Roots of the RIESI by RIE SI

The year is 1959. A momentous decision is taken by the Education Department of the Government of Madras to start the teaching of English in Std. V instead of in Std. VI. Seemingly quite simple. But it carried difficult implications. Std. VI was part of middle schools (Std. VI – VIII) and high schools (Std. VI – XI). Together these comprised a fraction of the vast number of elementary schools of which Std. V was the top class. Since Independence the sound of English had not been heard in these schools. And now English was to be taught in them!

The first step, of course, was to formulate a syllabus. This was easy enough; and made easier still for the Department since Dr. Jean Forester of St. Christopher’s Training College, Madras and already produced one. Those were the days when the structural syllabus was the last thing in English Language Teaching (ELT). Dr. Forester’s was perhaps the first structural syllabus produced in the country. In the tradition of educational reform, syllabus-making, the first step, was also the last! Print the syllabus, send off copies to the schools and tell the teachers to teach it, and all will be fine. That a syllabus cannot teach itself is a truism. But it is truisms that miss the eyes of the people who matter. Madras, however was fortunate. There was at least one person who realized that it was not enough to stick a syllabus in the hands of the 5th Std. teacher and tell him to teach it. Fortunately again that person was the one who mattered most: the Minister of Education, Mr. C. Subramaniam.

He decided that it was of the utmost importance to train all the V Std. teachers in the latest methods of teaching English. Where could he turn for help expect to the British Council? Discussions followed between the Minister and Mr. Stanley Best, the Council’s Regional Representative. It just happened that at that precise moment the Council was in a position to undertake the stupendous task of training some 25,000(?) teachers. The Council’s Education Officer, Mr. Lionel Billows, had for several years been teaching at the Teacher’s College, Saidapet. He had, besides, visited quite a number of High Schools in the state and knew many good English teachers by name. Between them, Best and Billows hammered out an ingenious programme of mass teacher training which they christened the Madras English Language Teaching (MELT) Campaign. It was a four-tier scheme. At the top was a British Council team lead by Mr. Billows. The second line consisted of a small group of Staff Tutors selected from among a large number of teachers known for their ability and skill in teaching English. These were put through a course of training in the latest techniques of teaching English. The piece de resistance of the course was a series of demonstrations of the teaching techniques with children drawn from neighbouring schools.

The demonstrator-in-chief was Mr. Lionel Billows, an inspired and inspiring teacher. True to his name he had a leonine head of hair, a rich moustache and a well set up athletic figure. At first sight you were likely to take him for a Prussian Army Sergeant – Major. But wait. Here comes a class of young children trooping in. A friendly “Good Morning” from Billows. Stony silence from the children. Billows repeats the greeting several times with an encouraging look and gesture. And lo! The children return the greeting. The ice is broken and in a few minutes the children are chirping up English words and simple sentences. When the campaign got under way there were many mini-Billowses all over the State demonstrating in front of the teacher-trainees. The impact of these demonstrations was immense. Sitting in on one of the secondary coursers in Madras City I recall vividly one of the trainees exclaiming involuntarily, “Ah, now I know how to teach English without using the mother tongue.”

The first and main training centre was established Pallavaram, just beyond Madras Airport. Later regional centers were opened at Coimbatore, Trichy and Virudhunagar. At these training centers teams of Staff Tutors ran intensive three-week ‘Primary Courses’ for graduate teachers. The most promising among these were chosen and formed into teams of three each to run ‘Secondary Courses’. To begin with, these were part-time courses which the target (V Std.) teachers attend two evenings a week for twenty weeks. At the end of this training they were considered, and in fact most of them were, competent to teach the first year English syllabus to Vth Std. children. The organization and supervision of the secondary courses was entirely in the hands of Mr. Horsburgh assisted by selected staff tutors designated Junior Officers.

Word of what was happening in Madras went round to the other southern states. The first one to get interested was Kerala. And strangely enough the person most keen to know more about it was the then Vice-Chancellor of Kerala University, Dr. K. C. K. E. Raja. He visited Pallavaram to see for himself. He sat in on a class taught by Miss. Audrey Stringer, one of the British Council team, and unsurprisingly, fell for her. Persuaded by his earnestness and enthusiasm the Council sent Miss. Stringer to Kerala to start an Institute of English under the auspices of the Kerala University. Kerala’s interest did not stop with this. The state government was keen to have its primary school teachers trained as was being done in Madras. And soon enough the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka caught the itch too.

Each of them approached the Council hopefully with the same request. Would it please do for them what it was doing for Madras. The answer was very different from what they wanted or expected. Led by Mr. Henry Croom – Johnson (Representative, India) in Delhi the Council pleaded inability; it just could not produce enough eggs for four different baskets. No need to despair, though. It put forward an alternative. If the four southern states would join together and set up a common training institute the Council would be happy to help with enough experts of their own. These, together with trained Indian staff, could run courses (the equivalent of the primary courses in the MELT campaign but longer and richer in content) for graduate teachers deputed by the respective states. After training they would go back and the best among them, judged by the grade they made at the Institute, would form teams to train the target teachers of the Primary schools.

