Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The right to a ‘good’ school

Scarier than a performance appraisal.

More stressful than a root canal.

It's a absurd, it's insane…

It's your 4 year old's nursery school interview.

But what to do? Mere bachche ka 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.

Although 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 which seems to be endemic and intractable... Like policemen taking hafta. Like electricity gul in summer. Like Himesh 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 3000 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 3 km 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 Bombay parents will literally sell their souls, to get their child into a Campion, Cathedral, J B Petit, St Mary’s or Bombay International.

I too grew up in south Bombay 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 caliber 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 proximity to the crèche my daughter attended . And because she was eligible despite being born in August.

When I first visited St 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 which admitted students from a cross-section of society. In practice, I found that 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 Keralite accent.

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

This school is 8 kms away (though only a 15 minute bus ride). It is affiliated to the CBSE board and boasts 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 fulfils 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 skilful, 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 underprepared 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 which 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 the total intake of students from the economically weaker sections.

A significant verdict in light of the fact that 1200 of the 1500 '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 Hindi-medium to English, the question of who will bear the expenses (even if we waive tuition fees). Lack of conducive home environment and parental support.

All true - but 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 Mr 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 marginalized children in private, unaided schools in East Delhi. The study, published by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) in October 2005, also documents the difficulties and challenges faced by the Trust while assisting BPL 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’ and toilets are clean. ‘Jahan teacher gaaliyan nahin dete, homework dete hain’. And most importantly, ‘padaai hoti hai’.

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.

This post originally appeared as a column on - May 17, 2005


  1. well, half of the problem begins with the fact that people study in so many different languages with little or no importance given to English until they reach 12th. how do you expect a person who has learnt Malayalam for half of his existence to suddenly understand stuff being taught in English in higher educational institutes? I'm talking about people from rural areas.

    Neways, nice article as always.

  2. Rashmi, I went to a very similar school such as yours in Delhi. St Columba's - which while it has historically (used to) produce toppers always admitted a very large number of children from economically poorer sections of society. We had the super-rich, the kids of professionals (like me) and the kids of guys who were clerks or bus drivers.
    Yes, while the argument of an unstable social mix is valid - if the kids are foisted together in KG it really isn't a big deal (OK, leaving aside the occasional stolen pencilbox or whatever). Yes, though that said as we grew older - there were certain 'class' issues, don't know how to quite elucidate but there were problems - money is important y'know. The only major academic problem is that many of the not-so-well off kids can't afford the tuitions that they needed (good school or not, the teachers were pathetic) to do well and ensure a better life or at least a better college. However, those of them that were smart managed to do very well for themselves.
    Yet, I spent one hour a day for the privilege to go to that school. My parents had no issue with the class mix yet would have had palpitations against sending me to the local 'public school'. SCS wasn't expensive mind you, in fact, chances are that the local schools were more expensive - but education is also often about the 'thappa' you get. What also - it is all about the 'thappa' you get at times (and also the friends you make, but thats another argument). The argument for the 3-km radius will be quite interesting to watch if it is adhered to - and more interesting to see what impact it has on house prices. Because in the UK and the US - school districts and the quality of the local school can determine housing prices.
    Interesting post.

  3. No quotas in anything anywhere. That's what I think.

    The best way to help the underpriviledged is appropriate reallocation of resources and the enforcement of common sense with fair and balanced laws. At a very simple level, our government is a spendthrift. The money that comes in taxes is abused. The infrastructure projects. The public health care system. The education system. All that money that is spent but never seems to quite result in the desired product. It never gets to the underpriviledged. That's the real problem. If that issue was fixed, and reallocation of wealth, prevention of theft and abuse was actually enforced, then there would be a rapid rise in the education level and skillset among the formerly underpriviledged since they would actually be able to pull in teachers and generate income without having it be stolen away from them.

    It's all the corruption and dirt like that that needs to be removed. Things like reservations are the traditional way of creating opportunies for corruption. That is, restrict the supply of a desired good (education) and then start charging rent (some group of rich and powerful people obviously want control over who gets those quota spots, don't they? guess who's going to be paying them money to get their kids those spots). This is why I'm against reservations.

    I believe ultimately, a government has no business being in the business of education. A government ought to be in the business of ensuring that the public infrastructure is fully functional. Educational services can be handled by the private sector. Clearly, the private sector has proven that in things like cellphone access, they were far more able to bring cellphones to the rural poor than any govermental effort. I believe the same thing is true of education.

    So. No reservations anywhere or anytime!

    ps: my apologies for being so verbose.

  4. Nice Post.
    I am also against further quota. But at the same I would like to say the even the current quota is going in the hands of needy. They are going in the hands of who don't need these.

    I agree with Rashmi that this method would help to remove discrimination from society. But this method be effective in next 8-10 years if implemented today. What about today ?

    Jayakumar has pointed to right direction for today. But I don't blame only politicians for corruption. Its the complete system and we are also the part of system. In this regard, I fully agree with Mr. President's views that its we. We need to change.

  5. "It’s this kind of thinking that has created the ghettos. Schools for the haves and schools for the have nots. " I completely agree. Something like this is already seen in the US where private schools are very expensive and not affordable to a large part of middle class and public schools are the only option. The public schools are accessible to people living in a certain distance from the school. So what has happened is the real estate prices around the school areas go up and good schools anyway become inaccessible to lower class children thereby causing the ghetto effect. Nice and thought provoking post.

