Ireland has this year followed India’s recent example of introducing legislation aimed at making schools more inclusive.
It's one thing to change the law, it's another to get people to embrace it, says Sr Cyril Mooney (79), who has spent almost 60 years working with the street children and "untouchables" of Calcutta.
"You can bring in laws, but people will give lip service. You have to change people's hearts," says the Loreto nun. She is on a short visit home to Bray, Co Wicklow, having picked up an honorary degree in Vermont, in the US, a few weeks ago. It's her fourth such degree – the others from universities in Ireland, the UK and India – to add to the BSc she earned in zoology before embarking on the missionary life to India in 1956.
In Calcutta, properly known today as Kolkata, she transformed a 120-year-old private Loreto college into the "rainbow" Sealdah school. "We mandated ourselves that we would take 25 per cent of poor children every time we did admissions," she says, and over time this moved up to 50 per cent. To help street children keep up their attendance, accommodation was provided on site, in a model that has been copied by the West Bengal government.
Ahead of their time
“The government said if the Loretos can do we can do it,” she says, with a smile.
The Loretos were ahead of their time in more ways than one. The 25 per cent quota for disadvantaged students, which they began in 1991, is now compulsory for all private schools under India’s Right to Education Act. The law commenced in 2010, guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children aged three to 14.
As with the Admission to Schools Bill here, the Indian Act got a frosty reception in some quarters. “In some places, the higher castes don’t want to share with the lower castes. That’s why we need to build up a whole consciousness in the population – a need for inclusive schooling.”
In some schools, “lower caste” children are not allowed to turn on the tap or touch utensils and must ask their higher caste peers for a drink of water. Or they are made to sit at the back of the class, with inevitable results.
“It’s very important that we create a climate where children feel wanted, and blossom and grow to their best potential. That’s why I’m against this cut-throat competition which has come into Ireland, and all these grind schools and points systems. You end up with people who are ‘all head’; they become doctors and get the high points but they don’t know how to relate to people.”
Sr Cyril, born Josephine Ann Mooney, won a scholarship to Loreto Bray as a child. Now retired from day-to-day activities at Loreto Sealdah, she still trains teachers at a local university and is sought out internationally for her experience. She spent last week in Prague giving a five-day workshop to educationalists who are wrestling with the challenge of integrating Roma children into mainstream schools.
She is also a fellow of the Ashoka foundation, which promotes "changemaker" schools in Ireland and internationally. (Coincidentally, the organisation's Irish director Serena Mizzoni is a Loreto girl, having gone to the congregation's St Stephen's Green school.)
For people who have advantages in life, it's important to find a way to give service, says Sr Cyril, who is working on a book on her life's work: Transforming Schools for Social Justice and Inclusive Education.
An example comes from the Eastern bypass, a stretch of land “something like the M50” on the outskirts of Calcutta, where thousands of families are “perched on ground between electric train tracks and a deep drop into water”.
A few summers ago, Sr Cyril led a team of volunteers to train “barefoot” teachers. They were helped by students from Loreto Sealdah who gave up part of their holidays.
“Every day I got about 20 kids, put them in a bus, gave them a pack of dice and a pack of Bengali letters, and they went out and they played games every day. By the end of the summer they had all of the children knowing their letters and their numbers; they could add and subtract.”
Yes, the problems are huge, but Sr Cyril believes the solutions are simple. From that small project, the families of the Eastern bypass developed adult literacy programmes and later small businesses. “Now they are practically independent of us.”