After several rounds of discussion between the Council on the one side and the four Secretaries and the four Directors of Education of the states on the other, the Council’s proposal of a Regional Institute was agreed. The Council’s suggestion that the Institute be located in Bangalore was welcomed with enthusiasm by all the states. This was very good going indeed. But the best was yet to come. And that was the decision that the Institute would be autonomous – The Regional Institute of English, South India Society, registered under the Registered Society Act of Mysore. Had the Institute been placed under the control of Government Department of any of the States there would assuredly have been one more case of infantile mortality. A draft constitution of the Society was produced by Prof. V. K. Gokak, the first Director of the Central Institute of English, Hyderabad who had earlier participated in the discussions leading to the establishment of the RIE. It was approved at a final meeting held in Bangalore, chaired by the Secretary of Education, Mysore, Mr. Varma, who later became the first Chairman of the Board of Governors. The initial salary scales of the Director and teaching staff were also agreed at this meeting.

The Council now moved at jet speed. Mr. Richard Auty, Regional Representative in Madras, set the serviceable Mr. Govindaswamy (Council Librarian in Bangalore) scouting for accommodation for the Institute and housing for Council staff. A few buildings were soon lined up for the Institute. The final choice feel on 6A Cunningham Road, owned by Lady Thamboochetty, who herself was living at 6B next door. The Lady was reluctant. So Mr. Govindaswamy set Mr. Auty himself at her. Mr. Auty released all his charm – and he had plenty of it – and talked the Lady into submission. She complained to me later, when we were haggling over her demand for a rise in the rent, that she had been completely overcome by “the charming talk of that man from the British Council” otherwise she would not have agreed to hire her building to house a training school. Mr. Auty was determined not to give her time for second thoughts. He sent her a cheque of Rs. 5,000/- as advance of rent without any authorization from Delhi. When he sought it post facto, Mr. Croom-Johnson cabled back: “thoroughly irregular and completely approved”.

The Council staff of the campaign – Mr. Smith, Dr. Wright and Mr. Horsburgh – lost no time in moving to Bangalore, especially as it was midsummer in madras, not the best time of the year even for Madrasis. The Smiths, for the time being, occupied a couple of rooms in the Institute building while a court battle was going for No. 3, almost across the road from 6A, with a Punjabi heavyweight competitor. In the even the Institute won the battle and the Smiths moved into No. 3, a spacious house with even more spacious grounds, quite in keeping with the status of the Director of Studies, which was Mr. Smith’s official position.

But I am being un-chronological.

The first thing to do after accommodation had been secured for the Institute was to make appointments to the posts of Director and teaching staff – lecturers in the first instance. The procedure adopted was unusual. Instead of advertising the posts the four Governments concerned and the British Council were to put forward names they considered suitable. These were interviewed in June 1963 by a selection committee chaired by the Chairman of the Institute’s Governing Body.

I was the lucky one for the Director’s post, largely, I suppose, on the strength of my experience as Co-Director with Mr. Smith, of the Madras Campaign. I was relieved from the Education Department, Madras on the afternoon of 30th June 1963. The following morning, 1st July 1963, found me sitting in the Director’s chair at the RIE.

Not surprisingly some of the lecturers too came out of the campaign: Mrs. Lilavathi and Mr. Gururaj at the initial selection, joined a little later by Mr. Venkatakrishnan and Mr. Sam  Durairaj on their return from training at London University. The later was a member of the British Council staff on secondment to the Institute. Mysore contributed a lecturer, Mr. Kalaseray. So did Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Sriramamurthy. The teaching staff was further reinforced after two months or so by the appointment of three professors, Mr. Sundreraraj, Mr. Victor Devasundaram and Mr. Bhaskaran, who had just arrived back after training at the University of Leeds. All of them had been in the campaign and had been deputed to UK on British Council Travel and Teaching grants.

Now that all the staff were in position, work started apace on designing the training programme and preparing the teaching materials. Simultaneously the staff began their daily stint of teaching at the Shivajinagar Corporation School.

There still remained one important requirement to be fulfilled before the programme could get under way: a hostel for the trainees. Here too the Institute was in luck. Separated from the Institute premises only by a compound wall and –most fortunately – owned by Lady Thamboochetty, there was a large shed hired by a company and used as a godown. By a timely co-incidence the company moved out. It was taken over and rigged up to provide dormitory accommodation and food for about eighty trainees.

From the four states the trainees arrived on 6th October, 1963 and the first RIE course started on 7th October 1963, true to the campaign tradition, without any ceremonial inauguration.



Founder & Director

Regional Institute of English, South India

Jnanabharathi Campus, Bengaluru - 560 056


Courtesy: Prespectives on English Langauge Teaching by J. M. Ure and S. Velayudhan