Monday, 14 January 2019 15:33

The Kolkata Blog

Dr Alison Brown is one of a group of 35 who have visited Kolkata, India, to build and strengthen the Derby Diocesan Board of Education's links with the area.

Alison is the board's deputy director and schools adviser.Alison low res

The Board of Education has been working hard to develop links with schools in Kolkata, mainly overseen by the Cathedral Relief Service (CRS) there. Over the years, a number of schools in Derby and Derbyshire have participated in reciprocal visits with schools in Kolkata.

Follow their stories here in Alison's blog:


Saturday 19 January 2019 | All good things...

It is with real sadness that I write the last blog for our stay in Kolkata but what a day to end on.

We had a celebration day and many children from the CRS schools were bussed in from the slums to a fee paying secondary school which let us use their huge school field for free.

We all had to get across the city before many roads were closed due to a political rally. The opposition were trying to galvanise support in order to vote Modi out of office.

The press of people was huge with thousands and thousands coming in from the outlying rural areas especially for the rally. We were delighted that about 430 children were able to join us along with their teachers.

Because they arrived early the day started with breakfast for the children which they ate whilst being entertained by a ventriloquist.

It was a joy to watch them laughing so hard! It was less joyful to see many of them not eating breakfast but insisting that they carried the bags for the rest of the day to take home and share.

Food is scarce there.

They were then sent off in school groups to enjoy the various activities we had planned for them.

I don’t think they had come across things like a sack race and egg and spoon race, let alone parachute games!

It was rather wild and exuberant but so worth it with these children able to run in a large open space.

They don’t have the chance to do so in their usual lives.

After three sessions of half hour activities we came back together for lunch.

With black kites circling overhead and palms lining the field, we broke for lunch and enjoyed the entertainment of a magician.

Ice creams were one further treat before we did one more session of activity. We were all flagging!

There were many sad farewells to the children and their teachers and also to the CRS staff who had looked after us so well throughout the week.

On our return to the hotel we then took over the foyer for a henna party before heading out to Hard Rock Café Kolkata!

Such rich experiences and deep connections made with the lovely people here.

Plans are already being put in place for next year’s visit – we will be back!

Friday 18 January 2019 | A lot to take in

So here I am again sitting in the foyer typing on my laptop. This time it is not last thing at night but 8pm and I’m doing this whilst waiting for the return of most of the group who have had a trip out of the city today.

They have been to the Sunderbans to see another project run by the CRS.

It will have given them a chance to see a rural view of India which is very different from Kolkata.

They will also have had a chance to explore a tiny bit of the largest area of mangroves in the world by boat before returning to the smog, noise and chaos of the city.

Although that doesn’t sound particularly attractive, I have to say that I find Kolkata madly wonderful or wonderfully mad. Not sure which way round!

Anita and I spent the day filming in two CRS projects. Firstly, at Hastings which is a school which meets under a flyover and is surrounded by the flimsy homes of the community which in turn is surrounded by busy roads on all sides.


We nearly caused a riot as the mothers of the children thought that all their children were going to be interviewed and filmed.

Actually, it was only one child that we wanted.

Rig did his best in resolving the conflict and the film-maker did some more takes with five more children but that still didn’t make everyone happy.

In the end we had to leave a very irate and shouting huddle of women to head off to Brace Bridge, the community by the railway track that we had visited yesterday.

Yet again we were met with a boisterous greeting at the school.

Here a 12 year old Dalit girl was chosen to be interviewed along with her mother in their home. When Anita asked if she liked the trains the girl replied no because they killed people.

Clearly she had witnessed people being hit by the trains. It’s hard to imagine what it is like to live in that place.

Nonetheless, there was lots of laughter and mischief-making by the fairly wild children and we enjoyed being with them.

We finished by filming a crowded train pull into the station and then we stepped over the tracks and headed up the path, got into the cars which took us back to the relative calm and cleanliness of the hotel.

