Tuesday, July 28, 2009

School reforms turn out to be self defeatist

When I was a school going child, the system of “donations” was just taking off. What it meant, of course, was that to have your child admitted to certain schools (usually considered the A-list ones, or the best of the best) one had to pay a considerable amount of cash, over and above all the legitimate schooling expenses, as donation to the school fund. Essentially it was, and is, nothing more than a bribe, to sweeten the deal, and make sure that the kid gets into the “right” schools.

Back then, of course, there were large numbers of parents, like mine for example, who didn’t think that getting your kid into the “right school” was essential, even at the cost of your principles. A bribe was a bribe, and they refused to pay. My brother and I have had a first rate education. Both are now well into our adult lives, I firmly settled in a good profession and he doing his PhD in Chicago. So, obviously, we didn’t lose out much from never studying in a “right” school that required donation. This becomes an even greater feat, for my parents, when you consider the fact that they changed cities every few years, and bhai and I have gone to at least a dozen different educational institutions in our lives.

Getting the kids into a new school every two or three years can be tough. The temptation to give into the demand for donation must have been considerable. But they had enough confidence in us that we could clear whatever entrance tests were thrown at us, and that we would be fine in a “not top of the list” school. However, sadly, parents now seem to have lost that confidence in their kids. Everyone has gone completely ape-crazy about the “best” schools, and as a result, donations are now a fact of life. A recently opened, fairly low on the scale school I know looks like a prison, has no play space, has closed dark classrooms, unqualified and inadequate teachers, and charges 50 thousand rupees for admission to pre-school!

With greed going off the charts, and more and more schools (A B C D E list, doesn’t matter anymore) getting on the donation bandwagon, things have gone totally insane. It can cost you anything from 30 thousand to 2 lacs to have your child admitted to primary school, depending on what list the school considers itself! At some point, someone HAD to do something to change the status quo and put the brakes on the ever increasing demands for donation. A recent initiative by the government of India was supposed to do exactly that. However, as things turn out, it hasn’t achieved much. In fact, it’s set itself up to be self defeatist.

The judiciary a few years ago had banned entrance exams and interviews for kids entering primary school, and seeking admission to the nursery. The rationale was simple. Having interviews and tests not only put pressure on the tots (as insane parents try to teach them everything beforehand, from colour combinations to spellings) it also discriminates against kids from a non-English background, or from a lower social stratum (whose parents might not be able to teach the kid everything at home and may be unable to afford a playschool or tutor). As with most judgments, this one too was coolly ignored everywhere. Schools everywhere continue to conduct tests and interviews not just for the kids, but the parents too! (
Insane at school!)

Now, the government is finally putting in place a system of checks and balances. Or so it would seem to the naked eye. Now parents of students, or would be students, have the right to go to court against schools that refuse admission without a test/interview, or demand a donation. Wow! I thought, when I first read the news, finally a step in the right direction. But no! That was a premature celebration on my part. The last part of the plan undoes all the good that the rest of it proposes.

It stipulates that no case or complaint can be initiated without the prior go-ahead from a “properly appointed” official put in place by the government. Hmmm…interesting… having lived all my life in India, I am understandably wary of such arrangement and such language. In my experience, as it is in of those who know the system, “government appointed” anything is just another excuse for not taking any action, miring the issue in miles and miles of red tape, and making it easy for some BABU or another to make a fortune in under-the-table dealings.

What’s the point of making schools liable for this type of misconduct if that liability is not likely to be properly imposed? If the parent has to waste time, money, and energy in running from pillar to post trying to get the OK of some SARKARI BABU before they can even consider going to court (which in itself involves discouragingly high levels of expenditure of all those resources), what is the likelihood of any cases being lodged at all? And what is the guarantee that these “appointed” officials are going to be any more honest and any less corrupt than their brethren? Isn’t this just a way of giving the schools an out so that they can financially, or otherwise, influence these “officials” and prevent parents from taking action against them? Sure seems like that to me!

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