A dangerous admission

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I’m so scared” said Arjun Bhatia’s mother to his beleaguered father. Arjun, three and a half, jumped on and off the sofa unmindful of the “trauma and tension associated with nursery school admissions” — precisely what the Ganguli Committee report (2006) had sought to prevent. That well-intentioned scheme, with marks assigned for proximity to the school, alumni status, sibling presence and girl child applications, has unfortunately been twisted out of shape.

Thousands of hapless parents continue to hurtle from one school to another to get a child admitted. The government says it is helpless, because the scheme is not of its creation but the result of judicial fiat. The maximum manipulation takes place when the management assigns a whopping 20 per cent to 40 per cent marks for “educational and professional qualifications” of parents — with no criteria. Another area where schools fiddle admissions is the 10 per cent “management quota”. When some upmarket schools command up to Rs 10 lakh per seat, this quota is stretched elastically.

For these and several other reasons, the nursery admission process remains unfair and convoluted. Nothing can be explain how a kid from Bengali Market, with both parents in professional jobs, was denied admission to every school in New Delhi. And what is a toddler from Anand Vihar in East Delhi doing in a school on Mathura Road 20 km away if the neighbourhood concept is being implemented?

Hundreds of bleary eyed four-year-olds are wrenched out of bed, lifted bodily and dispatched in a trundling school bus at 6:45 am, to return only at about 4 pm. “It’s torturing the child” says Dr R.K. Sharma a veteran of the Delhi education department.

What then is the bigger picture? Half of Delhi’s 1200 recognised public schools admit children into nursery; between them they account for 40,000 nursery seats throughout Delhi. With approximately 250,000 infants born each year calculating the numbers seeking nursery admission is child’s play. The bulk of children from the lower middle and working classes go to government or municipal schools, whether owned or aided. That still leaves at least 50,000 families, mainly from the upper-middle class, seeking admission in privately-run schools.

Of the 600 private schools offering nursery admission, only 150 belong to what the education directorate’s officers tend to call “hi-fi” schools. And because these are predominantly located in three districts — New Delhi, south, and south-west Delhi — upwardly mobile parents make a beeline there. East Delhi with a huge and upmarket resident profile has only 10 “hi-fi” schools. Another 130 schools in the district are termed “moderate”, a euphemism for “simply not good enough”.

Given these numbers, and that at stake is not just a nursery admission for a four-year-old but the child’s 14 subsequent years — and perhaps his college prospects and career options— it is inevitable that the managements of sought- after schools are battered with influence and money.

What is the way out? First, the education directorate plays an important task while “recognising” private schools. Inspections are conducted to check existence of prescribed benchmarks which include infrastructure, the presence of properly trained and salaried teachers, water and fire services and a range of extracurricular activities. When all this information is available, it ought to be shared on the the directorate’s website, with the result of the last inspection and the previous year’s school-leaving examination results. That would give a better idea of the school’s quality and educational attainment.

Second, segregate unaided private nursery and primary schools from the middle and secondary schools. The entry point for middle school should be Class 6. Until then children should attend nearby schools as a matter of right — and use their precious childhood to learn socialisation skills, the three “R”s, and to play and express themselves with abandon. That is the system the world over. Why not here?

Admission into Class 6 should be done on the basis of an objective-type test among recognised private schools, seat allotment made on the basis of merit-cum-preference, and finally through a lottery within the qualified group. The Delhi Education Act of 1976 should be amended to ensure that primary and middle school management is separated and the merit-cum-preference test for admission to middle schools is administered much like centralised examinations for professional courses. The idea has worked well in the United States, which runs “magnet schools” which attract the best students, and no pressure and stress issues stand in the way there.

The result would be fewer panicky parents, an authentic picture of school performance to guide them, and little or no stress on the young child whose real chance will come at age 12, not 4. The present laissez-faire approach has been disastrous.

Of course the RTE Act will need amending, to allow for middle school admission tests after Class 5. This screening has produced tens of thousands of shining students, via the Jawahar Navodyas and the Delhi government’s Pratibha schools. We need more of that ethos and less shackles on children’s childhood.

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