  6. I totally agree wid on the prevailin situation abt admissions in schools, its a mess.. and no matter wht regulation, Money always wins...
    I m 4m a mixed school, with rich and poor children not being a dividing category, infact v came 2 know so many things 4m them.. V realised the importance of money, and it was all so wonderful...
    The quota thing is a dreadful thing 2 happen.. and should b avoided at all cost...

  7. How true. The small town school that I attended had 80 students in class 11, which reduced to 65 in class 12. The average class size hovered around 65 across all standards.

    I might get married next year, makes me think whether we should have kids or not. :-(

    I am thanking God. We still dont have reservations at school level. Tathastu. Amen. (bowing down)

  8. Very Nice and important Article.
    I say......Whats the point in the first place of going to a school?..... when most of them don't teach properly & ultimately every student has to visit tution Classes to learn their subjects?So parents end up paying school fees, tution fees!!
    I think its high time that parents think about Home Schooling seriously.Moreover the Schools are more of a money making machine now a days.(E.g. recently there was furore when a socalled good school in Calcutta made it mandetory for kids to wear shoes of a particular Western SportsWear brand!!!!!

  9. Hi Rashmi,
    I read your blog occasionally and just wanted to let you know that your blog is really special for Indians living outside India. Really gives the lowdown on what the country is talking about. Keep up the good job. Have linked your blog to mine. Cheers.

  10. good post Rashmi. i like your posts which do not tells us about IIMs.

    quota or non quota, school system in india needs revival. i beleive that an individuals fate is decided more by primary schooling he gets than which business school he attends.

  11. Saw tht u r on Rediff Chat on this issue... by 2:29 PM the room got full & no entry board was put up. There goes another chance to chat to u... anyways u'r blogs are gr8 & different. Keep it up..

  12. Rashmi,

    Primary education is a completely different issue. However, I oppose any quotas in privately run schools. The government can set up many primary schools with the resource it wastes on quota students who go to IITs and IIMs.

    As far as reservations in higher education is concerned, our stand is a firm 0%, even in tax payer funded institutes. You have to ask yourself, funded by whose taxes?

    We often forget that India is a welfare state. 90% of our Government aids and welfare programs are already directed towards you know who.

  13. I urge everyone to read Atanu Dey's article on this issue. It's very well thought out and it points out the actual core of the issue.

  14. Maam

    I have myself been to eight differrent schools from Jr. KG to 12th Standard. What I want to say is that in higher classes Tution which is considered to be necessary wether you are studying in any school is not affordable by the students who belong to economically weaker sections.

    This is one of the most important problem which has to be tackled for secondary and higher secondary education. And frankly speaking Schools generally run by missionaries ie St. XXX donot discriminate between students bet it authorities or teachers in those schools.

  15. 'The slum children are accepted by their peers. It is the teachers and the principals who segregate and discriminate'

    Agreed 100%. Kids <5 years or so dont diff if ur white/black or come from i dunno worli or some slum in mumbai. At that age they see everyone as one. As they grow older its their very own parents and ^%$^%4 society that poions the mind. Sad.

  16. "Let the basis of affirmative action be economics. And let it be at primary school level, we say."-- that is the most important point... not nursery interviews or reservations in AIIMS IIT or IIM they will take care of themselves... foundation is everything...
    we in india subsidise higher educationalmost across the board, look at tution fees in delhi university
    i will give u an example.. i went to college of business studies in delhi university, probably the best professional college of the country at under gratuate level.. and you know what was my monthly tution fee Rs 15/-, i am not telling u a guzre zamane ki kahani i passed out in 2001... and u know what was the fees of closest rival private college Rs. 20,000/- and it wasnt even a contest in terms of quality... i understand it was based merit and i had to clear a strict entrance test and all.... but still graduation is a luxury, it should not be subsidised for everyone who is meritious... maybe who cant afford it...
    what we should subsidise is high quality schooling... we should find a way to make private schools affordable to each an every person.. i have very little first hand experience of govt. school but it is safe to say they lack in a lot of areas and generally speaking students from govt college start out on a back foot while competing in real life wether it is higher education or jobs... so why not privatise them.. probably the simplest way to efficiently use the existing infrastructure... put reservations for admissions, give out school vouchers.. do anything it takes.. but improve the level of elementary education...if we could do this... this wud be the single biggest acheivement of our generation for the future of our country...
    imagine what a force india would be if 100% of kids have school education even if that means we have to sacrifise some amount in our higher education...

    just another thought all money spent on education of kids should be tax deductable...

  17. Hi Reshmi,

    I was pained to you one of your comments "And she spoke English with a thick Keralite accent" Had it been a thick spanish accent/or a heavy Irish accent, would it have affected you the same way?.

    Or do you think that a Mumbai/Delhi accent is the best and is closest to the way queen herself spoke the language?

    You of all people who ridicules prejudice could have done better without the said prejudice..


    Sunil Jose Gregory

    (Yes, I am a Keralite and I am not ashamed of the way I speak English)

  18. well said sunil jose.
    and an advice to rashmi to keep her articles kinda short in length.

  19. We have set up a blog
    This is a community blog aimed at providing parents with updated and authentic information on schools and admission information for the same. The idea is to cover all 800 schools in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane. Pls do visit the blog and share it with others and do contribute information on the schools which you are aware of.


  20. mam, iam in 10 grade i want to do IB, but the problem is that if i want to study in india i have heard that the colleges dont accept IB, is that true??? what is the solution for this.....and i dont want to study in an indian board.


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