Being a country that produces a large number of movies in multiple languages, India literally has films on all issues under the sun. In recent times, a film titled Hindi Medium has emerged as a must-watch for parents seeking nursery admission for their children. Those who have experienced the uncertainties and helplessness of the entire process of nursery admission at any private school in Delhi would know that watching the film while going through the admission process is quite like watching Titanic on a sinking ship in the middle of an ocean.
It hardly took my wife and I any time to identify with Raj Batra and Mita, the lead characters in this film. And subconsciously, we began wondering whether like the protagonists of the film, we would also ultimately indulge in corruption and unduly try for admission under the quota meant for the economically weaker sections of the society. However, it was impossible for us to relate to the ending of Hindi Medium, in which, despite having their child enrolled at the best private school in Delhi, the protagonists — who have a change of heart in a dramatic turn of events — get their daughter admitted to a government school.
It is true that the nursery admission race had got us deeply frustrated with private schools. But the dominant narrative in favour of private schools and against the government schools was too strong to defy and that too because we were told that we needed to be extra careful about safety because we had a daughter. The government schools don’t provide, can’t provide safety, right?
We had met all the strange requirements of the numerous private schools and had even engaged with the advance admission offers that we received from some schools that were not confident of filling up all their seats through lottery. We were gradually inching towards the day of the announcement of the lottery results. Strangely, we felt no anxiety or excitement about it. We weren’t interested in private schooling, but moved towards it as the dominant narrative told us that it was the right thing to do. Our daughter had to be enrolled somewhere.
The government schools don’t provide, can’t provide safety, right?
An idea that had begun to grow stronger after all this drama was that when our daughter turns five, maybe we should explore admission at central schools. Even before taking admission, we felt pressured under the reality called “private schooling” and were just not being able to handle it. We would have tried central school admission at the nursery level itself had there been such a provision. And how could we think about educating our child at Sarvodaya schools just because some of them had introduced nursery sections!
We were convinced that there must be some limit to experiments! As we deliberated, the D-day of the announcement of the lottery results arrived. Surprisingly enough, our daughter had got shortlisted at about five schools. Of these, two were closer to our place and therefore preferred. She had got admission offers! We should have been celebrating, as many children hadn’t even secured the admission offers.
But somehow, happiness appeared like an irrelevant emotion. What mattered more was to arrive at an admission decision and somehow get over with the process.
Well, our daughter did not get admission at the particular local school that was a preferred choice for many. However, we heard contradictory stories later.
We felt pressured under the reality called ‘private schooling’.
Of the two schools, one was notorious for burdening children with academic pressure, and the other had a “bad reputation” for being a school dominated by Jats! We understood what excessive pressure of education could mean. But we had never thought that it was detrimental for our child to study with children from Jat families. Of course, it appeared so foolish to ask what is wrong about children from Jat families! Those who had shared this nugget of wisdom had already made up their minds! After all, we had internalised a culture of silence while participating in the nursery admission race! Either way, we had made up our minds to opt for one of the two schools as the others were farther.
Neighbours with children told us both schools were reputed. The one that looked more impressive in terms of facilities was of course more expensive, and it also did not list on paper many of the recurring fees! While the school was a vibrant place for extra-curricular activities and excursions, it was parents who had to bear the costs.
Having been made aware of the possibilities and having consulted our well-wishers, we were not sure of going ahead with this school. Now there was only one option left.
We managed to have a conversation with the teacher-in-charge of the nursery and kindergarten section at the second school to understand how much the work pressure would be during the early years. All we wanted to hear was that learning was going to be more driven by joyful activities, would involve little or no formal education, and no writing assignments.
Instead, the teacher in-charge assured us, “Don’t worry. Learning needs of your child will not be compromised. You will find no reason to complain that your child doesn’t know as much as children at other schools. She will learn much more than others. We make sure of that. After all, from nursery onwards, our students have four examinations to pass every year. And you have to work hard with us to ensure that your child learns to write soon. You must make the children practise at home.”
This was in contradiction to what we had imagined. But then, we had already decided not to contradict any school authority, as we did not want to hear the school say “if you don’t like our system of education, why are you here? Go somewhere else. We know what we are doing”. Given we wanted a school near home, we had no other place to go! So, my wife and I meekly listened to the teacher-in-charge, exchanged worried looks, paid the fees, and decided to get ourselves busy with other work to forget the deep helplessness that we felt.
Is it for this that we had spent so much time and energy in the last couple of months? There was still about a month left for admission orientation and for classes to begin. The longer the gap, the better for us. We had no doubt that we were in the process of entering a pressure chamber. What made us feel a little better was the idea that we may be able to move out to central school after two years.
