The Saga of School Admissions

It’s that time of the year again — when thousands of children in Indian cities go through that mind-numbing sieving process called “school admissions”.

Parents get nightmares just thinking about it. The thought of being tested, interviewed and judged, so many years after escaping that ordeal in school, is enough to drive most moms and dads to the nearest counsellor. All family trips are cancelled – “Admissions, you know”.

At every gathering, get-together, and especially huddled in groups outside the playschool gates, strained faces try to cobble together a strategy to see them through. Senior members of the clan, who’ve “been there, done that” look at you sympathetically. “Oh, you poor dear, we know exactly what it’s like. Nothing to be done about it. You’ll just have to muddle your way through.”

The Saga of School Admissions

The Saga of School Admissions [Illustration by Shiju George]

So, there we were. Outside a school on a cold, blustery winter morning. A similar exercise had taken place a week ago – when we went to pick up the admission form. It was now show time. We’d been (thank God), called for an interview. Without kid (how merciful.) In we trooped, into a cold, grey classroom where groups of parents were sitting on little school chairs, trying to keep warm.

“No. 224,” bellowed the aging peon, whose job was to keep us in line, and in our seats. Like nervous rabbits, we jumped up and sprinted for the door. The peon pointed to a door, and promptly returned to his perch. “Knock, knock”, in we went, only to face a huge hall, scattered with tables, and at each table two teachers and a set of “grilled parents”. Well, here we were. No. 224 on a platter.

We tried the friendly, confident approach. “Good morning” (smile, smile). Hubby added his two-some too. The stern faces attempted a civil response, decided it wasn’t worth it, and gestured us to prostrate ourselves at the sacrificial table. In other words, “Sit down.”

Like obedient little dogs, we anchored our behinds, and waited with bated breath for the first salvo. To the Dad, “What do you do? How much time do you spend with your child, where do you take him, why (why?!), what does he eat, wear, holidays, relatives.” By the time, Dad answered the first question, the next five followed in quick succession. He tried to remember the order, but by the end of it, he was where they wanted him. In pieces.

Now, mom’s turn. “What do you do?” You work!!! Full time or part time? Er, part time (Humph, that isn’t so bad, they seemed to think). What do you do with your kid, what do you feed him, where does he eat out (beware, they cross-check with the child later), what are his interests, and why do you want to send him to this school (What I really feel like saying is: Actually, we don’t want to send him to school at all, if this is what it’s like. But home schooling hasn’t really caught on in India.)

Instead, I politely list all the “pioneering” things they are doing in education, what great values they’re instilling in children (Ya right, like it’s okay to judge a four-year-old for aptitude and skill, never mind that he could be grumpy, hungry, sleepy, scared, weepy or plain cussed at 2 in the afternoon.)

The grilling is over. We’re summarily dismissed, like the remnants of a meal. We look back at the “interrogation”. Did we make it? Umm, highly unlikely. For one, we just collapsed under the onslaught. So, do we want to send our child to this school. Nope. But it’s not as if we’re flooded with alternatives.

Next week, it’s another school. Here, form giving is quite organised. Get to a window, pay the money, get the form. Please return three days later, duly entered with “insightful answers” and “wise words”. So, Dad and Mom stay up two nights, writing out drafts, tentative points, and finally “The Answers” on the form.

We make it to Stage 2. We get a letter inviting us for an interview. So, on yet another cold, windy, winter morning (is the weather planned by the schools?), we reach the school, with child in tow. (No second rounds here at least).

We’re pleasantly surprised. The entire reception is laid out with a range of art material for preschoolers. Junior promptly plants himself next to the crayons and sketch pens and gets to work. He’s then distracted by the Christmas decorations floating around. So off he goes chasing mythical snowflakes.

A lady emerges from a room, calls out our name, and nicely requests us to follow her. We note the smile, try and relax, retrieve the prancing child and head for the Principal’s sanctum sanctorum.

Inside, a panel of three smiles warmly. Another smiling soul whisks away Junior to a table full of books, puzzles, art material, and toffees (the ultimate bribe). We are invited to sit (please note the smiles, and general air of hospitality). The threesome introduce themselves by name – none of that impersonal stuff you see in other schools. Then the questions begin.

To Dad, you’ve mentioned values you’d like to instil in your child. How do you intend to do that? Dad, who has now relaxed at the gentle, polite tone of the Inquisitor, gives his “Theory on Value Education”, on teaching through example. They then go on to dissect each of our answers, with both mom and dad.

In between, we hear Junior’s peals of laughter (well, he’s having fun). Finally, after 45 minutes, we’re asked, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” Our jaw drops. Ask you? You mean, we can ask them!! I mumble a question about the school’s social outreach programme, get a reply, and then we’re on our way out.

So, did we make it? Well, we did. And that’s where Junior is finally a student. But one wonders about all those parents, who are loving, concerned and committed parents, but are left out in the cold because they couldn’t put their thoughts together in a form, or in the interview.

School admissions is an experience we’ve been through, and thousands of parents across India go through every year. The fact of the matter is that there are too few good schools and too many children, and parents, applying for admissions.

So, what’s the solution? A friend suggested a method followed by a school in Gujarat. Where admissions are like one big mela, and slips of paper pulled out of an earthen jar decide the fate of the children. An interesting method which gives everyone a fair chance.

Another suggestion that cropped up is to beef up the thousands of government-run schools run in India. But since that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon, it doesn’t really offer itself as a viable option.

If you have a suggestion running through your head that may put an end to this annual skirmish, do write in. We’re kind of hoping that schools are as keen to get out of this mess as parents are.

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