Perhaps it says something about our priorities when our Board exam results begin to resemble the IPL tournament.

It is that time of the year again. The time that a small number of people look forward to, though a larger number dread. The time when the results of board exams and All India entrance examinations are published. The time when the news media is replete with pictures, stories and advertisements featuring toppers and rank-holders. The time when non-toppers and non-rank-holders are relegated to unsung backgrounds. The time that parents are as keyed up as their teenage children, for, the published results will determine how well their parenting skills compare with those of their contemporaries. And when the results are finally announced and marks tabulated, the winners find themselves in a maelstrom of exultation that appears to go on forever. However, the excitement lasts, at best, for a few weeks, after which the same toppers and rank-holders get back into the hurly-burly of their lives, their moments under bright sunshine abruptly dampened by the onset of the south-west monsoon. And everybody starts breathing freely again, at least for a year.

Even the most casual of observers of this phenomenon cannot help being struck by how sharp the glare of the spotlight is on the winners (the toppers) and how conspicuous the losers (those who missed the top scores by a mark or two) are by their absence. I can understand when this happens in a competition that has winners and losers, like say, sporting events. In the minutes that followed the Indian victory at the ICC cricket World Cup last year, visuals of the losing opponent, Sri Lanka, completely disappeared from the screens. Ditto when KKR won the IPL a few weeks ago. It's almost like the loser has to not merely concede centre stage to the winner, but has to vacate the entire stage and fade into oblivion. In terms of rewards, these “losers” also do pretty well for themselves. Runners-up in sporting events do get handsome enough purses, and in a sense this compensates for ceding the limelight. But for school children?

Need for inclusiveness

Of course, non-toppers in board and entrance examinations who are in the higher percentile also do get admission to the colleges of their choice. But somehow, they miss out on the hoopla that seems to be reserved only for the winners. Don't get me wrong. I have no quarrel with those who have worked hard for years, getting the recognition they doubtless deserve. My only difficulty is with the manner in which we tend to pedestalise our winners and ignore the “also ran”, for, the consequences can sometimes be traumatising.

The purpose of education is to provide children with an opportunity to develop their knowledge, skills, personality and overall emotional maturity. However, what most parents seem to be obsessed with is “marks”, which as we well know, does not necessarily reflect intelligence, as the term is currently understood. This obsession probably arises for two reasons. Firstly, in the absence of any other widely accepted objective parameters to assess growth and development, marks and ranks seem to be the only way in which we can measure how well or not, our children are doing. The other is the understandable fear in the minds of most middle-class parents that unless their children score high marks, quality undergraduate education may prove elusive.

Changing perceptions

While these may be very legitimate concerns for both parents and children, it still doesn't explain why most parents want their children to be toppers, not just good performers whose marks are enough to secure admission into a university of their choice. I think it has, in some way, to do with the way our priorities have changed. We tend to feel that “professional education” is the only option available to secure our children's futures, but we fail to realise that the career options open today to our children are extraordinarily wide-ranging.

We do need to spare a thought, perhaps several, for the impact that this may have on those of our children who don't perform as well in competitive examinations. Particularly on those who excel in other non-scholastic areas like music, art, sport, voluntary work, environmental consciousness and other “non-professional” fields of endeavour. Of course, such children do receive some rewards for their excellence, but nothing like the glory that is reserved for board exam toppers. In my experience, almost all children have qualities and attributes that they can shine in, and some sensitive schools do, as a policy, encourage every child to find and acquire proficiency in her or his metier. I would imagine however, that such schools too would be frustrated when they realise that their efforts are not necessarily lauded if the child doesn't do as well scholastically, simply because we, as a society, place a high premium only on the latter. Needless to say, when we do this, we are effectively killing our children's special talents and abilities and raising them to be academically-driven and one-dimensional.

As I see it, there's only one way out. And this is to provide spaces where children who are not as academically-inclined can earn as much glory as do those who excel in academics. Not just spaces, but as many column-centimetres too. This way, we needn't deny school toppers their just rewards. But we can ensure that those who have other aptitudes realise that they too are winners.

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com