The frenetic merry-go-round for admission to a ‘suitable' (read English-medium) school starts pretty early. Coaching classes, tests, interviews... it is a traumatic time for the toddler as well as the parent that stems from the popular perception that English-medium schools are the gatekeepers of prosperity. There are other thriving alternate models, says S. Anandalakshmy.
A trend of the times is the enormous confidence that families have in the educational system. The tragedy is that the confidence is frequently misplaced. The apparent success of a few in landing lucrative posts in IT, engineering or management seems to have triggered a veritable tsunami to the portals of privately-run English medium schools. This is a country-wide phenomenon.
Just a few minutes ago, there was a high-pitched discussion on an English news channel of Indian sailors being kidnapped by Somali pirates. The wife of one of the Indian captives, a school teacher, broke down, saying that she badly needed Rs. one lakh for her only son to attend an English-medium school. That was the main reason her husband had become a sailor. She kept shouting “English medium school” through sobs and tears. This made her personal situation all the more tragic.
Every reputed school in every city or metropolis is automatically an SEZ (Special Educational Zone)! One needs a visa to get in, but there is no information on what constitutes a visa or where it might be available. People who have spent their lazy summers on Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie may be able to use their inferential skills to figure it out. Alas, the clues are few and far between. Some parents assume that a substantial bank balance will tilt the decision in their favour, but it is like playing poker. All the players hold their cards close to the chest, until it becomes necessary for the deal to close. In a split second, it is done! The parents go back to organise a correspondence course in the area of management (of school admissions) and the child gets a smart new uniform and a backpack full of books. That is the happy ending for a minority of parents. The rest keep battling away, going down their list of schools in the city, while alternating between hope and hopelessness.
This is only one example and not to be over-generalised. There are other criteria, of course, for admission, like having parents or siblings as former students, being children of a teacher in the school, or having a recommendation from a Board member. While a few schools are quite transparent in their admission criteria, others prefer obfuscation or pretended ignorance. Power comes from the withholding of information, as we all know.
Then, there are the high tension admission tests. A survey found that these can start for children as young as two! The toddler is coached in the names of colours, shapes, numbers and rhymes until the whole family breathes in nursery rhymes, cracking their breakfast eggs with Humpty Dumpty and eating their lunch-time yoghurt with little Miss Muffet! The momentum builds up as the D-day nears and, if the child does not get admitted, he is scolded for being so stupid as to be rejected! The family goes into mourning. Selection, whatever the criterion, is not the opposite of rejection. But try explaining that bit of logic to the parents. Our research also shows that there are coaching classes for admission to the Pre-Nursery Section. The upper age limit is 27 months. Interested parties may ring up 0 999 999 999 for further details.
It is because of the trauma for the child in these school admission tests that the Right to Education (RTE) comes down so heavily on them, especially for the mandatory 25 per cent of children from the neighbourhood poor to be admitted into the first class in the private school. Test taking, like other skills, improves with practice. One could come upon a four-year-old veteran explaining how she prepares for the entrance tests! For children from deprived families, the unfamiliarity with the procedure and the lack of clarity in the instructions will be barriers to entry. Reputed schools are coping with the mandatory requirement, while worrying about loss of revenue on the one hand and the effective classroom management of different levels of school readiness, on the other.
The educated classes seem largely unaware that the Municipal and Government schools in the State of Tamil Nadu have made a paradigm shift in their pedagogy, with Activity Based Learning (ABL) at the Primary level and Active Learning Methodology (ALM) at the Middle School level. In India, the ABL methods were first used by David Horsburgh at Neel Bagh and further developed by the renowned Rishi Valley School. The ALM was the product of the initiative of The School (KFI) in Chennai, combined with the energy of the enthusiastic teachers and Block Resource Trainers under the aegis of the SSA. The reason for introducing this theme here is to suggest to the private schools coping with diversity of abilities and interests in school entrants, that there is an ongoing working model for them to emulate. Recent evaluations of the performance of children in the Tamil Nadu Schools, by the Planning Commission and the NCERT have been very positive and have reinforced the initiatives. Some features of the new system include the introduction of dozens of picture books and story books, accessible to all children in their own classrooms, a TV screen, DVDs on Spoken English and a bilingual dictionary in every school, as well as a Mobile Science Lab going to the schools by turn. The obvious success and enjoyment of children in these schools is bound to cause a reverse migration from the small profit making schools, in the next decade.
Schools take years to build a reputation and the clamour for admission to them is evidence of the aspiration of the many to crack the code and enter their gates. The parental dream is largely for the future prosperity of their offspring, with a wish that the process would be less of a nightmare.
Siddharta says, in Herman Hesse's classic, that learning how to wait helps the most. I end on this philosophic note.
The writer is a consultant in child development based in Chennai.