Last year, my friend took a brave step. Rather than joining the rat race to put his kid in one of the top private school 10 kilometers away, he chose a “decent one” in the neighbourhood.
The gamble paid off.
The four-year-old boy was too shy to talk but is now the most popular kid in the class. He can spell words using phonetics, loves judo and, with many classmates living in the neighbourhood, has a hectic social life even after school. His dad, of course, is the happiest.
The school is only a 10-minute drive from home.
I also know others who went through the difficult, tiring and very competitive process of nursery admissions. One even faked a rent agreement to show he lived in the vicinity of a very sought-after school to gain points under the neighbourhood criteria.
Apparently, there are so many parents faking their residential addresses that schools have started physical verification to detect the fraud.
Getting a seat in an elite school was never easy. All through my growing years, I heard stories of parents paying huge donations to get the coveted seat. One of my neighbours was euphemistically asked to send his child in a brand-new bus on the first day to school. I know many parents who tried political connections or tapped their networked friends.
Following extensive litigation against such class-bias in selection of children, we now have court-mandated rules for nursery admissions. The Ganguly Committee report accepted by the court in 2007 prohibited all testing and interviews of children and their parents, recommending that schools decide a child's eligibility based on a 100-point scale.
Recently, schools have been allowed to set their own admission norms and most follow the point system that rewards girls, students with older siblings in the same school, children of alumni and those living in the neighbourhood.
Others have devised their unique criteria. According to Education World magazine, some schools offer points to parents who had participated in the Asiad and Olympics or who are employed in certain government service.
These have not made life simpler. By rewarding points to children of alumni, some elite schools screen out parents who did not go to such schools themselves. Most parents still go through the grind of applying to 10 schools and more to secure the best for their children.
According to a 2011 survey by Credit Suisse, Indians spend more on education than Russians, Chinese or Brazilians. But in a status-conscious Delhi, the admission race is not only about education. Here, the name of your child's school is as important as your residential address and the brand of your car in determining who you are.
So out of Delhi's 3,000-odd private schools, only about 100 are in real demand. With no mechanism in place to ensure basic academic and infrastructural standards in schools, parents quickly avoid options that are not “established” yet.
As far as the “established” schools go, Delhi has not added many to its traditional list because no concessional land has been allotted to schools since 2003. Those schools, which were granted plots earlier, did not follow the mandate of providing seats for poor children. So the government stopped doling out land altogether.
In the last 10 years, most new schools came up in Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad, resulting in a skewed supply in Delhi.
Regulating the admission process is necessary. But as long as schools, both government and private, are allowed to operate without meeting basic standards, the great nursery rush will not ease in Delhi.
Elite brands are in demand everywhere and will always be.
But parents should also have the option to trust neighbourhood schools.