School admissions: a weighty debate

Like forests, tigers, minerals and groundwater, schools too, will now be meticulously ‘mapped’ by government agencies. The purpose is to find out if there are enough good ones around to cater to thousands of aspiring toddlers (looking for nursery admissions, of course!). Focus, in this case, will be rivetted on our cities, which are bursting in the seams. In fact, the Delhi administration has already made a public announcement, promising its citizens a secondary school, offering ‘quality education’ in every locality. A wise move by a very savvy Chief Minister. Why? Because the demand for ‘quality’ schools has suddenly climaxed in the capital. Currently, frenzied activities are on within the four walls of every A/B/C-listed school, even as desperately anxious guardians of three and four-year olds throng the school grounds. Admission lists are being finalized, and the future of their wards are at stake. 

But what’s this fuss all about? After all, such agony is not unfamiliar. The quest for a ‘good’ school has challenged urban Indians for decades now. The times when a parent could casually stroll to the neighbourhood school and get the child registered in the rolls, are long, long gone. So what’s so special about this new set of parents? Well, their task just got tougher with the introduction of the Delhi High Court-directed  admission norms, which among other things, stipulates that children should not travel more than 10.kms (less, if possible) to go to school. 

In other words, a ‘neighbourhood school’ is back in fashion! Sadly, the casualness that went with it, isn’t. Now the parents are more traumatized than ever. There aren’t enough ‘good’ schools around in all neighbourhoods, they protest, and they are being forced to settle for the not-so-good ones. Result? The scramble for quality schools is getting more and more frantic.  

Can this hysteria be somehow prevented or cured? Difficult. How can one argue against the basic logic of the admission directive? No one can deny that travelling long distances on horribly crowded streets is harmful for the health and happiness of a young child. And can one seriously claim that cutting down on number of vehicles ferrying students to and fro will not bring much-needed relief to Delhi’s drivers. Not to forget the soothing impact this is likely to have on the city’s mounting air pollution levels. 

So then what is the solution? The Chief Minister’s promise of setting up more schools is of course relevant, but it will only work if the parents are convinced that  the fresh set is ‘good’ enough for their offsprings. 

Is it possible to change their mindset? Again, difficult. But for starters, I suggest a reversal of roles. Instead of students being given weightages based on parameters such as their place of residence, let the schools be rated. A panel of judges can be set up by the government, but it must be an independent body and include parents, professionals, and other members of civil society.  

The parameters set for the schools, however, are most critical. They cannot be solely academic. The old ones with proven records then will always steal the show. Also, it is time that we accept that numbers scored in board examinations cannot be the only indicator of excellence. A school, where a person spends eight to ten hours daily during life’s most impressionable phase, has to provide more than just a classroom and a teacher. It has to provide an environment. It has to provide a space that nurtures individual growth, and at the same time instills a sense of community.

These are not intangible, impractical standards. They can be achieved by offering some basic, practical amenities. Lets consider one example. At least 60 to 70 per cent schools in the capital  do not provide adequate sanitation facilities to the students. So a school which ensures that the ratio between number of urinals, ablution taps provided in the toilets and the number of students using these, is fairly well balanced should be given top weightage. There is a flip side, of course. Plush toilets cannot decide the quality of a school. In fact, if the bathrooms are too plush, the wastage of water and energy too stark, then the weightage must plummet accordingly. Just as lack of basic convenience can affect health and individual comfort, living in an unsustainable, unrealistic world of over consumption can ruin mindsets. 

Yes, this loo lesson is vitally important, and the school that teaches it well will be of  top quality. Unquestionably so.