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Isidore Phillips is leading India's state governments to introduce workable child rights programs and thus convert private and government schools into child-friendly environments.

This profile below was prepared when Isidore Phillips was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Isidore Phillips is leading India's state governments to introduce workable child rights programs and thus convert private and government schools into child-friendly environments.


With physical and psychological violence common as disciplinary tools in India's educational institutions, it is not surprising that many children consider their school a decidedly unfriendly place. Isidore Phillip is beginning to change this reality by introducing workable models for integrating child rights into the very fabric of the government schools and school systems that most children attend. While sensitizing teachers, administrators, and principals is vital to stemming entrenched practices and attitudes, Isidore is going one step further–ensuring that the views of children are accepted and taken seriously in devising alternatives. Having convinced schools across the state of Andhra Pradesh to implement child rights charters, clubs, and even a toll-free helpline for school kids–all with real invisible participation from students–he is now persuading other state governments across India to follow suit.


"If you want to be a good teacher, then keep your class silent. You may have to hit a few students in the beginning. Do it. Soon you will have perfect control on the class." One will probably never find such a statement explicitly made in any teacher-training course, but in India such ideas remain implicitly part of education policy in many states. Although it is officially illegal, teachers regularly employ physical and psychological punishments–ranging from caning to discrimination based on caste or gender–within their classrooms. This kind of treatment is largely condoned by parents who believe such actions improve their children's discipline.

Insufficient understanding of child rights on the parts of teachers, school administrators, parents, and students contributes to the perpetuation of such hostile school environments. Teachers do not regularly receive child rights sensitization during their bachelor's or master's degree coursework, and the children themselves have no curriculum that instructs them on their rights. Even when the theoretical or conceptual understanding of child rights exists, the implementation of these ideas is often only ornamental or peripheral. For example, when child-rights clubs exist in schools, they are often treated as extracurricular activities with little or no power to participate in or change school policies that bear directly on the rights of the students. So while the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by India) legitimizes the voice of children in decisions affecting them, most Indian schools continue to provide few opportunities for student involvement in their administration.


Isidore has built his strategy for integrating child-rights initiatives into the very fabric of school management in three well-defined stages. First, he convinced a select number of private schools in the city of Hyderabad to adapt child-rights initiatives into their systems. Second, he lobbied the state of Andhra Pradesh to create a clear program to make government schools across the state adopt a comprehensive policy on child rights, resulting in the formation of child-rights clubs and committees in government schools. Third, now he is using this success to influence neighboring states in India to have their schools develop child-rights charters.

Although many child-rights initiatives exist in small experiments (Isidore himself successfully incorporated several into the school in which he was teaching), he knew that to bring about widespread change he would need to demonstrate the viability of such programs on a larger scale. To this end, he focused his initial efforts on the more flexible private schools in his home region of Hyderabad. In addition to convincing schools to introduce regular sensitization programs for principals, school administrators, and teachers, he also brought the essence of child rights–student participation–to the forefront. The schools adopted child-rights charters, prepared with students taking a leading role in developing their contents, and created child-rights clubs to ensure that students' voices are heard in decision-making.

With programs well anchored in 80 private schools, Isidore approached his main target–government schools. In India it is the state governments that have the resources, authority, and infrastructure to reach out to the majority of students; even private schools are under state supervision. While few organizations work with government schools, Isidore found that, contrary to accepted public opinion, they were willing partners. With government support, child-rights clubs and charters have been established in both urban and rural Andhra Pradesh; Hyderabad alone has over 104 districts with numerous rural schools that have already adopted the idea, with three more in the implementation process. As with the private schools, Isidore's aim is not simply to introduce child-rights charters or clubs but to make them part and parcel of the school system by having them empowered to address all issues of concern to the children. The network of child-rights clubs–each including a contact teacher, the headmaster/mistress of the school, and substantial student representation–is no mere extracurricular activity. The clubs have initiated a full-fledged complaint receiving-and-response system, a separate toll-free helpline for schoolchildren, and they are in the process of undertaking curriculum review and formulating recommendations on teacher-training systems that the state education commissioner has agreed to accept.
With the state government planing to adopt a comprehensive child-rights policy for all state schools, Isidore is now drawing on his success in Andhra Pradesh to replicate his approach across the country. To provide the teacher sensitization and support that will be crucial to this effort, Isidore is working to include child-rights coursework in teacher-education programs and as part of new teachers' in-service training. He is also lobbying neighboring state governments; Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are already beginning to adapt his model.


Raised in a large family of seven, as a child Isidore was given the freedom to befriend street kids, visit slums, and even attend workshops on communications and community development. These early experiences led him to take an active role in flood relief work in Bhadrachalam while in high school, during which he spent substantial amounts of time building houses and collecting and distributing essentials for flood victims.

Isidore's participation in the International Programme on Communication, a part of the Young Christian Students Movement, changed his outlook toward his until-then-piecemeal social welfare activities. Leaving a lucrative job in marketing, he received a degree in education and started working full-time with children. Feeling that children were not getting their proper due, Isidore began introducing initiatives at the school where he was teaching. In addition to training teachers on individual development, communications, creativity, and problem-solving, he also began a "student appraisal of teachers" program. Although the idea of involving students in critiquing their teachers initially met with resistance, it eventually transformed the student-teacher relationship into one of partnership and became a permanent fixture at the school. Building on this success, he began including students in need identification and in improving student facilities. He even helped them successfully lobby for an activity period.

While employed as a teacher, Isidore also worked with street and platform children in the slums of Hyderabad. To streamline his many projects, which included a rescue, rehabilitation, and parental reunification project for street children, an HIV/AIDS awareness program with an HIV helpline, and teacher training, Isidore and his friends founded the organization Divya Disha. Sensing that his initiatives could be replicated in other schools, in 1998 Divya Disha took up the campaign to incorporate child rights into all Indian schools.

Isidore credits the inspiration and philosophy for his many educational experiments to a statement made by one of his own teachers: that students learn on their own even when the teacher is absent. Currently, Isidore remains the head of Divya Disha and lives in Hyderabad with his wife and school-age daughter.