Technically everything from homeschools to SEN schools or special schools to adult education or underprivileged education NGOs any educational institution that is unlike the traditional school may be dubbed an alternative school. So rather than answering the question about what’s alternative school let us try and define what’s conventional school. Then we can discuss what is the purpose of alternative school.

What is Conventional School?

Also known as back to basics or traditional education, a conventional school is one that provides structure to education and learning. It has a set schedule – usually within an 8 hour day 5 days a week framework – and prescribed curricula ensconced in prescribed text interspersed with a number of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. While this may sound perfect, traditional schools inherently lay emphasis on textual learning. The reasons are many from a large student body and high student teacher ratio to lack of resources and time – but the bottom line is they cannot provide experiential learning experiences – and those that do provide it do so to a limited extent.

What is Alternative School?

Conventional or traditional schools are also called mainstream schools because a significant portion of the student body follows this system of education. It follows therefore that any school that is not a mainstream school is an alternative school. Alternative schools include schools for SEN (Special Educational Needs) underprivileged, adult learning classes, and Anganwadi – in short they include any form of education that is different from the convention.

Do you think home schooling can be dubbed as Alternative School?

Unlike mainstream or traditional schools which are predefined, prescribed, and somewhat rigidly structured, pedagogy in alternative schools is more learner centric taking into account the specific cognitive needs of the learner. For instance, an adult education centre – also a form of alternative school – will have a radically different pedagogy from that of a centre that caters to education of underprivileged children and the pedagogy in a special needs school will be very different from these two – adult and underprivileged – centres.

What is the purpose of alternative school?

The concept of alternative school emerged from the thought that not all types of learners can be accommodated in mainstream schools. From prodigy to slow learner or dyslexic, children with differential cognitive abilities are misfits in the conventional education system – often to the extent that they must withdraw and seek alternative solutions – ergo alternative schools. Bollywood movies Hichki, Super30, and Tare Zameen Par are classic examples.

The primary purpose of alternative schools is to address these different capabilities and needs. Alternative schools teach modified curricula customized to the needs of individual students. Grouping is on the basis of capability and learning styles rather than age so you might find a 15-year-old studying in the same class as a 12-year-old because they both learn in the same way and are at the same level of comprehension.

What’s different in alternative schools?

What do alternative schools offer that is different from traditional mainstream schools? As we said already, their pedagogy is different but other than that, alternative schools have a few other characteristic features –


Alternative schools allow various learning styles to exist together. The individuality of each child is recognized and understood. While children still learn in groups, the grouping is based on cognitive capabilities rather than age or prescribed structure. Learning outcomes are also based on cognitive improvement and personal development rather than a prescribed norm. Students are allowed to learn at their pace and of their own free will without pressure of performance.

Modified Curriculum

While alternative schools still choose prescribed text to use as a basis, the content is often modified to suit the needs of the learner. Many teachers also use diverse sources of information to update their students. Indeed students are encouraged to explore multiple resources for information.

Learning Focussed

Alternative schools inherently incorporate different learning styles because the focus is on absorption of knowledge rather than passing exams. Students are grouped based on their cognitive capabilities and promoted to higher levels on the same criteria. This removes the pressure of performance and students are able to focus on learning rather than performance.

Experiential Learning and Creativity

These are the hallmarks of alternative schools. Since the pedagogy is learner centric, the emphasis is on learning by doing rather than learning by rote. Educators use a variety of learning aids such as audio-visual books and flash cards so that they can discover their interests . It lays the foundation for children to become self-aware and responsible individuals who love what they do.

Lower Student Teacher Ratio

Another hallmark of alternative schools is the lesser number of students a teacher has to handle. Since students in alternative schools are grouped by capabilities rather than age, the groups are inherently – and to an extent intentionally – small. This allows teachers to provide personalized attention to all students within the group thus facilitating better learning.

Better Parent-Teacher Alignment

In traditional schools, the goals of the teacher and parent are often misaligned as both work towards different outcome. This is because of the lack of personal interaction between teachers and students on the one hand and teachers and parents on the other. As alternative schools have an inherently low student teacher ratio, teachers are better able to understand the individual capabilities of students and discuss learning outcome with their parents. Not only does this bode well for the child it also fosters a sense of community living in children.

Focussed Learning and Better Retention

Alternative schools by their very nature allow students to focus on their strengths and learn the subjects they love. Since learning is voluntary and self-paced learners have a better grasp on concepts. They gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and hence are better able to retain their knowledge. Such in-depth knowledge gives them confidence in their field of study and makes them stronger individuals.

Emotional Stability

Alternative schools focus on holistic development rather than academic progress. Such schools operate on the principle of less is more. The pedagogy therefore includes monitoring the cognitive and emotional development of the students along with their academic progress. Instilling values like responsibility, honesty, open-minded thinking, scientific and logical deduction, empathy and so on are as much a part of the curriculum and pedagogy as textual learning.

In short, students in alternative schools are able to carve their own path without fear of living up to the expectations of their parents, teachers, peers, or society.

Are Alternative Schools Special Schools?

Although in India the terms have been used synonymously, alternative schools are not necessarily special schools. An alternative school is any institution that offers an alternative to the traditional model of education. Yes special schools do come under the purview of Alternative education but there are many other institutions that offer something different from the norm.

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