17 December 2015

Royal College (Colombo) can be replicated

It all began about 12 years ago.  The impetus was the simple reality that a concerted effort was needed to keep clean a school with a student population of around 8000.  That simple exercise initiated by the Principal of Royal College, Upali Gunasekera and a few dedicated teachers has now graduated into a comprehensive programme that sends a strong message about civic duty, wholesome lifestyles and community spirit to students, teachers, parents and society at large. 

Today, 12 years later the ‘greening’ of Royal College, a school associated with the colours blue and gold, encompasses solar power generation, solid waste management that includes a comprehensive garbage separation programme, composting, bio gas production, organic agriculture (in and out of the school) and a butterfly garden.  Perhaps the kola-kenda project is what brings all these things together, except of course the butterfly garden.  The idea was to give students, teachers and non-teaching staff a fillip in the morning that was nutritious, flavourful and eminently educational. 

Made of four traditional rice varieties that have known medicinal properties and which are organically grown, mixed with a complement of leafy greens, this drink has become extremely popular among students, teachers and other members of the staff.  Around 1000 cups are sold at a nominal price on a daily basis.  In the Lower School, every child gets at least one cup of kenda a week.  A kurahan-roti with kola-kenda has become standard breakfast for many.  The teachers claim that students are more alert than they were before.  The teachers themselves say that it has become part of their daily diet and claim that since this became a ‘habit,’ seemingly incurable aches and pains have disappeared miraculously. 

Interestingly, the teachers who are leading this project do so in conjunction with the inculcation of ideas such as compassion and collective effort. 

‘Apa surathal vayase…mal kekulu vemu sasare…meth vadamu nithare…ekamuthuva api punchi mithure’ (We are of a tender, cuddly age…we are like tiny buds in sansaara…let us be compassionate (to one another) always….we are friends and we are together).  This is a verse the children in the lower grades recite.  It is followed by five minutes of meditation, with reference to the particular belief system of the particular child. 

The school has convinced other institutions about the virtues of the idea. Today, 750 glasses of kolakenda are delivered to the Presidential Secretariat three days of the week while 300 are sent to the Defence Ministry twice a week. 

[For more details about this program, read 'The Greening of the Blue and Gold']

The impact of such exercises are of course hard to measure outside of the teachers’ claims such as ‘such and such a student, who used to be very naughty, is now extremely kind and consideration; this happened because the others got together and collectively decided to shower him with compassion’.   Such programmes may very well yield a more wholesome citizen by and by, but Royal College is today being celebrated for more tangible reasons.

Just the other day, Royal won its third successive ‘Gold’ at the Best Annual Report and Accounting Awards, being recognized for compilation excellence as well as transparency in overall accounting.  An important recognition thought it may be, what is of greater significance is the school being recognized for its ‘green’ programmes. 

 The school won the Gold for the ‘Schools’ category at the National Green Awards as adjudged by the Central Environmental Authority.  In addition Royal College is one of three Asian finalists (and one of the 14 global finalists) for the Zeyed Future Energy Prize 2016.  Last year also the school was shortlisted (among the 4 Asian finalists and 15 global finalists).   The Zeyed Prize, according to Prof Mohan Munasinghe, joint winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace, is the second most important recognition in the sphere of environmental concerns.  The winner gets US$ 100,000 and in the event the prize comes Royal’s way, the school plans to spend it to set up a solar power system that produces 70kw.

According to Aruna De Silva, the Hostel Warden and indefatigable campaigner for sustainable operations, the above recognitions are well deserved considering the considerable ‘greening’ efforts of the school over the past few years.  For example, the school boasts of the first ‘green’ school building. 

“It’s all there for the students to see.  They can see how the solar power generation happens, the relevant amounts and the ups and downs over the course of a single day.  We also calculate the number of trees that are saved by the use of solar power.  This is a real message which they will internalize as they go from Grade 1 to the A/L class.  It’s a message they will no doubt take to the world once they leave school,”  he explained. 

Principal Gunasekara was quick to point out that this is not about Royal College. “What we are really interested in is to get the message across to all schools that these kinds of initiatives are not beyond them.   We believe that it is possible for all schools to have a kola-kenda programme of this kind.   It is the healthier drink for school children.”

It is to drive this point home, in part, that Royal College organized a special ‘walk’ a few weeks ago.    The message was simple: drink more water instead of fizzy drinks.  Simple, because it’s a simple truth that has been drowned by aggressive advertising campaigns, the ‘truth’ being that water flushes out much of the impurities in the body.  The effort won the support of the Ministry of Health, UNESCO, the GMOA (which helped put together educational literature in all three languages and played a key advisory role), UNICEF and several other organizations. 

“More than 20,000 participated in this walk.  We invited all 150 schools in the Colombo District.  First we conducted training sessions for the prefects of all these schools and they in turn trained the students in their respective schools,” the Principal said. 

What is a school if not an institution that teaches not only Science, Mathematics, language and so on, but also values and the essentials that make for healthy and sustainable lifestyles where individual well-being is inextricably entwined with the well-being of society?  All schools are mandated either by writ or by unspoken understanding to impart an education that turns an individual student into a responsible citizen.  Naturally, even the strictest adherence to curriculum does not deliver the goods.  That’s why there are extra-curricular activities and children are encouraged to engage in them. 

There are all kinds of extra-curricular activities, the most popular of course being sports, scouting or guiding, cadetting, theatre, literary pursuits and debating.  Whenever schools hold carnivals or exhibitions, children experience an added dimension of the extra-curricular.  A fourth dimension to schooling, so to speak, has now been introduced: greening.  This means all things environmental. 

Environment, as Royal College has shown, is not just about re-use, recycle and reduce.  It is about sustainable practices on all counts.  ‘Green,’ then is also about better, healthier and sustainable lifestyles, harmony between human being and nature, and importantly, among human being as well.  That’s the tough task that Royal College, Colombo has set itself in recent years.  It is a task that has been embraced by students and teachers with a lot of enthusiasm.  The energy and spirit that have been expended has yielded much, but, as Principal Gunasekera mentioned, the most significant of these is the fact that now there’s tangible evidence to claim that almost everything that Royal College has initiated are eminently replicable in even the most modest of the most rural schools in the country.

The greening of Royal College is something the school can be proud of.    It would be prouder still if its example helps green the entire country, for the exercise after all focuses on ‘all’ and not the elemental parts of a given social and physical landscape.  There won’t be awards for such an outcome, but even if no one understands, the children in the lower school who talk of connectivity that extends beyond life (i.e. over lifetimes), compassion (the affirmation of understanding, giving and sharing) and friendship, will know.  They would smile.