New Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore: These days, the tears shed over nursery school are hardly those of children, but their parents. A battle for admissions has been waging nationwide, and families desperate to get into elite schools with brand names and good reputations are carefully drafting essays, preparing for interviews, jockeying contacts. In a sign of desperation and frustration, some parents are lying about their addresses and making large “donations.”
Nursery children of the Bal Bharati Public School, in Delhi’s Pitampura. Principal S.C. Baveja, one of those invited by the Ganguly Committee to make suggestions, said his school has followed a transparent points system for admission for the last 10 years
It is war out there.
“I have filled application forms for 18 schools,” says Smita Gulati, a Delhi homemaker who is seeking admission for her 3-year-old daughter. “That is all I have done since December.”
The odds of getting into some schools are slimmer than gaining admission to one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology or Harvard University overseas. In New Delhi, recent changes to nursery admissions have thrown schools and parents into confusion over just how much information they can ask for, or reveal.
This is in sharp contrast to last year, when all Delhi schools had to follow the “Ganguly formula”, devised by a committee headed by Ashok Ganguly, chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education, and widely seen by experts as the first attempt to introduce a regulatory framework in nursery admissions. Though the formula generated an initial outcry from parents, it attempted to ensure transparency and admission of children to neighbourhood schools.
The shift this year has resulted in “parental interactions” that range from full-fledged interviews to simple checking of documents, such as birth certificates, diplomas and proof of address. Gulati recounts a group discussion at the top-notch Shri Ram School with other parents to describe why they preferred this school to others. “It was messy,” she says; her child did not make the first cut.
Some schools in Delhi are charging more fees than they should, in violation of state laws; education officials say they are investigating complaints. (See Part 2 of the series on Monday.)
“Nursery seats are the area from where private schools make maximum money. So there are strong vested interests at play,” said Krishna Kumar, a child advocate and chief of National Council of Educational Research and Training, which revised curricula in private and government schools. “These vested interests have proved more powerful than the regulatory framework that the Ganguly committee tried to provide”.
The rush for private schools is also because middle-class parents do not even consider government-run schools, present in most neighbourhoods in the metros, an option.
Experts, such as Ashok Agarwal who has campaigned in courts for better facilities in these schools, do not blame parents for rejecting the government-run education system. “The standard of education is lower. Sometimes, even the basics—toilets, water—are not there”, says Agarwal, a lawyer in the Delhi high court who fights battles on many fronts. One of Agarwal’s cases had led to the setting-up of the Ganguly committee on nursery admissions.
Out of 100, the Ganguly formula assigned 20 points to the distance from school, 20 to a sibling studying in the same school and 20 to educational qualifications of parents. Alumni parents received 10 points, while children with special needs and girls received 5 each. Twenty marks were left for schools to evolve their own criteria.
While New Delhi is facing the crunch acutely this year, it is hardly alone. In Mumbai, private schools follow state government rules on education, which bans interviews with parents or children. Aruna Thakkar, principal and teacher of the prestigious Sunflower Nursery School, said that there is no process to admissions any more.
“Earlier, we used to like to invite parents, talk to them, let them see the school and get to know them. We used to like seeing the child, just to make sure that development was more or less normal. There are some children who are not just ready for school and you would like to know about that before you offer admissions,” she says. “Now we only ask parents to fill out forms and that’s it. We are being forced to select blindly, and its not in anyone’s best interests. Unless the parents see the school, talk to us, how will they know where are they sending their children?”
In reality, Mumbai’s standards and processes for admittance vary widely—and some schools are indeed interviewing parents and children. Donations and influence still thrive in many schools.
Arun Nair is trying to keep the dates straight to gain admission for his son Yash. “In some cases when we got to the school, we found that the admission process was already over,” he says. Nair and his wife have now applied to a school located close to their residence in suburban Mumbai—which will be conducting an interview of the family.
Like many other parents, Nair and his wife are aware that entry might entail paying some money or finding connections—or both. But again, they know that in a situation where demand for decent schooling far outstrips supply, they have few options.
Mumbai’s elite schools range from the recently set up Dhirubhai Ambani International School to the older, prestigious ones such as Cathedral and John Connon School and Bombay Scottish High. Thousands apply for mere dozens of seats; none of the schools agreed to be interviewed or disclose their acceptance rates.
Parochial schools can operate under different guidelines.
A directive from the Archdiocese of Bombay, the functional authority for the Catholic church in the city, specifies that no Catholic student should be denied admission to Catholic schools irrespective of marks and inability to pay fees. “Wherever entrance test is conducted, the Catholic children may be given special consideration so that they may stand a chance of being admitted without much problem,” the directive says. The Archdiocese prohibits collection of donations from parents of prospective students.
Similar rules allow members of the Church of South India to gain admission to certain schools in Bangalore, a city which also has seen an intense debate over how nursery admissions should be conducted.
Even within the government school system, better schools such as Kendriya Vidyalas discriminate at admission time. Children of central government employees, for whom these schools were set up, are given preference.
Last year, the government of Karnataka implemented a rule that the admission in state schools shouldn’t occur before 15 April.
This year, a letter was issued to the Commissioner of Education and Directorate of Education to have a uniform policy for all schools, irrespective of the syllabus.
“There is such a high demand that schools have to develop some system to filter out students that they cannot accommodate,” says a parent and founder of a school, who didn’t want to be identified.
Princess Franklyn, principal, Bishop Cotton Girls School in Bangalore, says 800 applicants generally apply when admissions open in February—and only 200 get in. “We are also open to taking students of economically backward homes. Besides that, preference is given to children of transferable government employees,” said Franklyn.
In Kolkata, the admission process is on at several top schools, and software entrepreneur Shahshikant Jhawar has begun filling in forms and giving interviews for daughter Samika, not yet three years old.
The experience, he says, has been a “mixed bag”. He and his wife were interviewed at a few schools, while two schools, Ashok Hall and Laxmipat Singhania Academy, interviewed Samika; Jhawar has no idea what she was asked. Samika didn’t make the cut at Laxmipat, and the family awaits her fate at Ashok Hall.
This is the first in a two-part series on the race for nursery seats. Watch out for the concluding part on Monday, which will examine the culture of corruption, confusion and broken laws in the country’s capital.
Anik Basu and Aliyah Shahid in New Delhi and Priyanka P. Narain in Mumbai contributed to this story.