Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Oman News

Future of schools depend on community support, says Dr. Baby Sam, the outgoing Chairman of Indian schools in Oman

In an exclusive interview with The Arabian Stories, Dr. Baby Sam talks about achievements during his term including fulfilling the Vision 2020, the challenges during the pandemic and the future of schooling in the Sultanate.

TAS News Service


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

MUSCAT : Dr. Baby Sam Saamuel has completed his three year term as the Chairman of the Board of Directors (BOD) of Indian Schools in Oman on Wednesday.

In an exclusive interview with The Arabian Stories, Dr. Baby Sam talks about achievements during his term including fulfilling the Vision 2020, the challenges during the pandemic and the future of schooling in the Sultanate. 

Excerpts from the interview 

1. You began the Board term with a Vision – Vision 2020. Now, after 3 years, your term with the Board of the Indian Schools in Oman, after an extension of 12 months, is ending this month. Do you think you have been able to achieve the stated goals?

Yes, definitely. As you are aware, when we started in 2018, we started with a plan in place. That was our Vision 2020 – a set of betterment goals covering all the broader aspects of the schools – the core academics, the non-academic skills development, streamlining and improvement of managerial and administrative processes, the strengthening of faculty resources, and of course the physical enhancement of schools through enhanced infrastructure.

Having had very specific & focused goals right from the start, we have been able to implement initiatives that addressed each and every aspect of our schools and successfully achieve all that we aimed for. Within the originally intended term of two years itself, the board had brought about 40+ new initiatives. So, yes, we have been able to do justice to our internal plan – Vision 2020

Last year, during the extended term, despite the challenges brought about by Covid-19, we have been able to add to this list, some more new implementations that contributes to holistic education, bringing almost 45+ achievements under the Board. 

Nevertheless, the broader aim of the Board 

– of ensuring every child from our schools shall undergo transformative learning and be equipped with the knowledge, skills and well-being to find their identity and purpose in life is of course a continual one, for which the Board shall continue to strive, especially in a vastly changed post-Covid world.

2. What are the most impactful achievements of the Board? The biggest milestones?

If you were to ask me this question last year, I would have said that our biggest achievement was that we were able to achieve all that we set out to do – our Vision 2020, having implemented all the planned new initiatives by 2020. Like the new 21st Century model school – ISB. 

The free 24-7 tele-counseling service. The Virtual Learning platform ISO-VLE. The career fest Avenir. IS Quiz. STAI. The international trainings given to the faculty. The new Academic Cell & Manual. And so many more like these.

But 2020 has changed everything, right? In a post-Covid scenario, looking back at the term, I believe our biggest achievement would be the foundation that we have laid two years back with the focus on digitalization and educational support beyond classrooms – like the Virtual Learning platform, ISO VLE, the video recording of lessons that began in 2019 for Grades 10th & 12th, tele-tutoring, Tele-counseling, and remedial classes.

This foundation has enabled us to transition so quickly and efficiently to remote schooling, even as many schools in the region were struggling to adapt. 

It has been very important for us to ensure academic continuity and it is indeed satisfying that we have been able to complete nearly one full academic term through remote schooling even as we hear reports from the United Nations about how many millions of students have been affected across the world by disruption in learning as a result of school closures. 

The success of online classes is an example of what we can accomplish if we as a community of stakeholders – the Board, schools, teachers, parents and students work together for a common goal.

3. The extension of the term has been an unprecedented one, hasn’t it? Especially the management of Covid crisis? How do you feel the schools have managed with the Covid situation? How is schooling progressing? 

A situation such as this – with the closure of schools has been a first in the history of our system. It was crucial to first and foremost establish stability.

We as the Board had expected to complete our term by the end of March 2020. However, the sudden and unprecedented disruptions meant that as the experienced senior management, the onus was on us to carry the schools through this crisis. As I said before, the schools needed to ensure continued learning for our children – as part of our commitment and also the directives from authorities such as the CBSE, and UNICEF. 

This of course meant immediate solutions for accessing classes, but that would not have been enough. As community schools established for the Indian diaspora here, we also needed to ensure the survival and sustainability of the schooling system itself. 

At the same time, we needed to be mindful of the challenges being faced by parents and offer whatever relief measures that were possible. Plus, if we were to continue remote schooling for a longer term than initially expected basis, we had to make sure that education was not limited to core academic instruction. To achieve all these four goals, simultaneously was a challenging task, but we have managed some kind of balance in all four aspects.

