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The right to a 'good' school

May 17, 2006

Scarier than a performance appraisal.
More stressful than a root canal.
It's absurd, it's insane…
It's your four-year-old's nursery school interview...

But what to do? Mere bachche ka (My child's) admission is every urban parent's fondest dream and festering nightmare. Seats are few, kids too many. So schools do what they have to. And parents, what they deem fit. Like sending your toddler to the right Montessori, so she can tell the difference between 'herbivore' and 'carnivore' in the interview.

Actually, it's the parents who need the coaching. Because, clearly, they're the ones really being 'interviewed'.

So what's new? Why even write about a problem that seems to endemic and intractable... Like policemen taking hafta. Like electricity gul in summer. Like Himesh Reshammiya on every radio station.

What's new is the ban by the Delhi High Court on nursery interviews. But even as parents sigh in relief, bigger questions arise. How is a school with 500 seats to deal with 3,000 applicants?

Ashok Agarwal, the counsel who fought this landmark case, believes banning interviews is just one of the many system corrections required. The next step is the concept of neighbourhood schools. Meaning, a school admits children residing within a three kilometre radius only.

Such a school would take in, by draw of lots, a far wider spectrum of children. Not just people who drive the same cars as us, but the kids of drivers.

It's not that radical an idea -- I attended exactly that kind of school.

The mixed bag

Today, south Mumbai parents will literally sell their souls to get their child into a school like Campion, Cathedral, J B Petit, St Mary's or Bombay International.  

I too grew up in south Mumbai, but attended an 'ordinary' school. Because it was a good school, and the one most conveniently located.

The definition of 'good' -- for my parents -- was a sense of discipline, good teachers, good results. St Joseph's High School, Colaba, had all of that. And something more. St Joseph's had a mixed bunch of students.

There were children of naval officers and children from servant's quarters. A busload of scientists' kids and a busload from chi chi Cuffe Parade. From rich to middle class to poor -- we had children from across the social spectrum. And that's just the way it was. No one felt awkward about it.

Twenty years to the day I passed out of school, I reconnected with a guy from my class. This chap has really fond memories of his schooldays -- I don't. He was one of the cool kids, I was the nerd with thick glasses.

Faizal gets pretty emotional when he speaks of St Joseph's. Yet, he is not sending his two daughters to his alma mater. "It's not the same anymore," he says sadly.

The definition of 'good' has changed. Brand names matter. Even the Board your kid's school is affiliated to is a concern. ICSE is in demand, so schools are bowing out of the State Board. St Joseph's gets government funding and, hence, valiantly struggles on.

St Joseph's still wishes to cater to the poor and underprivileged. But doing so without the presence of children from the educated and upper class puts the school at a disadvantage. St Joseph's cannot attract the same calibre of teachers -- after all, teachers too care about brand names! 

The parent as consumer

The paradigm shift in the parent's thinking is the idea that education too is a consumer product. I am no exception.

The first school I selected for my daughter was a neighbourhood school. It is not the 'best' school in the area; it was chosen because of its proximity to the crèche my daughter attended. And because she was eligible despite being born in August.

When I first visited XXX high school in Vashi, the clean and airy building impressed me. There was a very short and friendly admission interview. My daughter was accepted.

But, over a period of time, several things about the school started bothering me. In theory, I had no problem with a school that admitted students from a cross-section of society. In practice, I found there was a compromise in that amorphous but all-important variable known as 'standards'.

The nursery class had 60 plus students. What's more, there were two shifts in a day, so teachers were clearly over worked. 'Miss' snapped and scolded rather too often. And she spoke English with a thick Malayali accent. 

The following year, we yanked Nivedita out of XXX high school and put her in another school.

This school is eight kilometres away (though only a 15 minute bus ride). It is affiliated to the CBSE board and boasts of really amazing results. Plus, the kids are mainly from 'professional' and middle class families. To be honest, I do feel more comfortable in a school with more 'People Like Us'.                    

I tried the neighbourhood approach -- it failed me. Perhaps because I, as an educated, aware and exposed parent, expected more from the school than the majority who seemed happy enough to be sending their kids to a 'convent'.

I could have stuck it out and my child would probably not be any worse for the wear. The new school does not fulfill all my expectations either (43 students in a class is still way too many). But I feel like I 'did something', that I did the best I could for my child.

It's this kind of thinking that has created the ghettos. Schools for the haves and schools for the have-nots. And now, schools for those who have more than most. The IB (International Baccalaureate) school. 

