Nursery Admissions- A Game of Russian Roulette

Getting a child admitted into a good school is a matter of consternation for a parent anywhere. More so in a country of 1.2 billion people, where gaining admission into a respectable school is perceived as a passport to socio-economic mobility for not just the child but for the family as a whole. With approximately 50 children being born every minute, two new preschool classes are potentially added to the Indian education system. No wonder then, every parent wants their child to be a part of the “big school” as early as possible, which translates into a frantic scramble for the entry-level class. While the application process for nursery admissions is over, the results are awaited with bated breath.

This cliff hanger of a fortnight promises a nail-biting finish for most parents of 3 years old children in the NCR. Renowned education consultant, Mrs. Abha Adams believes, “Nursery admissions in the NCR will remain contentious and controversial as long as demand outstrips supply. Due to bad planning, schools of choice are not available across all areas in the NCR. New schools have come into existence but everyone tends to zero into 4 or 5 schools that they perceive to deliver quality.”

The issues relating to nursery admissions remain much the same as a decade ago. In 2006, a committee headed by Mr. Ashok Ganguly, the then Chairman of CBSE, was given the mandate to formulate admission norms into primary/pre-primary schools. The Ganguly Committee, as it is popularly referred to, formulated the 100 points system, which initially also faced huge criticism from all stakeholders.

The ambiguous wording of the Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009 and the lack of clarity on part of policy makers have muddled the admission waters further. An issue as important as education for our diverse multitudes is so fraught with emotions that no single policy can possibly be acceptable to all. The wordings and nuances of policy and their possible interpretation are invariably analysed ad nauseam and open to interpretation making it controversial from the outset. Mrs Adams concurs, “The continued confusion about the point system, the flip flops on the part of the Delhi government on criteria for admission, UP and Haryana singing from a different hymn book creates further chaos”.

Clause 13 (1) of RTE, which reads, “while admitting a child, no school or person shall subject the child or his/her parents to any screening procedure” (screening procedure, as defined by Section 2 (o), refers to “the method of selection for admission of a child, in preference over another, other than a random method”) has implications for Nursery admissions.

Sticklers to the letter of the law, interpret clause 13 (1) read in conjunction with Clause 2(o) to mean that the only allowable and fair system is to select students through a lottery. Critics of the pure play lottery system find it unsustainable and rigid as it overrides all professional, personal and locational considerations. There is also the undeniable rationale of giving preference to the sibling of an enrolled student.

It is precisely for these reasons, as communicated by many school governing bodies and parents, that the Ministry of HRD clarified (vide letter dated December 10, 2010) that “keeping in view the unique background, ethos and objectives of the schools in Delhi, the categorisation of the applicants should be on the basis of a criteria developed in terms of the objectives of the school and can include sibling, transfer case, single parent and alumni.” Delhi government shifted its original stance from favouring the completely random lottery system to providing greater flexibility to schools in determining their own admission criteria. On December 15, 2010, the Directorate of Education (DoE) issued an order that “each school should formulate a policy under which admissions are to take place. The policy shall include criteria for categorisation of applications in terms of the objectives of the school on a rational, reasonable and just basis. There should be no profiling of the child based on parental education qualifications… There shall be no testing and interviews of any child/parent falling within or outside the categories, and selection would be on a random basis.”

In response to being allowed the flexibility of deciding “school specific criteria”, some prominent schools came up with interesting and innovative categories – points for parents having participated in Asiad, Olympics, etc (DPS, RK Puram and DPS, Mathura Road), points for twins (DPS, Vasant Kunj and Laxman Public School), points for parents being employed in certain types of government service (DPS, Rohini), etc.

Very often, the school specific criteria were found to be in direct or indirect contravention of the letter and spirit of the regulation. That perhaps explains why, despite the RTE regulation explicitly stating that “there should be no profiling of the child based on parental education qualifications”, some schools choose to blatantly disregard it. Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights slammed the city government’s nursery admission guidelines as “violative” of the Right to Education Act, issuing it a notice seeking immediate revision of the order, accusing the Delhi Government of having “given its own interpretations and made changes that contravene the provisions of the Act which strictly prohibit any screening procedure.” A civil rights group also moved the Delhi High court against the guidelines issued by the Delhi government. Public scrutiny and societal outrage has made DoE force some schools, including the DPS schools, to withdraw the contravening criteria.

But parents like Puja Agarwal (name changed), a Delhi based lawyer who is seeking admission for her three-years old daughter says that the whole process is not very confidence inspiring, “It has been very stressful, because each school has a different criteria, based on which documents have to be collated. Two schools I applied to had allocated points for contributions to society. It took me 4 – 5 days to find documentary proof to claim those points. When I went to the school, I wasn’t asked any questions and relevant boxes were ticked; all over in 2 minutes. One can’t help get the feeling that it is all a sham.” Mrs. Abha Adams observes, “I just cannot imagine how one can measure this criterion (contribution to society)!”

So how do schools ensure a level-playing field for parents so that they are not caught in the midst of this crossfire and chaos? Mr. Inder Dutt Salwan, Director, Salwan Public School, Mayur Vihar, maintains, “For the sake of fair play, we must have a commonsensical and simple mantra. School should entertain applications from parents within the catchment area only and (who) can afford to pay the school fee. As the number of applicants is more than the available seats, those with siblings should be given preference and lottery for the remaining. I feel that other criteria are unnecessary and can be manipulated for back-door entries”. Reflecting on the current practice, Mr. Amit Puri, father of a 3 year old, concludes, “Unfortunately, it all boils down to who I know. If my contacts are better than yours, my child will get in.”

So what is the answer to this challenge that begins to haunt the parents of 3 years old with the dawn of every New Year in the NCR? “None”, says Lalage Prabhu, ex-Principal of The British School, New Delhi, “No matter what criteria are adopted, some children will always be at a disadvantage.” Morever, a redistribution of existing capacity amongst a growing population of students is certainly not the answer. What NCR needs is the creation of incremental capacity and the improvement in quality of the thousands of schools, both public and private. Successive governments that have failed to ensure this and now require the government and civic society’s urgent attention. Efforts in improvement in quality will have a wider and more immediate impact, as there is only limited capacity to establish new schools in Delhi due to considerations related to land availability and its prohibitive cost. It is criminal that government schools, which have large parcels of prime property earmarked for education, are not held accountable for the education that they deliver, even in the RTE. The government needs to recognise its responsibility towards the future voters of this country and acknowledge that differential politics when it comes to dealings with private schools vs. public schools will have marginal impact. Until then, all policy initiatives will essentially be treating the symptom rather than the malaise.