Football season, a mountaineering expedition, a cricket tournament, an inter-school debate competition – these are some of the events which have been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, one of Asia’s oldest boarding schools for boys.
Though students are attending regular virtual classes from home, they are missing out on a number of sports and other activities, apart from the experience of community-living in the residential school, said Simon David Weale [MA Oxon] the school’s director.
“We’re eager for the campus to fill up with students again. They are attending 44 hours of virtual classes every week, and our teachers have improvised well and come up with innovative, teaching methods. But students are not obliged to attend all these classes as too much screen time could be unhealthy. Besides, the essence of holistic education provided here is the residential environment. That’s why even local students from Shimla live inside the campus,” said Weale.
A typical day at school begins at 6 in the morning and lasts till 10 at night, during which boarders are engaged in physical training, classes, organised games, prep and co-curricular activities such as public speaking, art and drama.
In summer, the school also organises outward-bound activities such as treks and adventure sports, and a month-long mountaineering training course for the outgoing batch, which have all been delayed this year. “The mountaineering course is usually followed by an expedition, and so far, there have been seven successful expeditions to Himalayan peaks above the altitude of 20,000 feet. For those who have missed the course this year, we are planning to rearrange it for them next year,” said Weale.
The school has a strength of about 450 students and 160 staff members. Though a majority of the students are from Himachal and neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, there are students from all corners of the country, including Mizoram and Odisha, and some foreign students as well.
When the state government ordered closure of schools on March 14, around 70 per cent of the students left for their homes. Those appearing for their board examinations stayed back but left soon after the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CICSE) canceled the exams. Three boys from Thailand stayed back till as late as May but left as restoration of normalcy seemed distant.
Not the first disruption in school’s history
For many institutions, the pandemic crisis is unprecedented, but BCS has survived several such disruptions since it first opened for students in March 1863. On a Sunday in May 1905, when the boys were away for an outing, most of the school was destroyed in a fire. The students were shifted to other lodgings in town, and the school was rebuilt and occupied two years later in July 1907.
An outbreak of influenza in 1922 also affected the school, and the then headmaster FR Gillespy’s wife died while treating the children, said Weale.
After partition and independence, an exodus of Muslim, British and European boys led to the closure of the prep school in Chhota Shimla.
“We have also heard of some other disease outbreaks such as that of yellow fever during the school’s long history. And there was no internet back then to impart distance learning to the students, as is happening now,” said the director.
BCS was founded as the first ‘public school’ in India (along the lines of the British ‘public school’ system, which incorporates a house system, a prefectorial body and a system of organised games) by George Edward Lynch Cotton, the then Bishop of Calcutta, in July 1859. First established at Jutogh, it opened for students in March 1863 with Frederick Naylor as the first student. The school moved to its present site at the south end of the Knollswood Spur in September 1868. Suren Tagore was the first Indian boy admitted to the school in 1881.
BCS has a long list of distinguished alumni such as writer Ruskin Bond, six-time Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh and Major Roy Farran (Curzon), a decorated officer in the British Army. The school also has an infamous alumnus, Reginald Dyer, a British general remembered for his role in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. The motto of the school is: “Overcome Evil with Good”.
I am writing to introduce myself as the new Director of Bishop Cotton School.
As you may be aware my title is to be Director rather than Headmaster. The Board of Governors of Bishop Cotton School feels this title more accurately reflects the multi-faceted nature of modern school leadership. I am responsible to the Board of Governors for ensuring that every aspect of the leadership and management of the school is of the highest class.
I was brought up in London where my father was a university lecturer in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London. I studied Modern History at Oxford University where I was a contemporary of UK Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and David Cameron as well as Mr Rajdeep Sardesai (who was in the same cricket team as me). I began my teaching career at the Judd School, one of the finest government schools in the UK. I am married with three children. My wife Rebecca will be overseeing admissions at the school, our youngest daughter (aged eight) has come with us to India. We have two other children. Our oldest daughter is a corporate lawyer and our son is studying History at the University of Warwick in England.
In my thirty-year teaching career, I have worked in several of the top independent schools in the UK and I have significant experience of raising academic standards within those schools and helping students to achieve places in world class universities both in the UK and abroad. Those schools all had extensive numbers of international students and they underlined to me how similar young people are and how connected they are with their peers around the world. The Board of Governors of Bishop Cotton School are determined that we build upon its distinguished reputation as one of the finest schools in India. We must maintain our incredible track record of producing young men who will make a difference to both India and the rest of the world. Under my leadership our ambition for the boys will be evident and we will offer them a range of experiences to help them become productive and successful global citizens.
I am a passionate believer in the holistic and values driven education upon which Bishop Cotton School is built. As well as each boy’s academic progress it is essential that they are tested on the sports field, that they have the chance to be creative and that we provide for their spiritual development. Character is built outside of the classroom as well as inside. It is proven that students who have strong core values study more effectively and contribute more to the world around them. The Bishop Cotton School boarding community allows each individual to develop into confident and resilient young men. The Christian tradition of the school encourages students to be ever mindful of others especially those less fortunate.
After six years of Headship within the UK at Shebbear College, I am extremely excited at the opportunity of working in modern vibrant India – the largest democracy in the world. I look forward to bringing my skills to bear upon the task ahead and also to learn from the expertise that exists within the school already. One area I am particularly keen to develop is how we prepare our students for university. We will review our offer so students do not feel they need to leave for ‘coaching’ and we will improve the quality of spoken English so that it is of ‘undergraduate standard’.
A change in school leadership is always unsettling and I am indebted to the support and handover I have received from my predecessor Mr Robinson (and Mrs Robinson) who has been such a tremendous and effective servant of the school. As such when the boys return to school it will be ‘business as usual’ The rest of the school community has given us a very warm welcome and of course we have already met many distinguished OCAs in Delhi and Chandigarh. Mrs Weale and I are already living in Shimla and look forward to the OCA lunch in Delhi on 9th February. We welcome your ideas as we plan for the future and will write to you with a simple questionnaire about what we might do to develop the school. Most of all we look forward to sharing another tremendous chapter in the history of this great school with you.