If school education is a market, parents are customers! But how many private schools adhere to the customer?

While there are some good private schools, schools are not good just because they are private.

 |  14-minute read |   30-12-2018
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The newspapers in Delhi have already announced the beginning of a great race for nursery admissions to private schools in the city. Again comes the time when desperate parents will run from school to school to join and remain part of this race.

Last year, we had participated in it and experienced a similar desperation that awaits parents this time around too. The primary reason for the desperation lies in the reality that like parents in other large urban settlements in India, schooling in Delhi implies education at select private schools, where seats are considerably less than the number of applicants.

Many parents today have lost confidence in the quality of education at government schools.

Besides, private schools mean much more than education to many parents. The dominant narrative goes like this, “After all, school is not just about education anymore, it is primarily a space to start building from an early age the right networks for future life. It is all about the ‘gentry’ sending their children to study at a school and also, more importantly, about who is excluded. You don’t want your child to be in the company of a truck driver’s son/daughter, right?”

At this, an audacious critic questions, “But then, a truck driver’s son/daughter can also get admission to any private school through the quota meant for Economically Weaker Sections or Disadvantaged Groups. What if our child comes into their ‘undesirable’ company?”

The narrator then assures, “Don’t worry, the school and the teachers ensure that EWS and DG students never get to interact with others”.

child-copy_122818072903.jpgEvery year begins the great race for nursery admission to private schools in Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

The narrative goes further, “How can you think of an ordinary school when you have the well-being and safety of your child in mind? All the more, you have a daughter. You want her to be safe, right? Forget about your times. Back in your school days, life was not this difficult and competitive. Besides, the quality of education was good at government schools then. Today, it's a different world. You can’t play with your child’s future and get her admitted to a government school just because ideologically, you support public education”.

For people who can afford the cost of private school education (or even for those who can’t), the influence of these narratives is often too strong to defy unless one is stubborn or illogical or ideologically opposed. In the past couple of years that I have spent in Delhi, I have not witnessed people around me dare to defy these narratives. Though often with considerable unhappiness, they all went through the rigmarole called private school admission.

And along came the accounts of parents whose child would not get selected in the admission lottery at any of the schools they preferred. And this, at times, would happen even after parents had shifted their residences in order to seek admission at the desired school – one of the important criteria for the school admission point system being the distance between home and school.

Accounts of these parents also involved diverse ingenious approaches they had to adopt to somehow get a nursery admission for their child after not securing a seat through the lottery.

By the time our child was born, exposure to all the narratives of highly educated middle-class persons had convinced us that there was no alternative other than sending our child to a ‘good’ private school.

For those who do not know, nursery admission in Delhi is considerably governed by state-specified norms that private schools are expected to follow. The state provides details of the criteria for which schools can assign points during admission. It also mentions the percentage of seats that need to reserve for Economically Weaker Sections and Disadvantaged Groups and stipulates the maximum number of seats that a school can keep under the management quota.

child1_122818072932.jpgSchooling in Delhi often means education at select private schools, where seats are considerably less than applicants. (Photo: PTI)

Besides, it is the authorities that draw up the admission calendar which private schools follow. The state even decides what can be the maximum cost of an application form for admission. And finally, of course, it's the authorities that decide the age at admission to different initial classes, and mention that the admission process cannot involve any interaction with parents and children.

While a strong presence by the authorities is reassuring, it is evident from the heavy competition that at any school, an applicant must receive the highest point as per the point system decided by the school to stands any chance for admission. The number of toppers is usually so large that the lottery is mostly restricted to the topmost. But to get admission through the lottery, one also must be fortunate (or crafty)!

The nursery admission pursuit taught us numerous lessons. First and foremost being: Give schools whatever they ask for and don’t ask questions. For example, we chose not to ask any of these questions:

1.) Couldn’t the nursery admission go green and consume less paper with schools asking for supporting documents only after applicants are offered admission?

