by Kumar David
You’ll always remember
Where ere you may be
The school of your boyhood
The school by the sea
Nostalgia and affection for the old school is common enough but in the case of some Alma Maters the bond is rather strong; the school by the sea is one. In proof I will count the happy tales of provenance when old Thomians meet, the strong and supportive Old Boys Association, the equally supportive Centenary Club open to all who were in school in the centenary year 1951, a network for raising finances for repairs, maintenance and extensions, the packed out Christmas carol service and participation in fund raising dinners and balls.
It is a delight to stroll in once in a while, stand on the quadrangle, look around at the Chapel of the Transfiguration, the science block across from it, and on the other diagonal the school hall and the matching main class room block. It is really rather picturesque on a deserted holiday or Sunday – that is if you can get past the soulless gate staff who can be unwelcoming of unannounced old boys. When I happen by with a foreign guest I do make it a point to stop and amble through the quadrangle and down to the Big Club grounds by the sea, just for the "Wow" effect. They all say "It’s a picture postcard, did you really go to school here". Well, I guess I am a sort of dishevelled chap, but I dare say STC has the loveliest school campus in the country; apologies if there is some gem I have not seen.
The recent fracas
There has been rather a bad incident some weeks ago. Seventeen senior prefects, in the name of ragging, assaulted their newly appointed successors – had they done this in a public place they would have been liable to criminal prosecution – and there are whispers of indecent bullying, details of which the public have, thankfully, been spared. Warden Puddefoot acted promptly, firmly, fairly and reasonably, the Board of Governors and the old boys stood by him to a man, and I believe parents value the school’s handling of the emergency. The culprits were dismissed instantly but the school refrained from making endorsements staining their names on school leaving certificates. These are young fellows and obnoxious as their behaviour is, it is best not to blight their futures permanently. The shame of it one hopes will be lesson enough; had I been the father of any of these scoundrels the skin off his back would have stained my belt!
In rather a sweet are the uses of adversity twist the school has come out of the mess moderately well, and perhaps with its reputation enhanced – of course it would have been better had it never happened. Still, by handling an unpleasant incident with maturity and dignity Warden Puddefoot has set an example that other schools may wish to emulate in difficult times. My friends from the ‘other place’ remind me that their principals are in an unenviable quandary, because as a government school, they are exposed to bullying by Cabinet Ministers and the like. My rejoinder is that if old boys stand firm a ministerial buffoon is no match.
STC may have come out of the current embarrassment with its reputation salvaged, but there are deep worries about the future that need to be addressed. It has come to light that perverse ragging has been going on for a while. I swear it did not happen in the 1950s and 60s, and I say this not to repeat that silly refrain of how good things were in the old days; it just did not. That however is not the point. Previous Wardens must have known and turned a blind eye; worse, the Board of Governors chose to coddle STC like Caesar’s wife.
Forget the accusations, the mea culpa, and the self-flagellations; that is also beside the point. What is crucial now is that the school authorities put in place appropriate mechanisms for the future. The new Warden and the staff have inspired enough confidence to reassure well-wishers that given the right tools and support structures they can put the school on an excellent track. These are the exertions to which the Board of Governors and other authorities must turn their attention. This is not the end of the matter; it is the start of a process of getting things right for the long term and for once and for all.
Make hay while the sun shines
This is just the time to push even further forward. Old Thomians have rallied in recent weeks with a bit of an adrenalin rush and it’s the right time to rope in support for a major development programme that the school now needs if it is to be a leading institution in the new century. STC is working on an ambitious building and development programme to construct a new commerce block which will house twenty classrooms. The building alone will cost about Rs75 million and state of the art equipment another Rs25 million. The OBA and the Centenary Club have made a commitment to raise a part of the funding but it will not be an easy challenge. Year 2011 has been designated fund raising year if the project is to get off the ground in 2012. The smart thing to do is turn adversity upside down and cash in on the adrenalin to get more support; it will take some pulling on heartstrings and reaching out to the whole STC old boy network and to private sector companies.
Old Thomians may like to know the proposed location of the block. It will replace the old and unsightly shower and lavatory structure between Chapman House and Hotel Road and face the northern part of the Small Club grounds. Care will have to be taken to ensure that the new structure does not disfigure the aforesaid picture postcard.
Another matter to which STC needs to turn its attention is academic excellence. Warden Stone is on record, and no doubt de Saram and Davidson would have concurred with the view that the educational experience is a total one. Building character and the whole man, not just book learning must be the goal; hence the STC emphasis on sports, music, tradition and all-roundedness. Nonetheless a school is a school is a school! First and foremost it must excel as an academic entity to be worth the name.
There are numerous yardsticks to measure academic quality; teaching and learning, examination results and general knowledge. Performance at public exams and admission to universities is what carries most credibility in the public mind. There is plenty of room for STC to improve. It will not happen in a day but enhancing academic quality– not simply maintaining current standards - measured by whatever mix of yardsticks the school chooses, must be a priority to which a commitment is made. There may have been some slippage in recent decades and the competition out there is savage, therefore academic excellence is a seminal concern – this is not to imply that it is neglected now.
STC is a private and therefore a fee levying school. This is a circumstance which makes many outstanding students non starters – I guess many don’t bother to apply – and had they been enrolled the effect on the school’s academic standing would have been beneficial. I wonder whether it would be possible to institute a scholarship scheme to subsidise all or part of the tuition fee for a few academically excellent entrants each year. It should start at the lower fourth and continue to the college forms – that is five years. At five students per level no more than 25 scholarships are needed, phased in at five a year. Endowment funds, company sponsorships and old boys who are prepared to bequeath in their wills can help. Naturally such endowments must be specified as intended for this purpose.
Schemes of this type are commonplace elsewhere in the world. I was at the Harvard graduation ceremony about five years ago when my son got himself a Master’s. Larry Summers was president and in his address he held out a promise. "Listen! Anybody anywhere in the world, get admission (Harvard’s admission criteria are means-blind) and if you can’t find the money, we will find it for you. Nobody who secures admission to Harvard need stay away for financial reasons." Well I don’t know quite how literally this is to be taken, and anyway Harvard - usually rated numero uno in the world year after year - has an endowment treasure chest of I think $18 billion. That’s big money, but five scholarships per middle and upper school class is a target that the School by the Sea can aspire to.