Pink-cheeked, top-hatted schoolboys walking across vast playing fields surrounded by medieval stone buildings: surely that’s what Eton Hall is all about? Wrong. Eton Hall is a concrete suburban bungalow with a couple of swings rooted in the dusty earth along its frontage. The pupils are definitely not pink and they do not wear top hats. At least, not in Eton Hall, Lahore.
Eton Hall is just one of the thousands of private schools to have sprung up in this city of four million over the past 15 years to fill the yawning gap between the collapsing state education sector and the inaccessibly elitist, colonial-style private schools.
Pitched largely at families with new wealth earned by migrant workers in the Gulf, and in more recent years illicitly through corruption, the private schools wage a cut-throat battle for customers — and profit. As with all commercial products, image is everything, and the names of many schools read like an audit of social aspirations in today’s Pakistan.
The yearning to be admitted into the elite is reflected in names which hark back to colonial times: there’s an Oxford Public School and a Cambridge Public School (although no annual boat race). In fact, anything goes, however irrelevant to the local environment, as long as it sounds English: Kimberly Hall School, Comprehensive Aims School System, Balsam House, Regent Grammar School (whose newspaper ad promised “Foreign Staff, English Medium, and Quranic and Islamic Studies”). Legend Hall School (housed not in a castle but in a circa 1980s bungalow) promises hoards of young King Arthurs and Queen Guineveres charging out after hours on their trusty steeds. The name of Bloomfield Hall, one of the more expensive of the private schools and whose English principal is a refugee from Britain’s state school system, was reportedly decided on by the owners as they were passing a block of council flats in down-market Walthamstow in London.
In case the Americans should feel left out, there are the Disneyland School (“admission in Senior Classes only on merit basis”) and the Snow White Montessori. The French, too, have not been forgotten, with Les Anges Montessori — even if no one has a clue what the school’s name actually means. And finally, for true internationalists, there’s the International School System (which opened with a single building for play-group through Class VII and a promise of “Instruction Based On Latest Educational Research; Air Conditioned Class Rooms”). Occasionally, colonial aspirations are moderated by a sudden recollection of national pride, giving us the Sir Syed Cambridge School, named after the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Intellectual aspirations are reflected in the outrageously expensive Kids Kampus, the middle-class professionals’ Toddlers Academy and the decidedly down-market Tiny Tots Academy, all nursery schools producing PhDs of an average age of 6. The Nobel Grammar will obviously boost Pakistan’s number of prize- winners up from the current total of one, while Scholars’ Inn Cadet School & College offers the prospect of some very bright, militaristic but drunken children.
The oldest and most successful private school, Beaconhouse, which was established by the Kasuri industrialist family and which largely caters to middle-class professionals, has spawned its own set of lower income copycats. From the names one would believe that education in Pakistan has a bright future: The Gleaming Way, Lighthouse Hall, Beaconsfield House, Gleaming House.
Finally, there’s the category of too cute for words: Little Angels, Pixie Land, Little Darlings, again all nursery schools for children of over-optimistic parents. The most recent nursery school to pop up in the city is Mushrooms —perhaps a name that most appropriately captures the spirit in which new schools come up.