Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Schools - The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Following the last post, I received a call from an old friend and colleague. He was pricked or catalysed into calling me after he read the post. He had a most interesting story to tell.

Once again, this post has no real conclusion or point. It is just my observation on the current state of affairs.

About 15 to 20 years ago when a lot of my friends had children, whenever we met, conversation would inevitably turn to the tension, stress and trauma they were facing finding school admissions for their kids. Then the topic abated. I assumed that students, or more correctly the parents were relaxed and the tension of securing admission had abated because of the newer schools that had sprung up offering a wider choice of education. By wider choice I mean that instead of the ICSE and SSC choice that my parents had when I had to go to school, today you have three more systems. You have the IGCSE which is the international equivalent of the British `O’ level that is offered in the 9th and 10th class. You have the full IB which is offered from primary to class 12. You also have the IB Diploma that is offered in only class 11 and 12.

On looking further into this, coupled with the story my friend had to tell, I realised how utterly incorrect this assumption is.

Each of the schools offer these examination streams have a different fee structure. Let us break this down into some sort of numbers.

IB Diploma
IB Whole course
From class 1 to 10
Only class 9 & 10
Only class 11 & 12
From class 1 to 12
Fees from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 60,000/- per year
Fees of Rs. 200,000 to 300,000 a year
Fees of Rs. 500,000 to 1,000,000 a year
Fees of Rs. 700,000 to 900,000 a year

There are four caveats to this table. First, of course there are exceptions to these numbers, but, by and large, these numbers represent the fees being charged by the respective schools today. Secondly, there are good reasons why the IGCSE/IB schools charge more, and I mean this honestly. Third, the parents who I spoke to who had changed their kids from an ICSE/CBSE school to an IGCSE school were unanimous in their opinion that the IGCSE system was hugely superior. Lastly, the cost is only fees. I understand that extras like school trips, exam fees, books and social expenses like birthday parties, phone, gifts etc that happen at a different level in IB/IGCSE schools which are all elite high society schools. 

I am not getting into the question as to whether such high fees result in a profit for the school owners or whether education should or should not be for profit.

So a cursory look at the table should make it clear that while you have more streams, the cost of getting a child educated has dramatically shoots up if you want to change to one of the newer streams. Thus, is there a real choice?  And, is there a choice available in the primary school stage?

Not only has there been a change in the kind of exam system you wish to take, but there has been a bigger and far more significant change in the student population of schools. Now, this is where this post starts to tread into highly controversial waters. Before going any further, my position. Yes, everyone should have an education. Yes everyone is aspirational and will do his damndest to get what he wants, including the best possible education for his child.  Education should be available to everyone.

Bandra, historically being Christian, had a lot of convent schools. Just 1 square kilometre of where we live there are St Stanislaus, St Josephs, Carmel Convent, St Theresa, Durelo Convent, St Andrews College and of course my bete noire, AVM. If you stand outside any of the Convent schools at the time they shut, you will be rather surprised by the parents standing outside the gate waiting to collect their kids. Let me put it euphemistically, you would not have a cup of tea with many of them, they are `cutting chai’ kind of people, the others you could not have a beer with, as their religion does not permit it. I repeat the statements I made in the preceding paragraph.

Now, getting back to the story of my disturbed friend. He has a young daughter and has to put her into an appropriate school. Herein lies his problem.

My friend lives at Dadar, a good old traditional Mumbai neighbourhood. He went to a school within walking distance from his home. The first problem he faced was that the schools he went to as a child has totally changed. His old school continues to be an SSC school, and, the SSC course today is really woefully inadequate and inferior. Today, the student population of the kind of school he went to is rather `humble’. Anyone who would have gone to a Municipal School and done his SSC now takes admission into one of the older more established schools which also offer SSC. Why? Simply because the standards of Municipal schools have plummeted and with rising affluence, coupled with relatively cheap school fees, many more people can afford the old traditional schools. This has resulted in the change in student population. So local, neighbourhood schools are out for our friend.

Next step, our friend tries to widen his search and looks for schools a little beyond walking distance, say a reasonable car drive away. Dadar being very central, our friend tried the old Bombay Schools, you know the ones, Queen Mary, Cathedral, and Bombay International but in all cases, in his foolishness he had not registered his child with the school when she was born! So those schools were out.

Next up he widened his search to the IGCSE/IB schools and was shattered by the fees being charged. So these too were out. Now, friend was really worried. He then joked that the one school that was looming large was – AVM! Yes folks, AVM. It was close to his home and it was within budget. But, there is a problem. His 3 year old daughter categorically refuses to say her prayers! Looking a bit deeper he has now shortlisted 3 schools which fit his budget and are reasonably close. I do hope he does manage to secure admission.

So folks what does all this lead up to? On the one level from what I can understand, the old style humble schools are today inappropriate for most of us. There is a metamorphosis that is happening. People who went to Municipal schools are now going to humble schools; humble school students are now going to the more upmarket schools ICSE schools, the ICSE school students are now looking at IGCSE/IB. On the other level, the new IGCSE/IB schools are beyond the reach of many. So, have things really become better? Do we have a wider choice? Is a good school with reasonable fees, a decent set of teachers and a reasonable student population vanishing? I do feel sorry for parents today.

As a parent you need to be really on the ball on the matter of school admissions.


  1. Very good analysis of the prevailing situation. Parents' woes start at the birth of the child as school starts at the age of 2.5 years or one misses the bus. Isn't this cruelty to the little ones who can barely talk and are burdened with alphabets and counting numbers? Life has certainly become more complex or are we getting old and sentimental about our simple innocent childhood ?

  2. Even though one may have shortlisted some schools, there is no guarantee of securing admission to the school of your preference. If you have lost a year because your child's birth date was a few days past the cut off date only makes matters worse. As your stress builds up, one has no choice but to admit your child in the first school willing to accept you. Again there is no uniform admission process or common dates. There are many parents who have admitted their children to SSC schools and now want to move to ICSE or other systems but are unable to do so. And of course RTE does not apply to you.