2.) Why is it necessary to submit a hard copy of the filled-up form along with all documents to the school even after submitting all that online?

3.) Why do schools ask for a fitness certificate for the child issued by a doctor? Can any child be medically unfit to receive education in the age of inclusive education and special education?

4.) Why do schools ask for immunisation records of the child? Can school admission be denied in the absence of immunisation records?

5.) Why do schools ask for PAN cards of parents?

6.) Why do schools ask for educational qualifications, occupation details and income of parents? Does that determine admission decision, even though no points can be attached to it?

Nursery admission was also an opportunity to learn much valuable information.

For example, the interiors of some private schools can actually look no different from that of five-star hotels, the size and quality of bus fleets of some schools can get many average transport operators ashamed of their own fleet.

Like any business organisation, schools can also have a sales pitch, a 'good’ school must have a general manager, schools can be owned/run by people who themselves have not completed their schooling. A passport-size photograph may be sufficient for a school to understand that a child is intelligent once they learn about the financial wellbeing of her/his parents.

One can bargain heavily with junior lawyers at court over the cost of making an affidavit for proving that a child is first born or is a single girl child. During nursery admission season, one may get a discount on penalty value from traffic constables, stating that a violation of traffic rules was because of fatigue developed out of nursery admission pursuit (particularly if traffic constable herself/himself is young enough to have a nursery applicant child), house rents near schools can go up during admission season as parents want to shift to accommodation near preferred schools, and finally, at some schools one can even negotiate school fees to some extent!

So we gathered all this valuable information on the way, ensured that we ask no questions to challenge the decision of the school authorities, took leave from work to run around from school to school to submit hard copies of all filled-up forms and self-attested documents, and somehow took out time to continuously interact with fellow parents of other nursery candidates at different schools (technically speaking, they were our competitors, but in reality, they were the dearest peers who could understand best the pain that we were in!

After actively being in the admission process for about a month, and after submitting papers at the final lot of 15-odd schools in one half-day (at most schools, the admission process closes by 1 PM) we had no energy left to attend the lottery of different schools where we had applied. So, we thought, now that our job is over, we can take some rest till D-Day when the admission lists are officially published by different schools.

However, we soon realised that the admission process had begun already.

It all began with calls coming from different schools, asking us to pay a visit for getting documents verified. We soon realised that document verification was the official pretext for many schools to impress parents about the school so as to influence their admission decision. Many of these schools were not too sure of being able to fill up all their seats through the lottery, and therefore had evolved the strategy of offering seats much before the lottery.

child-3_122818073034.jpgA school has become much more than just a place of education. (Photo: Reuters)

As a tactic, it largely attempted to encash on the panic of parents, “What if our child does not make it to our preferred schools?”. A smart manager at one such school offered us this, “If you take admission now, your child’s name appears in the admission list after the lottery and her future will be secure. If you don’t, her name goes into the lottery; then, of course, we cannot assure you of a seat”. The only one who has gone through this process knows how difficult it is to turn down such an offer!

After spending some time and energy with nursery admission, we decided that our preferred school must fulfill three criteria: it must be nearby, so that our child does not get fatigued in her journey between home and school, it must be a place where she would be safe, and finally, it must be a place where she would love to go every day.

We thought that by not having any expectations about educational standards at a school, we were not asking for much, though many well-wishers felt that we were actually asking for everything! Either way, it appeared relatively easy to rank schools in terms of the first criteria. But how does one get to know about the other two before taking admission? Interestingly, modernity has answers to all these challenges that modernity itself has created.

And the answers lie in the interdependence of modern institutions.

When we asked the manager to help us take an admission decision by telling about the distinctiveness of her school, she brought out the sales pitch designed to convince any modern human. She mentioned the physical infrastructure of the school, including its sports and educational technology facilities implemented by reputed companies, accreditation by certified agencies, collaborations with trusted names, past accolades and recognitions from reputed organisations, present co-curricular and extra-curricular practices, history of excursions, and calendar of annual festivals.

