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Pointing the Way


A colleague of mine one day, quite out of the blue, died his lovely salt and pepper hair black. He walked into the office amid gasps of shock and incredulity, looked at us and shrugged – “school admissions” he declared candidly. No sooner had he said these two dreaded words that the group instantly went “right!” nodding in complete empathy. It was a small change but was reflective of the enormous stress that precedes school admissions every year.

If you are the parent of a three year old and you live in Delhi, chances are you probably won’t sleep too well at night, and it’s got nothing to do with your child’s erratic sleeping pattern. The reason is simple – school admissions are a nightmare in this city.

Every September there is much gnashing of teeth when parents agonize over the best private schools and declare that failure to get admission in the right one would prove to be a setback from which their child may never recover; after all the right pre-school will lead to the right school which will ensure the best university and so forth. These private schools are attended by children of the growing middle and upper-middle classes. There are, of course, government schools, but that is not an option if you want a “good” education for your child. It’s just like the schools race anywhere else. Only, as with much of India, there is to much of one thing – usually people – and not enough of the other – the things they want or need.

My siblings and I grew up much like a lot of my friends, with a mother cracking the whip to make us study hard. We were constantly reminded that to succeed in this over-populated country you must be “different from others in the rat race”, something that could only be achieved by studying hard and getting into the few good institutions for which everyone was vying. Twenty years later things have gotten worse, as the population has grown but the number of good schools hasn’t.

When I was a student there were not so many “elitist” schools as there are today. The middle class couldn’t afford expensive education for their children, so the few such schools that did exist didn’t get overwhelmed with admission requests. Today, two things have happened. One, the moneyed upper class has grown. Two, and more importantly, the lower-middle and middle-middle classes too are reaping the benefits of a booming Indian economy and can now afford better education for their children. They are under pressure to break away from the caste system and see better education for their children as one way of doing that. These two factors have led to an enormous pressure on the good schools who’ve devised their own nebulous methods of elimination, as they sometimes receive ten applications for each opening.

And everyone knows it, adding to the pressure on parents and children. At my daughter’s first birthday recently most of my friends gave her learning books of all sorts – from those that teach shapes and colors to the ones that apparently hone motor skills. It was time, I was told by well meaning friends to start teaching her all of this, since in about two years (not a lot of time apparently) she would be required to know much more for her nursery school admissions! She should, for instance, know the difference between pink and peach, know what a baby kangaroo is called, know answers to questions like “why does it rain?” and she should, of course, demonstrate bright signs of analytical thinking – all this if she is to get into a good school at three plus. (she was even given a baby Leap Pad at six months which is supposed to have developed her comprehension skills.) The race, for her, has already begun.

Until recently the rigorous admission procedure for kindergarten kids in the coveted schools included many interviews, both of the children and the parents. In some cases the parents (who had first been put in different rooms and grilled) were made to write essays and take tests and the child was subjected to rigorous quizzing sessions as well. Some schools are even said to have unwritten rules that serve as a filter – a working mother, for instance, is a big negative. It was also common to ask the parents where they worked and lived, information that helped clarify the family’s social status. By this measure, getting a green card out of U.S. Immigrations seems easier. Of course, many parents claimed that the whole process was something of a whitewash, anyway, since the schools wanted to maintain a basic social standard and always admitted children of influential people.

Responding to the hue and cry created by many parents, the Indian government decided to do something. Since last year there’s been a high court order banning schools from interviewing children and parents for nursery admissions. The court disapproved of the process saying it puts unnecessary stress on small children.

What has now been offered as a solution is a point-system which, unfortunately, has not done much for most harassed (and not-so-wealthy) parents and, itself, has led to a furious debate about it being unfair, divisive and designed to favor the rich. To put it briefly the points are granted out of a hundred: 20 points if you live in the area – children living in better localities (which mostly have good schools) would attend a better school (not fair); 20 points if you have a sibling in the school; 20 points if parents are educated (again not fair) and so on. Of course, 20 points are doled out at the schools discretion, which some say defeats the purpose of the whole “transparent” point system in the first place.

So, in short, if you are not rich enough to afford housing in a good locality and are not well-educated, then you’ve diminished your child’s chances of getting into a good school. The points system is not the answer. It threatens to further split an already divided society. India cannot afford that. As in the U.S. having more good schools is really the answer.

Share  Posted by Gopika Kaul at 12:54 PM | Permalink

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