Round Square schools as agents of social change

By Rajbir (Bubbles) Sandhu on 07/02/2017

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.” – GANDHI

When you visit a Round Square School the first thing you will notice is that the students are different from the norm.

Infused with values-based, real-world learning experiences, their education affords them broader horizons, a deeper understanding of the world, greater motivation and maturity, more confidence and a wider range of transferable skills than their peers.

But look beyond the campus, and you will invariably see a more-subtle, but equally compelling difference, as Round Square schools the world-over harness their capacity to change cultures and transform their wider communities.

With a shared commitment to the Round Square IDEALS of International Understanding, Democracy, Environmental Stewardship, Adventure, Leadership and Service, schools in over 40 countries make up the Round Square network.

Through the IDEALS, Round Square schools instill in their students a set of values that are powerful in transcending traditional mindsets, cultural conditioning, social and economic contexts,” says Rachael Westgarth, Round Square CEO. “Whilst the most immediate impact will always be felt in terms of the personal development of individual students, their collective experiences can also have a transformational effect on the culture, acceptance and evolution of the society in which they live.”

One of the greatest benefits to Round Square schools is the capacity in the network they share to open up a window on the world for their students. In some cases the resulting “culture shock” comes from an understanding that one’s own privilege and freedom is not replicated everywhere else in the world. In other cases the reverse is true, but in both the result is a determination to effect social and cultural change both within the school and beyond.

As Mahine Khan, Head of Chittagong Grammar School in Bangladesh, explains: “Our school draws its students from an orthodox Muslim community, living in joint family systems, presided over by patriarchs. It was believed that only the boys in the family should be educated. The girls were being prepared to be home makers, married off at an early age.”

With the introduction of the Round Square IDEALS into its curriculum programming, Mahine says, the school has effected a change on this cultural norm: “Starting with one girl in a class of twelve we now have equal representation of both genders in classrooms, the sport fields, the stage, on adventure trips, service projects, in exchange programs, in student conferences – in house and abroad, in student bodies… The word has spread that students graduating from CGS are fully empowered with the life skills needed to face any challenge put before them.”

A similar impact on the lives and prospects of female students is reported by Shalini Mehrotra, The Head of Vidya Devi Jindal Girls School in Hisar, India: “Most of our girl students come from humble agricultural background in Haryana. They are in most cases first generation learners but schooling at VDJS brings about a complete transformation in them” she says. “Otherwise conservative parents who entrust their girls to us are happy and satisfied with the way they shape up into well rounded personalities and are proud of them. Round Square is a catalyst in bringing about positive change in the community”.

This is an effect that is replicated across the Round Square network. A 2016 global research study conducted by the Cambridge University Faculty of Education identified the capacity for Round Square schools to develop in their students a set of values that overcome gender and cultural conditioning. As the researchers explain in their report, “Whilst one might anticipate that in some countries there might be a cultural bias against, for example, girls seeing ‘leadership’ or ‘adventure’ as less important to them or their school, there is no such pattern anywhere in the data.”

The report goes on to explain that “simply put, this suggests that Round Square students and teachers, on the whole, do not feel or act as if limited in any way by their gender, consciously or unconsciously in relation to developing the IDEALS in themselves and their communities.”

The Cambridge research team also considered the potential influence of location, but found an overall lack of geographic conditioning, with no distinctive difference in responses between countries/ regions. “As with gender,” they say, “this suggests that Round Square schools confer a distinctive identity and set of values on students and staff that affects their outlook, and which are not overly shaped by their geographical experience as part of the wider community and country where schools are situated.”

This is certainly the case at St. Philips College in Alice Springs, Australia, where Sarah Pollit, Director Chaplaincy, Student Leadership and Round Square, found that joining the RS network gave the school an opportunity to lead by example in the wider education community: “By distance we live in an extremely isolated area,” she says, “but St. Philips is dedicated to breaking that isolation and Round Square is a key way in which we are doing that, with opportunities for student exchange, conferences, service projects, and through access to a worldwide family of educators. Being part of the network brings a huge boost in morale, well being, purpose and sense of value.”

As Sarah explains, the impact of the school’s significant exchange programme also has a positive effect in the wider community: “Continual influx of highly multicultural students has an impact on the town as they become involved with town folk in sport, cultural activities, service opportunities, home-stays, and social interaction. It helps to demystify the concept of Alice being isolated and encourages people to come and visit. It also provides our indigenous population with an opportunity to promote their culture and gain an extended worldview, a wider context, helping them to see beyond cultural issues here to the world outside.”

In the Middle East, Salwa Manaja, Round Square Rep at Kings Academy in Jordan also finds that Round Square membership is a great support in encouraging parents to embrace greater international opportunities for their children: “The idea of student exchange is not a familiar one in Jordan and starting the program at King’s Academy took some time” she says.  “Through the Round Square network we were able to identify a good match for our students, and felt that we could be confident of a common and high standard of care and safety for both outgoing and incoming exchanges."

