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Lessons for home from a headmaster

  • You don’t have children, you build them, says Matthew Raggett, headmaster of The Doon School
  • Raggett has written a book on effective parenting

Matthew Raggett. (Photo: Courtesy Doon School)

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Parenting books—one of the most popular categories of motivational and how-to books worldwide—are surprisingly few and far between in India. The ones that do exist focus mainly on infants and toddlers and those scary years when you feel like your one job as a parent is to keep your child alive. But parents are pretty much on their own (with occasional help from friends, Facebook groups and mommy blogs) when their children are a bit older and not an imminent threat to themselves.

While food and sleep fads and trendy techniques permeate the global parenting universe, there are very few books set within the Indian context that set out loose guidelines for parents struggling with vast cultural, social and technological changes. How Your Child Can Win In Life: The Doon School’s Headmaster On Raising Kids Who Love To Learn by Matthew Raggett aims to fill this gap with common-sense advice from someone who has worked with children for two decades. “This is not a self-help book (there are enough of those) or a manifesto for changing the current state of the education system (though this is more than needed). This is also not a piece of peer-reviewed research that will stand up to academic scrutiny—rather, it is a collection of observations and experience gained at the chalkface, by living and working in some of the world’s top schools over the last 20 years,” writes Raggett, headmaster of The Doon School, Dehradun.

The book has been almost 10 years in the making, says Raggett over the phone from Dehradun, at the end of a long working day. Work often goes on till much later, he says—it is a boarding school, after all. “In fact, I have a meeting at 8pm right after this,” he adds.

Raggett, who is from the UK, took over as headmaster in 2016 from Peter McLaughlin, after a worldwide search conducted by an international recruitment consultancy. He came to Doon from the secondary school of the Leipzig International School in Germany. “When I was at Leipzig, I used to write regularly to parents—long emails that eventually became more than a newsletter. When I came to Doon, I wanted to continue that tradition. Then I met one of our ‘old boys’, Ramachandra Guha, and we were talking about education and bringing up children, and he said ‘you’ve got to write this down,’” says Raggett. In fact, Guha put him in touch with his publisher, Juggernaut, and the book took shape with the help of editors at the publishing house.

Although he is an educationist, Raggett, who has three teenage children of his own, believes the home plays an equally important—perhaps even more important—role in shaping children’s personalities and interests as the school environment. “Don’t underestimate the role of parents,” he says. “School admissions are tough. Often, you won’t get the school you want, but that’s fine because there is so much you can do at home. The environment is far more in your control,” he says. “Schools can add value, but the value system, work ethic and curiosity needed to succeed in school comes from parenting,” Raggett writes in his introduction to the book.

Despite the somewhat ponderous title, the book does not talk about how children can crack competitive exams or become little geniuses who win international Spelling Bee contests, instead advising parents on how to bring up curious, engaged, aware, articulate and conscientious children. There’s a very strong emphasis on reading and writing. Most of it may sound intuitive, but, looking around us, it’s tough not to see how many parents miss the value of reading, for instance, or think of it only as a vague “good thing to do” without actively pushing children to read. “As soon as your child is able to sit up in your lap and focus on something that you hold in front of them, you should be reading to them,” Raggett emphasizes.

In the book, he advises that “parents should read to their children all the way through primary and into secondary school. Many parents stop reading to their children as soon as they are able to make the transition from reading out loud to reading to themselves. It’s too soon.”

He also makes it clear that he is not talking about reading in English. “Reading in our mother tongue and acquiring that language is going to have the same developmental effect on your child,” he says in the book.

“What children really love is our time, and this doesn’t mean you have to actively ‘do things together’. Just sitting in a room reading side by side is a wonderful way to spend time with children,” he tells me (as I think shamefully of yelling at my 12-year-old to get off the phone and READ SOMETHING while I tap away at my phone). Raggett is not very happy at the idea of what he calls “babysitting by technology”, though he believes technology can be used very creatively to engage children as well—for instance, by sharing interesting articles you read with them and hearing their opinion.

The book has a chapter on “giving and entitlement”, and Raggett bristles a bit (very politely) when I ask if being the headmaster of India’s most elite school places him in an awkward position to give advice to parents who may not enjoy the same privileges as the parents of Doon scholars. “People may ask, ‘what does he know of everyday education?’ But I went to government schools growing up in the UK. I went to a school where one student killed another, and 15 girls were pregnant before they were 16. I have not taught in low-budget schools, but I can say that I have experienced a reasonable cross-section of society as a student and educator,” says Raggett.

He does not accept The Doon School’s “elitist” tag. “It’s a popular narrative, but we have a considerable number of first-generation scholars at the school, and we have a robust funding system. The scholarship corpus is over 5.5 crore, to be given as financial aid to meritorious students who deserve a place at the school,” he says. He points me to the section about The Doon School which states that the school’s “needs-based scholarships, donated over the years by its alumni, mean that any boy who gains admission will have a place regardless of his parents’ ability to pay”.

The educational landscape in India, he says, is very different from schools in countries where government schools are of a high quality. “It is a great tragedy for this country,” he says. “Of the two things I see in greatest need for change in the Indian education system, the first is assessment and the other is teacher training,” Raggett writes in the book. But that, he says, is a topic for another volume.

The book is now available in stores.

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