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Out before they are in

Access to education, Nursery admissions

On your marks, get set…” Even before the academic race begins, many Indian children are on the back foot. From jostling for entry into ‘premium’ playschools to coaching classes for toddler interviews to finding the right ‘contacts’, parents run from pillar to post to admit their child into a ‘ good’ school. Following a High Court directive in 2007, schools in Delhi have done away with gruelling admission interviews and instead rely on a points system based on residential proximity, siblings in school, parent’s alumni status, education and achievement, with leeway for schools to include their own criteria. Even though Delhi has banned unnerving interviews, the admissions process is still harrowing because the root causes of this skewed demand and supply have not been tackled. The dearth of high quality schools continues to confront the capital with parents queuing up in the wee hours to get admission forms from dozens of schools. Demand for the best schools continues to skyrocket; applications received by these institutions are around 10 times the number of available seats. In contrast, a few of the lesser known ones do not even fill their seats.

The fact that our country sports gross inequalities is all too evident in the domain of education. Ironically, education, which is one of the best equalisers, serves to perpetuate stark socioeconomic differences that plague our nation. Even before a child can compete, she is left behind by a system that favours the privileged few who can make it to the better schools. The consequences of receiving substandard education in the primary classes are indeed damaging and long-lasting as a weak academic foundation leads to a downward spiral. A study in the U.S. examined outcomes on two average eight-year-olds who were given teachers who differ greatly in quality. The child with an excellent teacher is almost 50 percentile points ahead of the child with the poor teacher after three years.

The Delhi example highlights the fact that there are no quick fixes to tackle this educational conundrum. As Sunil Khilnani says, nothing short of an “educational revolution: revolutionary in methods, scope, speed- above all, in will” will suffice. Only by increasing the number of primary schools, attracting a talented workforce, providing excellent teacher training, improving the infrastructure of existing institutions and upgrading our curricula to meet 21 {+s} {+t} century requirements, can we avoid a farcical school admissions process. According to Tony Wagner, “Teaching all students to think and to be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable.” Thus, the government and civic society must work collaboratively to set up sterling schools. Further, existing schools, both government and private, need qualified, competent and sensitive teachers who are able to engage, extend and empathise with students.

Neglecting the foundation

Recently, the Union Minister of Human Resources announced that India should have Navratna universities on par with the Ivy Leagues. While this may be a laudable aim, we cannot neglect the foundational stones on which these halls of learning must rest. Producing a few students who are internationally competitive does not make our educational system world-class. As Krishna Kumar, the former Director of NCERT, writes, “No country can hope to build an industrial human resource by merely harnessing the cutting edge. It is the excellence of the average person that gives an industrial economy its edge.” Thus, unless and until we provide creative and considerate education for all our children, India will not be able to harness its demographic dividend.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com

The Hindu, March 13, 2011

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