But then we did not feel too certain that it would be anything different. After all, that school also exists in the same society that makes life the race which our chosen school was catering to.
After all, from nursery onwards they have four examinations to pass every year
Amidst this dilemma, the construction of a neat-looking institutional building near our house was completed. Soon, we got to know that the building was going to house one among the five ambitious “Schools of Excellence” envisioned by Delhi government. The admission process for the school’s current session was advertised and it did have a nursery section. By then, we were so frustrated with the school where we had got our daughter admitted that we were ready to try any other option. This was a new school and had no reputation, neither good nor bad.
We understood the risk of seeking admission here. But then quite contrary to our thoughts, after watching Hindi Medium, we actually went to submit an application at this “government school”, even though our desperation was of a different nature from the movie. At the same time, we had no big ambition from this school. But, something different happened at the school. After submitting the application form, we wanted to have a conversation with the teaching staff so as to get some idea regarding the nature of education being planned for this school.
The teachers were busy at a workshop. The principal was busy too. Yet, she took time out to meet us. We asked her the question that we had been asking at every private school.
“What is the nature of curriculum and pedagogy that is to adopted at nursery level?”
The principal began to smile. “What curriculum can you have for a three-year-old! We just want to give them an opportunity to have a lot of fun at school so that they love coming here. Writing is going to begin only in class one and that too slowly. If you are one of those parents who want their child to get strictly ‘educated’ from very early years, we may not be able to cater to your ambitions!” she responded.
For long, we had been wanting to hear what she had just said. We jumped in to assure the principal that we shared the school’s philosophy. We looked at each other with a deep sense of satisfaction and knew that we had finally found the school of our choice. Suddenly, it became clear why education at private schools is what it is.
None of the private schools around us is age-old; they don’t enjoy an assured clientele and could therefore not experiment with non-conventional modes of learning. Hence, to justify the fees, it becomes essential for the institutions to demonstrate that they make students “learn” something (necessary or unnecessary!) and hence they do not instantly become places where the young ones play and have fun.
It is also necessary for private schools to prove that their students are learning “more” than others. Government schools do not have to bother about such competition, as staff salaries do not depend on admission fees.
Having found our preferred choice after all these days, we anxiously wanted our daughter to start school. The short distance between our home and the school had put us in the topmost group of applicants. We did not expect too many local residents to apply as our locality is primarily populated by the middle class, who would usually opt to send their children to private schools.
Even so, there was uncertainty and this time it was a lottery that we had really wanted to attend. Unfortunately, the date and the time of the lottery coincided with the orientation programme at the private school where we had already secured admission for our daughter. We thought it would be wise to attend it. What if our daughter does not get admission at the government school? Thus, we could not arrive in time for the admission lottery at the government school.
So what all did we learn in the orientation programme? We met people from the management, who had the same surname (same family?) They were introduced to us as successful businesspersons first, and then educationists. We were told about Abacus and right brain development programmes that must begin from nursery.
By the time we finally managed to reach the government school, the lottery process was over. There was no way to find the results, which were to be announced the next day.
Will she make it? And, her name was actually there on the list of selected applicants! Like magic, at the sight of her name on the list, all our hardships and frustrations seemed to vanish.
We decided to get our daughter admitted to this School of Excellence. It was not easy. It was impossible to ignore that at a time when everyone, irrespective of their financial wherewithal, wants to move away from government educational institutions, it is perceived that the students of such schools have somehow not been able to make it to private schools.
Does that affect the calibre of students, when admission is only decided through lottery? Does that influence the motivation and commitment of the teachers in the long run? Will those enrolled also want to move out the moment they get an offer from a private school? Is it such a bad idea not to have classmates belonging to the affluent middle class? Does the absence of the affluent middle class make a school relatively unsafe?
Or, is their safety somewhat guaranteed as the children are not pampered with opulence in their early years? Will our daughter feel a class difference when she moves from her school to her daycare? Will that negatively impact her personality development? Will she undergo any inferiority complex for studying at a government school? Will she blame us later for this decision? Shall we repent this decision later in life?
Only time will provide answers to these questions. We can only be patient and watchful and ready to reconsider what we have decided. As for now, we need to secure our daughter’s childhood and ensure that it is filled with happiness and not the burden of education.
We need to ascertain that she remains safe and experiences learning outside formal education. As parents, we are quite confident this can be achieved at the School of Excellence.
We felt it is important to take chances instead of feeling anxious about the possibilities of risk. Who knows, may be seeing us taking a chance, others from different social backgrounds so far averse to government schools may decide to take a leap of faith! The school would gradually find students from all social segments. But that is for others to ponder about.
As for us, we have finally reached the finish line of the nursery admission race to our satisfaction.