Since March we started populating more video recorded lessons focusing on the senior sections. By April, we transitioned to remote schooling, in one of the most seamless and quickest timelines in the region – especially given that we are talking about 21 schools of varying capabilities, and a total student strength of around 46,000. 

As I mentioned before, we have completed almost one entire year of schooling in this way, with regular examinations, assessments, extra-curricular events, parent interactions and more. During this time, we handed out various relief measures for parent community understanding their situation, while also trying to protect and sustain the schooling system. We have reached out with different ways, financially and otherwise, with a total financial measures amounting to OMR 1.3 million so far.

4. Yet, there are differences of opinion on the financial support offered. How satisfied are you with the relief measures provided to community?

Within such a large and diverse system, it is not possible to satisfy everyone or to take decisions that will be perfect for everyone. While a group of parents may feel that virtual lessons are unnecessary, there may be those who feel that these virtual schooling keeps their children safe while offering academic growth. Same is the case with almost any decision undertaken.

We have taken into consideration the sustainability of our parents and the schools and have tried to balance both, which has indeed been a challenge. We have had teams of financial experts – auditors poring through the records and exploring all permutations and combinations to explore any and all available options while maintaining this balance.

We have deferred the fee hikes proposed for the year, despite this amount being already calculated into the financial budgets for the year by each school. We offered additional fee concessions, by first waiving off non-tuition fees for 4 months from May to August and then offered 10% flat concession on fees for another two months. 

In response to the immediate crisis, every school set up a Help center for assistance and distributed kits to the needy. We also offered 50% concessions to students who or whose family were infected by the virus in the months up to August 2020. Over and above all this, needy students from financially challenged backgrounds are offered support at the school level.

All this has amounted so far to OMR 1.3 million which is a significant amount. In my understanding no educational system in India, Oman or even in the region, has offered parents relief to this extent. Therefore, I can assure that we have definitely worked hard to offer the best substantial relief that we could.

5. Given the massive changes being seen in education right now, how can the vision of holistic education be taken forward or even implemented in such a time of crisis?

Holistic education means education that covers all aspects of a person’s development. Their physical wellbeing and growth. Their psychological wellness. Their academic competence. Creativity. Critical Thinking. Communication. Soft skills. Social Skills. 

Covid is indeed a difficult time for all of us. But at the same time, it is also unique in that children can see firsthand how their schools, their teachers, their parents are adapting to new changes. For every challenge Covid brings, all of us are trying hard to bring a solution that works. Children also get to see how much of importance is being given to learning. Come rain or sunshine, learning must continue and this is a lesson we hope they imbibe throughout their life. 

Their teachers are also showing this as a marvelous example of life-long learning. They have learned and mastered new skills – new digital applications, new ways of teaching, new ways of connecting with children, new means of assessments.

As schools, we have been mindful of ensuring that we offer more than academics at this point. The Board has piloted an exciting new supplementary curriculum, called the Happiness Curriculum. It is an SEL- Social Emotional Learning based pedagogy which aims to address the wellbeing and happiness of our students through emotional literacy.  Our counselors are ready and available for our students any time of the day. In fact, we have extended the tele-counseling service to even parents, given the increase in stress and anxiety brought by the pandemic.

We have also made the best use of technology and virtual connections to bring new opportunities for extracurricular activities, new ways of doing things. Same way, we have been able to capitalize on the global connectivity and bring in an extraordinary number of renowned resource persons from across the world to speak and engage with our children. 

For example, this year the career guidance fest established by the Board – Avenir 2020 was a 9-day long event, connecting our students with universities and speakers from every part of the word. For our inter-school events such as the IS Talent Fest and IS Film Fest, we have had guests such as Mr. Shiv Khera, Prof L S Ganesh, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Shri Manoj Ahuja IAS, Chetan Bhagat, R Shyamaprasad, Mr. Arun Chidambaram, and Mrs. Mallika Sukumaran. For our faculty, we have had special sessions with inspirational education reformer Ms. Kiran Bir Sethi and the revolutionary educationist Mr. Anil Pradhan.

So, despite the disruptions, the principles of holistic education stand strong and as schools and as board we are trying to ensure this focus remains so.

6. What exactly does the community schooling model mean? What makes this different from other schools in the country or the region?