Interestingly, her sales pitch contained no information about the credibility and commitment of the teachers and their teaching-learning practices. Afterwards, we listened to many more sales pitches and some of them did contain details about teachers and teaching.

However, it was quite clear that private schools were not all about teaching-learning. But it was also evident that even modernity finds it difficult to certify acts that are distinctly personal, like teaching, so that it can convince any stranger about the outcome of learning.

school1_122818073137.jpgLiving on a prayer: Just as parents are desperate to secure admission, private schools are also anxious to fill up their seats. (Photo: PTI)

In comparison, schools find it easy to convince strangers as to how safe it is to study there. All one needs to do is to demonstrate systems of surveillance and these systems are all over the place.

In one school that had violated a Delhi government notification and assigned points to nursery applicants for availing the transport facility of the school, a teacher justified the decision by saying that it is because the school cares about the safety of their students and buses of the school, that it provides the safety.

By the logic of this teacher, all those parents who could easily walk down to the school with their child or drop their child at the school with their own vehicles appeared quite irresponsible about their child’s safety. Anyway, how can you expect a school that has invested so much in creating an enormous fleet of school buses to not award points for availing school transport?

I have already written in DailyO as to why even after going through all this and getting our daughter admitted to a private school, we finally decided to walk out and get our daughter admitted to Delhi Government’s School of Excellence at Dwarka. I also intend to write in the future about this school where our daughter studies.

But, for now, it is important for parents to know that just as they are desperate to secure admission, private schools are also anxious to fill up all their seats. And leaving aside the highly sought after schools which enjoy ‘market value’, many schools don’t manage to fill up all the seats. Therefore, there is no reason for parents to panic.

In India, we love meritocracy. If by any means, merit is an outcome of schooling, it then begins with a lottery. That itself indicates the limits of meritocracy. But, of course, the use of lottery in school admission is good news, as the alternative is admission tests and interviews that are completely baseless at the level of nursery.

In order to participate in this lottery, it is essential for parents to satisfy the custodians, the private schools. However, it is equally important for these custodians to impress the parents as, after all, they are customers in the market of school education.

school-bus1-copy_122818073922.jpgWhile there are good private schools, schools are not good just because they are private. (Photo: Reuters)

However, unlike elsewhere, what limits the bargaining rights of customers here is that the parents have to trust these service providers (the private schools) with the responsibility of nurturing a life so fragile and so valuable to them. And there comes the vulnerability of customers in the hand of service providers, even though private school education is a market in all possible senses.

Quite contrary to market logic, at private schools, parents are often not in a position to demand beyond a level as schools then ask them to withdraw their child from school. And it is not easy to do that. It is, therefore, a myth that privatisation essentially makes systems accountable.

Quite on the contrary, it is state-sponsored systems that are accountable by definition, as it involves the usage of public fund. Instead of writing off government schools, it is, therefore, important – particularly for the educated middle class – to reclaim them by sending their children there and improve them by continuously demanding quality education.

It is important to remember that while there are good private schools, schools are not good just because they are private. With numerous horrific incidents reported in the media, it is well-known now that children are not necessarily safe at expensive private schools. It is also equally crucial to know that schools, public or private, can only contribute in a limited way towards the education of a child.

It is impractical to expect that admission at a ‘good’ school will automatically secure the future of a child. A lot depends on what happens outside the school, at home, in the neighbourhood, and elsewhere. It is, therefore, important to recognise that a child's future can only be secured through sustained engaged participation of significant others around them and not just admission at a ‘good’ school – be it public or private. 

Also read: We did a Hindi Medium. Why we're sending our daughter to a Delhi government-run school

Writer

Anirban Sengupta Anirban Sengupta

Author is a sociologist with School of Development studies, Ambedkar University Delhi

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