I started this school five years ago when we were one of the few IB schools. At that time, many people said, “Oh, IB” and “let’s see how you do”. In fact, I remember four or five days before we were due to open, I panicked and asked my husband: “Mukesh, do you think I could put across a sales pitch to the Reliance employees?” I wanted at least 100-150 children. I mean I had built this big school and if there were no children, it would be so shameful.
We offer parents the choice between ICSE and IGCSE. Until now, both have been equally popular. I personally picked IGCSE for my children because I just felt the transition from IB to the international universities is easier. IB is flexible when it comes to a choice of subjects—so you can mix biology with maths and add on a creative subject such as art. The programme helps children develop analytical writing and research skills, which are expected and valued by foreign universities. There is an emphasis on fostering responsible, compassionate citizens.
As a school, we look out for all-rounders. We look for children who can be creative, for general knowledge, thinking skills and those who have an awareness of nature. We have a very well-established admission process—I don’t want to overlook even a single child who deserves to be in this school. I have 55 seats in Lower KG and 800 to 900 applications coming in. We try to keep a class small (27-28 students), with two teachers. The minute you make a classroom big, it’s all lost.
Yes, we don’t guarantee siblings admission. But it’s unfair if you have a child who has done very well but won’t get in because you have openings only for siblings.
It’s very important the parents don’t put the stress of admissions on the child. I would tell parents to keep calm. Don’t panic. I’ve had people coming and standing at 5am. You’re draining yourself and pressuring the child—who is not going to give it his or her best then. In the lower classes, the admission process involves just an interaction—we don’t want the child to feel any pressure. We also have openings at 15-16 years when they get into IB. The IB entrance test is very structured—it tests abilities in maths, science or economics, or the other subjects of your choice.
Our values are in no way elitist. I don’t look at the background of the parents. What I do look at is the ability of the child. Our children are from all over. When my daughter first joined the school, she had been in J.B. Petit and didn’t even know the different areas of Mumbai. But now their (twin daughters and son’s) friends are all over the place; one of their friends is in Borivali, they say let’s meet at the station; they take the bus, they take the train, they want to be one with everyone. Yes, we do have some star kids, but how many? We’re talking about Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan and Rakyesh Mehra or Vidhu Vinod Chopra—they’re four or five parents in a school of 1,100 kids—it’s not even 1%. Even when you enter the school, you don’t see so many cars lined up to pick up the kids. Most kids use the school bus and most kids opt for the school lunch. Our fees for the primary years are Rs48,000 a year.
I don’t allow money in the school. We have our own canteen coupons, they call them the Dhirus. In the beginning, there was a lot of resistance, but when you have unaccounted money, you don’t know where it goes.
Whenever I interview my teachers, I first ask about discipline, because international schoolteachers sometimes have a different view on discipline. I don’t like my children calling out and doing high fives to the teachers. When you want to be world-beaters, you set high goals for yourself. I will not have a teacher who does not make a lesson plan, and every lesson plan has to be checked.
I’m not that religious but, yes, we believe in Indian traditions and culture. We have Saraswati vandana every morning. As a parent, you should look at the philosophy of a school. Also, is the school sustainable? It’s easy to set up the infrastructure, but a building doesn’t really matter—the people in the building matter; the right teachers matter, and whether the school can sustain itself over years matters.
(Nita Ambani is chairperson, Dhirubhai Ambani International School. As told to Sonya Dutta Choudhury)