I know this is a very commonly used term Community School but most parents do not understand what this means. Basically, it means that the schools are run as not-for-profit entities. They are established by and for the community. It also means that there are no external funds. The schools are not funded by the Indian Government or Indian Embassy or Oman government. The schools operate and are run by the revenues earned which comes only from fees. Equally important, any revenue being earned by the school goes back into the maintenance and growth of schools.

So this is like a system where the schools are dependent on the community just as much as the community is dependent on the schools. If you contrast this with public schools or privately owned schools in any country, the public schools are funded by the local or federal government, while private schools – you know how it is.

Our Indian schools in Oman are committed to offering world-class education, at an affordable cost, with the assurance that no Indian child shall ever be denied of an education here for want of money.

This is not a fancy statement. We have consecutively had the best academic results in the region for our public examinations, and one of the lowest fee structure in the region.

7. It takes a village to raise a child. This is one of your favourite sayings. How can parents and the community come forward for the cause of education and schooling, particularly in such a time?

As I said before, the pandemic has been an impetus for students to practice self-enabled learning, to take ownership and be an active participant in their own education. 

Parents need to understand this golden opportunity to move away from rote learning and motivate their children to be more independent, empowered and enterprising when it comes to their lessons.

Covid has also shown how indispensable teachers are. While parents struggle to engage their own flesh and blood, teachers are burdened with the mammoth task of holding the attention and engaging with dozens of students virtually. That’s after hours of preparation and lesson plans. It would be highly appreciated if parents could support the teachers.

The future of the schools as community schools depend on the community support. I implore parents to come forward and be actively engaging with their schools, and helping out the schools and each other in whatever ways possible.

8. When will the schools be reopening? And how will that be implemented?

A survey conducted in October 2020 among the parents and other stakeholders showed a reluctance to resume in person lessons until the end of the current term. The epidemiological situation in Oman is continually evolving, but we are gearing up to resume in-person classes soon, based on guidance from Ministry of Education, Supreme Committee and other concerned authorities.

We are awaiting further guidance from Ministry of Education in this regard and the schools shall be informing parents as soon as anything is finalized. When the schools reopen, whenever that may be in the foreseeable future, it maybe as a blended learning model, with a mix of on-campus and remote lessons or in a phased-wise manner. There would be severe measures for cutting down student capacity and for ensuring distancing. Similarly, disinfection and sanitization would be high priority.

9. What are the further changes expected in education and schooling as the pandemic continues to be prevalent?

The first step amidst the pandemic had been to shift the medium from in-person to digital. The next shall be to return to some form of in-person schooling.

However, as along as the pandemic continues to rage on, schooling would mean making the best of both in-person & remote schooling. The curriculum may eventually shift towards making the best use of digitalization – in assessments or supplementary lessons.

Additionally, we can expect blended learning to continue and perhaps even become the norm, as K-12 educators realize the scope of technology and digitalization to supplement their lessons beyond classrooms. As I said, self-enabled learning will gain the priority it deserves.

10. As you hand over to a new management, how has the overall experience been, particularly, as the youngest Chairman of the Board ever? 

I have had two different experiences with the school Board. The first two years as a Director and the next three as the Chairman. Both have been deeply fulfilling but as Chairman, as the leader both responsible and accountable for the functioning of the largest community schooling system in the nation, it has been a demanding role. A huge learning experience and the kind of challenge that also allows tremendous scope for satisfaction.

As a parent myself, I can see how much of a crucial role schools and teachers play in the life of my children. Therefore, I and the Board too – have adopted a child-centered approach in all our decision making processes.

It is extremely gratifying to implement changes – even if small – if these are ultimately beneficial for our children. And we have been fortunate enough to be able to ensure positive changes – both small and big in every area of their schooling. This Board has been a wonderful team and the sheer quantity of output we have managed is through the time and effort dedicated by each and every member of the Board. 

Of course, it is not possible to please or even satisfy everyone. But I can honestly say that we have done the best we can. Overall, I must say, it has been a rollercoaster ride. Lots of ups and some downs as well.

11. What advice would you like to give to the parents and students?

Understand the changing landscape and embrace self-enabled, life-longing learning. Constant, continual upskilling is going to be a given.

12. What advice would you like to convey to the new Board?

Any and all decisions – may they be taken with the children at the heart of it.