School Admissions

26 Feb

“We want the best school for our child”

“They should have a better system for organising admissions”

“These private schools, all they want is money”

“Obviously, we cannot send our child to a government school”

and more….

Each year one hears all this and more…you may happily add a few dialogues of your own to this list. Each year parents queue up in front of schools armed with some little information about the reputation of the school, a form and some sort of formal payment just to be able to enter the hallowed portals that will take their tender toddlers to success in the world.

The admission process is brutal and often very undignified. There have been pictures of parents in a stampede as the school gates open. There have been fights that almost (and some may have) led to fisticuffs as the lottery results were read out in the open school hall. And each year, there is a battle royale on the rules that determine ‘fair admission’. The RTE Act (Right to Education Act) has not made things easier. They have carved out 25% of private schools and made those seats available to those with lower incomes. Does that form part of the lottery? Is there a separate lottery for this? Will there be different criteria for the 25%? Are the rules of admission the same for them? Are there any rules? Or will the local district authorities rule here too?

A large part of the issue in nursery admissions is around school autonomy. Delhi seems to be leading this battle, but it is very likely that the same issues will travel to other states too. Do schools get to select their students? Should they? Should schools have autonomy in deciding the criteria for admission to their portals. The answer seems to be an obvious yes if we are talking about private schools. But parents in Delhi do not completely agree – many want uniform entry criteria across schools. This lack of trust in schools to select well is totally incomprehensible when you think that you are going to trust your little child – mind, body and soul – to the very same school. If you do not trust them to select students properly, how do you trust them to teach well?

As educators we know that admissions must be fair – above all. But what does fair mean? Does it mean that those who can pay the fees should get better chances? Or does it mean those who filled the form first should be ahead of others. Maybe all should have an equal chance – equity and access is best served through a lottery. (But doesn’t a lottery also mean that there is an equal chance of failure?) In some places regulations insist that students will be admitted based on proximity to the school. Suddenly the prices of the homes right next to excellent schools went up, till they realised that renting was also allowed – then rents went up. People would rent the houses for the admission year and then move back to their old homes. All regulations can be twisted. There are rumours that many of those availing the 25% RTE quota are able to do so because they produce a certificate that says that they earn low incomes, but the children enrolling under that quota arrive at school in expensive cars.

Can any admission criteria get it right?

As a parent, it is natural to want the best for the child. Getting to the best school is not easy. In many cities one has to go from school to school to get separate entrance forms. Then some schools have different criteria – a parent recently was upset that some schools admit children at four and a half years, others at five and some seem to have variable criteria. This made it very difficult for her to figure out when to apply so that she does not miss the very small window of opportunity to get her children into the right schools. The quest for standardisation seems reasonable here from the parent’s perspective but it comes at a huge cost. Also it would be solving the wrong problem. The problem here is lack of information in the same place with equitable access so that all parents have the same opportunity to apply to the schools. Changing entry criteria is not necessary – a database of information is clearly necessary. Some kind volunteers and Facebook groups such as the Bangalore schools put in the effort to create a database. NGOs like Indus action come together to help the 25% quota. For the large part it is a tough trudge from school to school, where schools are selected by word of mouth and huge personal effort. This is neither fair, not equitable, nor meritocratic. There has to be a better way.

Meritocracy has little room in the world of admissions any more.There was a time when schools used to test tiny toddlers on their knowledge of the alphabet, ability to count and other competencies. This is not acceptable any more though it is still practiced in many small schools. A child is often called in for observation or a ‘play-session’ ostensibly for the group to get to know each other better but also to get a chance to weed out the ‘unsuitable’ children. This, if and when it is done, does discriminate against those with learning or other disabilities. Schools find it difficult to deal with the differently abled, and miraculously, the open and fair entry criteria to all major schools send very few differently abled students to their nursery admission classes. While testing toddlers is clearly not acceptable, nor is it useful (since the results of these toddler tests are no indication of future success), one wonders if the school should have no right to pick their own students. What if the school has an exceptional maths department – and they wish to select those with such talents. Should they be forced to select away from their comparative advantage just because of a ‘fair’ lottery? Is that not unfair to all (those who love maths and those who hate maths) equally? Sometimes an attempt at fairness serves nobody.

In a perfect world there would be enough nursery and school places where all children would join in small groups and be loved and nurtured as they learn. We do not live in a perfect world and there is a shortage of quality education places. From where we are, some competition for scarce seats is inevitable. Even if government schools were up to standard – and there seems to be evidence that many have slipped – there are not enough seats for all.

The conundrum continues – what is the best way to allocate nursery seats? Who should get the first chance and who can be left out? Is access to excellence in education a game of chance?

So here I ask you, as I will again in the (egalitarian and interactive) #eduin chat – How do we ensure excellence in nursery admissions so that children receive the best chance in life and the system is fair and equitable. Do join, learn and share. As a parent, as a teacher, as an intelligent citizen – what are the top 3 things you want to see in the admissions process? on jan 28, 2015


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