How can we process all this?

Thursday 17 January 2019 | Dedication and deprivation

India is full is contrasts and today has been just that.

This was the second of the two days of teacher training and was full of fun and laughter.

The Indian teachers are so keen to learn and have grown in confidence that there were plenty of jokes and competition.

Again, the day comprised of English in the morning – either improving spoken English or how to use phonics in teaching children to read. Then the afternoon was focussed on active learning methods in Maths.

As I watched the enthusiastic teachers from the Derby diocesan schools skilfully lead the equally enthusiastic teachers from India I was really moved. We have all been on a wonderful journey together learning from each other and growing in great fondness.

As Jayshree, the 80 year old headteacher (yes really 80 years old!), said to me ‘I keep going because you keep coming back.’

So, we have to keep coming back!!!

Whilst the Maths training happened, Anita and I were taken to visit a new CRS project in an area called Brace Bridge.

The work here is based in a community which lives beside a railway track with trains coming along every 20 minutes during rush hour.

The deprivation here is shocking.

Brace Bridge

The community is comprised of 1000 families many of whom are Dalits and represent a range of faiths. The adults have occupations such as rickshaw drivers or street cleaners and some still carry out seasonal work as honey gatherers for which they need to travel back to the rural areas they originally came from.

We went to the school which is currently just a roof and poles holding it up and were greeted by a wild mob of children who were very pleased to see us.

We were so moved by the great need here as well as the inspirational work that CRS are doing in partnership with another Kolkata-based charity, Right Track, that we decided there and then that this will be where we return tomorrow with the filmmaker.

This film will be a great resource for all schools and churches back in the Diocese of Derby and Anita and I intend to write teacher resources to go with it not too long after we get back.


Wednesday 16 January 2019 | Building on success

Today was an early start for three of the us along with Rig David, who is the director of the Cathedral Relief Service (CRS) which has established the slum schools we are working in.

After a three-hour bumpy and noisy drive (Indian drivers use their car horns just to let people know they are there!), we had left the city of Kolkata and were in much greener and cleaner surroundings.

Coconut palms, paddy fields and fish pools along the road were a refreshing sight after the glorious chaos of the city.

The reason for this trip was to visit a rural CRS project. When we were here last year there was just the ground floor of a new building which was used as a school.

There were plans - but no money - for the next two floors – one to house a women's empowerment project and the third a health care centre.

During the last year through the combined efforts of St Peter’s Church in Derby city centre and Scargill Church of England Primary School, there are now enough funds to build the second floor.

The latter alone raised £7000 and Zoe, one of the teachers, was thrilled to see first hand what her school was helping to come about.

Some of the pupils danced and sang for us whilst the others sat in front of a massive pile of sand which was being added to by builders as we watched.

There were also 10,000 bricks piled around the place including the roof in readiness for the building work to start.

CRS project building works

It has to be completed by the end of March before the end of the financial year.

Whilst we were enjoying a greener setting the rest of the group were back working in their link schools, putting into practice the teaching and learning ideas they had shared yesterday at the teacher training day.

They then went shopping in the famous New Market where you have to be able to stand your ground with very pushy stall holders.

The day has finished off with a wonderful traditional Bengali dinner hosted by one of the Diocesan schools.

Ladies were able to try on saris and one in particular was thrilled to do so before cutting her birthday cake – a birthday to remember.

Trying on saris


Tuesday 15 January 2019 | Training... and singing!

I’m sitting in the foyer of the hotel (which is where the wifi is strongest) at the end of another brimming-over, full day.

It was the first of the two days of training we are running for the teachers from the slum schools. I only joined the training in the afternoon as I was visiting another school in the morning which might be a possible link for any other interested Church schools in the Diocese of Derby.

First day of training in Kolkata

So, when I walked in to the enthusiastic hubbub I knew it was going well. The Indian teachers are very keen to learn and were taking part fully in all the learning activities that the UK lot were sharing with them.

