidays, too. 

Teachers: The founder of the school’s parent institution, Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack, Lis Madsen of Denmark, stated in 1980 that change would come only when tribal teachers would teach tribal students. Her point was that it is not enough for the tribal community to aspire to be beneficiaries or recipients of largesse. They must become givers, leaders and teachers. This dream has come true in MRSK, where ten out of 12 staff are from the tribal community. It is important for children to know that their people are no less than anybody else, and that they are just as capable of creating standards and models. 

Reflection: This factor changes the way the school sees and is seen—by the children, the community and the government. The teachers therefore need to be carefully selected and nurtured, given that the first generation will necessarily have studied in “un-tribal” schools themselves. And most students become like their teachers. So conscious effort must be taken to help them break the mold and create a new model of teachers, a model that is rooted in the ethos of the community. 

Evaluation and guidance: Who should govern the school and evaluate its journey? At MRSK, representatives of the 16 villages who own the school meet about three times a year to review progress and correct direction. In 2004, when the team needed an evaluation and directional guidance, they requested tribal leaders to undertake it, rather than an education consultant. The insight they provided was unorthodox but effective.

Reflection: The indicators and yardsticks we use for measurement of change can become the determinants of direction. They say far more than we recognize. Seeking direction from the Indigenous community itself has helped protect the soul of the school. The aspects they value could be quite different from those education administrators and urban parents pursue—such as easy and open access to their children in school, use of their mother-tongue language and use of traditional musical instruments and cultural media.

Contributions and support: At MRSK, the community is very engaged and involved. The land is contributed by two families. The first building was erected through community effort by the people of the 16 member villages. Every year, parents and community members contribute a day’s labour together to undertake road repairs and to complete other needed infrastructure projects. Selection for admission to grade 1 is through a lottery process, done village-wide, as an open community event. The family of each child contributes a small amount in cash or in-kind installments to contribute to the cost of running the school. The ownership of and by the community needs to be real, nurtured and celebrated. Ways must be created for participation that are meaningful and doable.

In conclusion, what are the lessons learned in the journey of MRSK over the last 20 years? We would highlight at least three:

  1. The community is the primary stakeholder and strength, not a liability to be humored. Whose school is it anyway?
  2. Involving communities in decision-making may cause an apparent slowing down of management, but gives a great degree of ownership and sustainability.
  3. You have to become the change you want to see.

Chandrasekhar Ray, Jaysen Kumbrika, Manoj Wadaka, Madhabo Rona and John Oommen work with the MRSK and Mitra teams in Kachapaju, Bissamcuttack, Odisha, India.

Learn more

“Development dreaming.” Video with Johnny Oommen. Available at

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