First, this aspirational economy tries to make us over with blue jeans and whitening creams, American accents and firmer handshakes. Now, it’s targeting our children.
Nothing is sacred, not even their innocent drawings. Consider an advertisement for the popular EuroKids chain of schools, which I encountered last year as the subject of discussion on one of India’s most popular parenting blogs, The Mad Momma.
With a picture of a purple mango beneath, the ad says: “While painting, children tend to mix up colours. At EuroKids, we ensure they don’t.”
And then the fine print below: “While it is normal for tiny tots to mix up one thing with the other...highly qualified and well-trained teachers keep an eye on the students to ensure that they don’t commit such mistakes — correcting them promptly whenever they do. So, if you too want to give your child the perfect learning experience, enroll him in Euro Kids...”
This mad momma almost turned purple herself with anger, but soon relaxed — until a few months later, when my then two-year-old, enrolled in another school, came home with worksheets with terse instructions to colour a banana yellow and only within the lines. I took her out of the school.
A few months later, while crossing the border into Delhi’s suburb of Noida, I noticed a massive hoarding for the Millennium School: “Our school has just one child — yours.”
Clever, I thought. Until I realized the implication. Already our kids think they are at the centre of the universe, between parents, grandparents, maids and guilty give-ins. Shouldn’t school serve as a place to humble and socialize, to mix with many different kinds?
Recently came another radio spot that made me cringe. A mother and father are discussing how hectic life has gotten, too busy even for Parent Teacher Association meetings. Their answer? Send the child off to Raffles, a new boarding school in Rajasthan.
In the layer cake of Indian geography, from the creamy tier I on down to the massive base of small-town India, there’s one constant uniting our public spaces: misleading, misguided educational advertising. Even in serene Sarnath, outside Varanasi, which I visited earlier this year, dozens of new schools have billboards tacked onto wooden poles and fences; bigger than their brand names are these words in bold: English medium. That’s often followed by another buzzword: global exposure. Browse newspaper ads and no-name institutes gush promises: Ivy League faculty, Rs1 crore salaries, laptops for all.
As I see it, there are two main problems with school advertising. One, the new schools that plug themselves as an alternative to the Indian rote-and- drill method really aren’t. Telling a child his mango can’t be purple and saying a teacher will correct artistic “mistakes” is almost as bad as the system of old where toddlers seeking nursery admissions had to explain the controversy over Pluto as a planet.
To be fair, EuroKids responded favourably to my email asking about the mango campaign; it has been dropped in favour of a new slogan: “I love Mummy, Papa and EuroKids!”
More disconcerting is the other problem: While some efforts are being made to ensure truth in advertising, exaggerations abound.
When the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) boasted, “First time ever in the world, be taught by professors from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Insead”, youth magazine Jam, which also ranks colleges, checked out the veracity of these claims. “...we asked students from IIPM’s Mumbai campus who had passed out already, AND those who are currently taking the MBA program. NONE of them have attended lecturers by professors from foreign universities. From what we gather though, the students seem satisfied with the college’s permanent teaching staff.”
IIPM has disputed the account. “Every word written in IIPM ads (is) 100% true,” head of corporate communications, Amit Saxena, wrote in a text message to Mint.
The rush to cash in on an India hungry to learn and earn should not carry an even steeper price — dignity and decency, responsibilities as parents and educators. Indeed, there is much broken in Indian education, but government, schools and advertising regulators should unite to keep new players more honest and relevant.
In the ultimate irony, our government officials have seized the words “Indian” and “national” as their own. Do they care about the misuse of brands that use international, euro, even Canadian, to dupe those who happen to embody the true definition of Indian? Does anyone check claims of 100% placements at many of these fly-by-night operators? After all, the aspirational class might not be regularly accessing blogs for mommies and business-school types, dissecting their every move and statistic. If the Centre insists on continuing its grip on the education sector, it might as well start regulating the right things.
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