These activities had been planned over the last few months by the UK teachers and so it was particularly pleasing to see how well it was building on the training we had delivered last year.

The afternoon ended with some educational songs being taught by pupils from our schools in the Diocese of Derby to the Indian teachers. A recording of pupils from some of the DDBE schools had been copied onto CDs which each slum school will keep.

It has to be said that the Indian teachers love a good song and dance so we were onto a winner!

I am so proud of the group most of whom have never been to India before. They have really been thrown into the deep end.

We have had a few tummy upsets and nearly all of us are feeling very tired but the general cheerfulness and willingness to ‘go with the flow’ that India offers has been great to see.


Monday 14 January 2019 | Off to School!

kolkata18 20190114 school

Monday morning saw the group set off to visit their link schools full of anticipation if not a little apprehension too.

They came back buzzing with excitement - so much of what we shared last year has been put into practice in the schools! Wow!

The pupils in the slum schools are learning to read using phonics rather than having to learn by rote. Their teachers are also allowing them to learn in more active ways, which engages them and makes learning fun

We were thrilled to see the difference to when we first went to these school three years ago. Most of the schools are in the slum areas of Kolkata serving the poorest of the poor and so the education they receive at these informal schools is crucial at providing them with a chance of getting out of India's poverty trap.

Many of the children are also used as child labour or have mothers locked into prostitution.  

The teachers are often not trained and receive low wages but continue to work in the slum schools out of a deep sense of vocation to serve, so the training we provide is very encouraging for them.

Anita and I worked with a local film maker today.

Filming in Kolkata

We were able to interview an eleven-year-old girl from a Muslim area of Kolkata. We filmed her in school along with her mother who attends the women’s empowerment project, also held at the school.

Here, they learn sewing skills in order to earn money thus keeping them out of prostitution or from being trafficked.

We also went to their one-room house to film. A real eye-opener.

In fact just getting around Kolkata is an eye-opener with the seemingly chaotic traffic and street life. There is never a dull moment!

There's such a sensory overload that the group is exhausted at the end of the days.

And so am I - so I’m off to bed!


Sunday 13 January | Acclimatising...

We are a group of 35 visiting Kolkata, 27 of whom are connected with our Church schools and the rest are a mixture of education or health and social care students from Derby University along with two lecturers.

This is the fourth time that Rev’d Anita Matthews and myself have brought such a group here and we are delighted to see how the relationships and work we have done together have been strengthened in that time.

The aim of this visit is to form or develop school links between schools here in Kolkata and those in the Diocese of Derby.

We also aim to share ideas and resources with teachers who work in some of the slum schools here who are overseen by the Cathedral Relief Service (CRS).

This is largely done through teachers from Derby leading lessons in their link school and with a couple of training days later this week when all the CRS schools close for the day, releasing the teachers to attend.

More of that on another day as for now I want to briefly give you a flavour of what we’ve done since arriving in Kolkata yesterday morning.

After the long journey here the group was glad to settle into the hotel and freshen up. Then late afternoon we went to a stunning Jain temple which felt like an oasis of calm.

This was followed by a meal and bed.

Today is Sunday and our first full day here and we started by joining the congregation of St Paul’s Cathedral for morning worship.

As ever, the welcome was warm and Anita and I brought greetings from the Diocese of Derby and the Board of Education.

The rest of the day has been spent acclimatising to being here in Kolkata from getting our heads round wearing our summer clothes in January to having a presentation from CRS about all aspects of their work and sharing lunch with the CRS staff.

We have finished off the day with a trip on the Hoogly River seeing the ghats, old jute mills, temples and even Gangian dolphins.

Everyone is now either phoning home, sorting out teaching activities for tomorrow or having a well deserved early night as the next few days will be very full and demanding.

kolkata18 20190113 cruise


Friday 11 January | And we're off!...


Last modified on Friday, 01 February 2019 13:21

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