In an industrial building set amid Mumbai’s textile factories, 15 teenage girls are listening to songs by the British rapper M.I.A.
Later in the day the girls might do some meditation, have formal lessons or carry out voluntary work at a local hospital.
It might not sound like school, but it is. And the secondary, called Kranti – which means “revolution” in Hindi – is attracting international attention for its work.
Its founder, Robin Chaurasiya, is one of 10 finalists for this year’s Global Teacher Prize (www.globalteacherprize.org) – a $1 million (£700,000) award that aims to recognise the people who have made an “outstanding contribution to the profession”.
Her pupils, aged 12 to 21, are some of India’s most vulnerable: they are the daughters of sex workers and survivors of trafficking, and have faced rape, abuse and violence.
The school believes that these girls, if given access to the same education and opportunities as their more privileged counterparts, have great potential as teachers and community figures who can, in turn, support other vulnerable young people.
Their difficult life experiences make the students “more innovative, compassionate and resilient”, the school says, giving them “added value as change agents”.
Ms Chaurasiya herself had a difficult start in life. “I was born and raised in the US,” she tells TES. “People in India think growing up in the US is a perfect life, right? But I grew up in a house with domestic violence, [where] both of my parents had mental illnesses. My mom had schizophrenia and my dad, I think, was bipolar but he wasn’t diagnosed.
“The earliest memories I have of my childhood are my parents beating each other up, so for me I always knew that education could be my way to get away from that house.”
Ms Chaurasiya says that her “escape” was to join the US Air Force, which funded her to study psychology and political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
But, she says, the Air Force experience “sucked from Day 1”.
“It’s not easy being a woman of colour and being lesbian in the military,” she explains. So she left and later moved to India, where she set up Kranti school in 2011.
Perhaps surprisingly for a finalist in a global teaching prize, Ms Chaurasiya is not a qualified teacher. “I don’t think that formal qualifications are necessarily a requirement for accomplishing anything,” she says. “Some people are born teachers.”
She was “absolutely shocked” to reach the final 10, but she believes: “It’s a nod towards the fact that [society is] finally starting to acknowledge that formal education does not define education.”
Her pupils do take formal exams, but they are not the main focus. Because they have often been out of school for several years, she says, “education has to relate to their life and not to a curriculum.”
“There’s no such thing in real life as, ‘Here’s 30 minutes of maths, here’s 45 minutes of writing, here’s 10 minutes of English.’ Life doesn’t work like that.”
Students at Kranti might also learn by listening to music and discussing the songs. “You have to do a lot of reading, writing, speaking and listening in English for that,” she says. At the moment, the girls’ favourite is M.I.A.
“We talk about the artist’s background and ask why she is singing about the things she’s singing about,” Ms Chaurasiya says. This often leads to discussions about important social and political issues – for example, M.I.A’s song, Borders, is about the migrant crisis. “We start with some vocabulary. The kids were like, ‘Swagger…what’s that?’” she laughs.
The school also incorporates a lot of project learning. At the moment, pupils are working on a project to clear up what Ms Chaurasiya describes as a “junkyard” that is situated next to the school building.
This teaches writing skills (composing a letter to the municipal authorities about their plans), maths (working out how big the space is and how many people use which parts of it) and a wide range of softer skills such as critical thinking and negotiation (working out why industrial workers urinate on the site – because their workplaces have limited toilet facilities – and trying to stop this).
Ms Chaurasiya is frustrated with education systems around the world that put too much pressure on their pupils to achieve academic success. “In India, kids sometimes commit suicide because of the pressure from their family to do well,” she says.
She talks about one of her pupils, who was struggling academically but was great at drumming. Kranti helped her to get a place to study music in the US, and now she works in Pune, western India, as a music therapist.
“She is so, so in love with her job,” says Ms Chaurasiya. “She’s an example of how, when all the mainstream systems shut you out, instead of fighting to get into that model, you can create an alternative.”
Not in our backyard
Despite global recognition, Kranti faces local problems. Among the hardest is finding a site for the school, because its pupils, the children of sex workers, face serious discrimination.
When the school approaches landlords, it tells them that its pupils are orphans. But three times in the past five years, the school has been forced to leave its premises once the truth has emerged.
“They say, for example, that [our pupils] are having a negative impact on their children,” says Ms Chaurasiya. “We struggle with that kind of stuff a lot, with discrimination.”