Friday, June 15, 2018

The decline and fall of SSC

This is a two-part post on my views on (i) the conversion of SSC Schools to ICSE/CBSE etc. and (ii) the announcement that the admission standards for IIT have been lowered to enable more applicants to qualify.

Let me start with some disclaimers. I went to an ICSE school, I was a privileged child, and, now am even more privileged. As a regular reader of this blog you should know this. I have not had the need nor the opportunity to admit a child into school and college, therefore, all the hoopla that goes with it has not been experienced by me. I have some information on this hoopla all obtained thru hearsay and by reading. So, do forgive me if I deeply offend you or display a shocking lack of knowledge or facts.

Let us plunge headlong.

The SSC syllabus is devised, managed and conducted by the State Government of Maharashtra. After you finish 10 years of school, you appear for the SSC Exam. The medium of instruction for several SSC schools is Marathi, but now it seems more and more people are choosing to place their children in the ‘English medium’ schools. Over the years, for various reasons, the academic standard of the SSC system, as a whole, has been declining. In the past, with very few options, most parents put their children into SSC schools, and, these students are today hugely successful.

SSC schools, to put it in a nutshell, have a lower academic standard, have far lower fees, have more ordinary teachers, and, today, cater to a different economic demograph. I am not interested in the reasons, nor justifications, nor am I criticizing the system. This is a simple fact.

Today, parents have a much greater choice in what system their children should be educated. You have the IB schools, the ICSE schools, the CBSE schools, and the GCSE Schools, to list but a few. It goes without saying that all these are more expensive, have better academics and infrastructure, better faculty and cater to a different segment. These schools are generally unaffordable to large swathes of the population that send their children to SSC schools.

Today, if you pass by schools in Mumbai which offer SSC and are “Convent” schools [i.e. run by Priests or Catholics] you will see that a vast proportion of the students are – gasp – Muslim. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. Once again this is a statement of fact. I don’t want explanations. Besides a disproportionately large Muslim student body, you will observe that the parents come from very humble backgrounds and, often are, blue collar workers, domestic help and rickshaw/taxi drivers. Nothing wrong with this. Once again is a statement of fact. I don’t want explanations.

In other words, horses for courses. Broadly, there is a school and a system of education on offer at several different price points. Depending on where you lie in the economic demograph, you choose your school.

What this boils down to is that today, the more well off parents do not send their kids to SSC schools.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading of the considerable disquiet among parents whose children are in the SSC primary sections. I am sure you have read of how Sharadashram Vidyalaya - a hallowed SSC school in the Maharashtrian stronghold Dadar - the alma mater of the God Sachin Tendulkar, the tragic Vinod Kambli and jug eared Ajit Agarkar has attempted to change from SSC. Mind you I know that Sachin and Vinod came from humble backgrounds. Howls of protest from indignant parents. The main opposition is that with the change from SSC, fees will rise. The Hansraj Morarji Public School is attempting the same change. Slightly different push back in this case. A teacher has protested as she will lose her job once there is a system change.

I believe, far more SSC schools will attempt to either discontinue SSC – albeit in a scaled manner – or offer an additional system be it ICSE or something else. I may point out that the ICSE schools are now upgrading and offering GCSE and IB. To that extent there is a gradual shift to a better academic standard.

In my view, there is one reason, and one reason alone, at the very heart, the core, why on the schools are upgrading. That reason is money. Money for the school. Let me explain.

At the very bottom of the pyramid you have the SSC schools with poor academics, poor faculty and poor infrastructure. They attract poor students. Mind you the term poor is relative. Poor with regard to SSC is in relation to ICSE/GCSE etc. As you go up the pyramid, at the very top are the IB schools which have the highest academic programme, best paid faculty, the best infrastructure all meeting some international standard. Obviously, the fees are the highest and the student body is the wealthiest. We all know that with things that are more expensive, the profit margins are the highest. The schools that offer more expensive programs most often make more money. Therefore, the logic for SSC schools to upgrade becomes obvious and clear. Mind you, I am not saying that just because the school makes the most money its owners are laughing all the way to the bank. The owners may have more noble or philanthropic ideas. This is not a question of taking money home, it’s simply a way to make more money for the institution. What it does with the profits is a different matter which I am not discussing here.

There is a fundamental problem with SSC. You may well ask why can SSC schools not get better teachers, pay them more, have better infrastructure and charge students more. I believe that this is simply not possible as the course is so academically poor that paying more simply breaks down the economic or value proposition. No one in his right mind will pay more for the SSC system. It is as simple as that. Thus, the SSC system has its inbuilt limitations.

However schools and their trustees try to camouflage their upgrades, the bottom line is there is simply more money as you move up the value chain. It follows that if there is an upgrade, there will be displacement. Let us for the moment leave teachers out of this displacement. I mean the teachers who will be rendered redundant as they do not have the skills to teach a higher academic program. The displacement I fear more is for the masses of students who will be unable to afford non SSC schools. Where will these students go? The free Municipal schools that are so terribly broken down that doing an SSC from there is a downgrade? This is the disruption I fear.

What could the answers be? Further subsidizing education for the economically backward and putting them into say, CBSE or ICSE schools? Simply preventing or as we love in India “banning” change of education systems? I really don’t have an answer. Our demographics and economic upliftment in urban areas is so great that upgraded schools will be able to easily fill classrooms with relatively richer students. In fact this increase in wealth across India has had a direct effect on the fortunes of the IIT’s and IIM’s. I shall point this out in part two of this post. But as things stand, it is the really poor that will get caught out.

What is happening is, on several fronts, disturbing. It is also inevitable. How it is handled remains to be seen.

Of one thing I am sure. Our government will undoubtedly fuck it all up.

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