Everyone wants a headstart

In theory, my child will blossom because she is a rosebud and that is her destiny. But, as a parent, I worry about whether she is getting enough sunshine, water and fresh air. The question is, is the soil in certain schools more fertile? Are the gardeners in these schools more skillful, more sensitive?

The answer is -- I don't know. The teaching methods, the facilities, the more one-on-one approach in the IB schools surely has its benefits. But, there's a downside, depending on which philosophy of life you espouse.

As author Po Bronson writes, 'There are two schools of thought over what role a family plays in preparing a child for the world... Rousseau believed that early humans' experience was idyllic before it became corrupted by modern stresses. Hobbes believed that early humans' experience was nasty, brutish and short…

'A family adhering to the Rousseau philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by creating a safe haven from judgement and antagonism. A family adhering to the Hobbes philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by being a representative microcosm of what is to come...

'You can expose your children to too much,' concludes Bronson. 'But you can also shield them too much.'

 The same applies to schooling. Children who attend carefully selected schools with air-conditioned classrooms where learning is always a pleasure and teachers only kind and understanding, may be under-prepared for the real world.   

The case for diversity

But that's just a point of view. What's more important, in my opinion, is the effort all schools must make to become more inclusive. Whether they are IB or ICSE, CBSE or SSC, all schools must take in a percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The burden of their fees can be cross-subsidised by those who can afford to pay. Education 'cess' is all well and good. But charity can and must begin in our children's schools.

A step in this direction was taken in an April 2004 judgement in the Supreme Court (case: Modern School vs Govt of India and others). The court ruled that all recognised unaided private schools in Delhi, which had availed of land at concessional rates, must admit 25 % of their total intake of students from the economically weaker sections.

A significant verdict in light of the fact that 1,200 of the 1,500 'private unaided schools' in Delhi had, in fact, availed of such concessions. 

However, both schools and parents cried foul. The list of 'problems' cited by school managements in implementing the order are many -- the switch from the Hindi medium to English, the question of who will bear the expenses (even if we waive tuition fees), lack of a conducive home environment and parental support.

All this is true, but these are problems which can be tackled.

'Moreover, children are very sensitive and dealing with the psychological stress of being in the same class with other, financially better-off students can be very difficult,' said S L Jain, principal, Mahavir Senior Model School, in an interview to India Together.

But is that really the case? A study titled 'Poor' Children in 'Rich' Schools looked into the implementation of the 20% freeships to economically marginalised children in private, unaided schools in East Delhi. The study, published by the Institute of Social Studies Trust in October 2005, also documents the difficulties and challenges faced by the Trust while assisting Below Poverty Line families in getting their kids admitted to such schools.

The study concluded that the children themselves did not have trouble adjusting to the new socio-cultural environment. Says Amita Joshi, a field officer with ISST, 'The slum children are accepted by their peers. It is the teachers and the principals who segregate and discriminate.'

The study notes: 'ISST personnel had to make repeated visits to schools in the neighbourhood (with parents not even being allowed to enter school premises) to request the school authorities to admit children belonging to BPL familes… What was particularly shocking was the prejudiced mindset of school principals towards children of slum dwellers.'

One principal went so as far as stating that slum children are 'criminals' and 'use abusive language'.

ISST has succeeded in securing admissions for 50 children, using weapons such as the Right to Information Act. Two years after the Supreme Court verdict, ISST estimates less than 10% of the seats in private unaided schools have been filled by economically weaker sections of society. 

The study finds these lucky few are grateful to be in a school where 'teacher dande se nahin maarti (teachers don't hit with a stick)' and toilets are clean. 'Jahan teacher gaaliyan nahin dete, homework dete hain (Where the teacher gives homework instead of abusing us). And, most important, 'padaai hoti ha' (where we are educated)'.

Things that our children take for granted...

We must begin somewhere

As I write this, medical students are out on the streets, protesting against OBC reservations. Like most thinking people in this country, I too am against further caste-based quotas. Let the basis of affirmative action be economics. And let it be at primary school level, we say.

In which case the time has come to ask: Can we accept the idea of quotas in our children's schools? 

 I think we must.

Chat with Rashmi Bansal on this issue. Join us at 3 pm on May 18.

Rashmi's earlier columns:

Rashmi Bansal is a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and founder-editor of the popular youth magazine JAM (www.jammag.com).

She can be reached at rashmi@jammag.com


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