Outspoken head who rescued notorious school now brandishing rod at education chiefs

Former students of school principal V Chakaravathy remember him as the man who turned things around with his no-nonsense approach to discipline.

KUALA LUMPUR: School principal V Chakaravathy had ways of dealing with delinquent students.

The dedicated new headmaster needed every strategy he could devise as he set about the challenging task of rescuing Setapak High School.

He famously turned it from a notoriously underachieving, gang-riddled disaster into one of the top performing schools in KL.

Shanti Bala, a new girl in 1982, arriving at Setapak High to start lower sixth form, was witness to Chakaravathy’s first steps.

She told FMT how at her first morning assembly, she was shocked to see boys being caned in front of the whole school.

The punishments were being administered to those boys who had been taking part in gang fights after school or bullying younger boys into joining their violent crews.

Chakaravathy was cracking down hard on gang activities. And it was beginning to work.

Shanti, now in her fifties, recalled that after about six months, fewer canings were necessary and boys linked to gangs started doing better in class and scoring higher on tests.

The Setapak High School, where Chakaravathy was the headmaster from 1981 to 1988.

“He was a very strict, no nonsense type. He would always make time to give extra help to weaker students,” she said. “But he never tolerated discipline problems from students in or out of school.”

As an example, Shanti said many boys were unruly and fought for seats on town buses to and from school. The daily ruckus scared the girls and made them arrive home late.

Chakaravathy hatched a plan. He spoke to the bus drivers, telling them to stop right in front of the school gates in future. He then lined the boys and girls up so that when the bus arrived there was an orderly queue of well-behaved students ready to board.

The doughty principal also insisted on orderly lines inside the school so that eventually the troublemakers got the idea and lined up automatically. The girls no longer arrived home late.

Shanti said students loved to learn from Chakaravathy as he always knew his stuff.

“He never used notes or textbooks in class. He would just come in and teach off the cuff. His students really admired him for his teaching skills and knowledge.”

There was a fun side to the fearsome principal too. Shanti recalled how he would allow prefects to occasionally camp overnight in school.

“But we had to be asleep by 10.30pm,” said the ex-prefect. Chakaravathy would drop by to check they were safe.

“He was very strict but we could relate to him,” she said.

“On Valentine’s Day, we would buy a cake and share it with him to show our appreciation for making us better students.”

Chakaravathy, now 79, was at Setapak High School from 1981 to 1988.

The outspoken ex-head may now be retired but he is still passionate about teaching and occasionally chastises those in authority he regards as being responsible for the decline in teaching standards and for cluttering the curriculum with irrelevant subjects.

He was recently in the audience at a Malaysian education forum in Subang Jaya, and was filmed taking to the floor, wagging his finger at Education Minister Maszlee Malik, thundering that the primary school curriculum needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up. Sentiments that earned him appreciative applause from the audience.

Chakaravathy vents out his frustration of the education system to Education Minister Maszlee Malik during a forum last week.

He told FMT that there has been a decline in the quality of teaching since the early 90s and this has been detrimental for all students.

Shanti, now a teacher herself, agrees. She said she is shocked by the ignorance of many younger teachers.

Once, when teaching the 24-hour clock system, in common use in many sectors of society such as the medical profession and the army, it came as a surprise to her to discover that many young teachers had little or no idea about it.

Equally surprising, she found that many new teachers are shockingly ignorant of history, even events that directly relate to Malaysia.

“For instance, they are not aware of what happened in Europe to cause the Portuguese and the Dutch to compete for trade in Asia.

“How are children supposed to learn if their teachers are not up to the job of teaching them?”

She recalled when she was at school back in the 70s and 80s, teachers were a lot more knowledgeable and knew their subjects like the back of their hands.

“Teachers were dedicated then,” she said. “Now they are just putting in the time and watching the clock.”

If Chakaravathy could be lured out of retirement, perhaps this time around rather than quelling disorderly students he could use his talents to inspire and motivate the new generation of teachers.

It’s a challenge he would undoubtedly relish.