In addition to giving our students the opportunities of travelling and getting to know other parts of the world, our own community here is getting to know other cultures through incoming exchanges from countries including Australia, India, Japan, South Africa.” 

Salwa has also found that experience of the programme has developed willingness by parents to support participation, in particular by girls, which has knock-on effects in other aspects of school life: “Parents’ mindsets have changed quite a bit when it comes to their daughters’ engagement in travel, service and other activities” she observes. “They have become more open to these opportunities and often seeking such experiences out for their daughters. Recently, we have had more girls than boys taking part in exchange and service activities.”

In common with the experiences of other Round Square schools, this change in mindsets is not limited to the parent community but also extends beyond to the wider community as well: “Seeing how active our students are through the various initiatives, the local community is much more comfortable having their children attend sessions, even mixed gender sessions” Salwa observes. “One of the first questions we used to always get was about the gender mixing, nowadays we rarely hear it”.

As St. Philips College, Kings Academy, VDJS and Chittagong Grammar School have found, the transformational effect of Round Square membership often develops by association. For they and many, many more Round Square schools, there is a gentle cultural shift, driven by the collective weight of individual and personal changes in attitude and aspiration when magnified to an entire school community. But Round Square schools, also make very deliberate positive interventions into their local communities through a range of initiatives that engage their students in direct support and service to others.

Through Service, students in Round Square schools work with the communities they support, developing an understanding and respect for cultural difference through shared activity and partnership. Their practical experience provokes an emotional and intellectual response, and periods of reflection develop personal literacy through mindful consideration of ability, motivation, beliefs, perceptions, goals and ambition. Participation in service activity is a tremendous teacher of skills, positive values and attitudes, though perhaps the greatest lesson is simply how good it feels to work hard and succeed for someone else’s benefit.

As part of their service activity, students of Welham Boys School in India worked in a village school in Sudhowal, building washrooms for the female students. They had begun to drop out of school as a result of the indignity and personal risk that had developed through there being no toilets at the school for girls. The newly-built washroom facility encouraged the girls to resume their education in the school.

Welham Boys School also offers academic and skill support for nearly 120 destitute children, mostly working as ragpickers in the city, on a daily basis. As Gunmeet Bindra, The Head of the school says, “Service in support of these children has sensitized our boys to count their blessings and connect with the wider community where there is deprivation and need for support. It has led to acceptance and respect for each other’s circumstances. The support offered to these children on a daily basis empowers them with confidence and hope for a better future”.

Ultimately, students in Round Square schools are encouraged to consider the opportunity, in all aspects of everyday life, to provide for the needs of others and take social action, seeking to ensure that their impact, and the difference they make in the world, is always positive. The sense of social responsibility students develop is a great motivator to give of themselves to the society in which they live.

Akriti Suri, a former student of Vivek High School in Chandigarh, India who established ‘Pankh’, a social enterprise that produces low-cost sanitary products for the village of Parnwoo, says “It was the spirit of Service inculcated in me by Round Square and the desire to do something good for people that made me invest all my savings in ‘Pankh’ and make that small step towards the betterment of female hygiene among the village women and girls.” The sanitary napkin manufacturing machines that Akriti bought, and the small business she established has not only improved the lives of many disadvantaged women through improved hygiene, but also has provided employment for a number of them. Providing basic hygiene education alongside the products, to date Akriti’s initiative has had a direct and positive impact on the lives of almost 8,000 girls in the area. In 2015 Akriti was awarded Round Square’s Kurt Hahn Prize in recognition of her efforts.

Projects such as the Welham Boys’ School washrooms initiative and Akriti’s social enterprise are encouraged and replicated across the Round Square community. In 2016 more than 26,000 students in Round Square schools participated in significant and meaningful service activity. In the same year, Round Square’s 50th birthday celebrations saw the launch of the Round Square Anniversary Challenge. Through this programme, each RS Student Committee has been challenged to design and launch their own initiative to make a positive difference in their local community with £500 seed-funding from Round Square.

A specifically student-led initiative, the challenge builds on the belief that Kurt Hahn, the inspiration behind Round Square’s formation, applied to student engagement. “There are three ways of trying to win the young” he said. “You can preach at them—that is a hook without a worm. You can say, ‘You must volunteer’—that is of the devil. And you can tell them, ‘You are needed’—that appeal hardly ever fails.

Today there is perhaps more need than ever for positive social action, civic engagement, servant leadership, kindness and compassion. A fitting celebration for Round Square’s 50th year, the Anniversary Challenge encourages students to identify where they are needed the most, encouraging them to take the initiative, spot problems, form partnerships, generate creative solutions and implement plans of their own invention that ultimately have the potential to effect significant positive social change.