Winter in Delhi is often blurry. And more so, if you are a parent of a three-year-old. With mist comes cold sweat as parents have to prepare for nursery admissions that start in January every year.
As rules of the game change almost every year, no amount of preparations spares them the confusion and chaos that have come to qualify this process in most big cities of the country.
In the Capital, where nursery admission process is halfway through, the high court on Tuesday stayed the new rule that Delhi government had implemented for 298 private unaided schools built on land provided by Delhi Development Authority—to admit children residing only in the neighbourhood.
Schools found it bizarre as till last year they were admitting students according to fixed parameters like other schools. The government, however, called it their obligation.
“They fight every year,” rues Amim Yaseen, father of a three-year-old girl and a resident of south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, listing out the issues that have been the bone of contention—minimum age of the child, then upper limit of age for admission, maximum points for distance, parents’ qualification, minority status and others.
“My wife and I had done our ‘homework’ well. We relied on Google, spoke to our friends and relatives who have been through the process, and visited schools for a ground report. It didn’t quite prepare us for admissions but for the ordeal that was to come,” he says, adding that he wasn’t stumped when the government laid down the neighbourhood-only criterion and the court flicked it away.
“It always happens. I would have been surprised had the flip-flop not happened,” he says.
In most cities where parents rely on private schools for good education, nursery admissions are about aspirations for all the stakeholders.
Parents want a seat in a sought-after school; schools want the best crop of students who can pay up for facilities they flaunt; and the government wants all of them to know the playfield belongs to it.
But none can really get there due to problems such as shortage of schools, lack of regulations and the private-government tussle.
Not Enough Schools
According to estimates, the number of children seeking admission is nearly four times that available.
Delhi has 1,700 private schools that offer approximately 1.25 lakh seats in nursery.
Finding a perfectly fair formula to accommodate all these children has been a challenge. Government’s own schools fall short of space and quality while it has not yet considered building new ones for those who can afford.
“The problem with nursery admissions is that the supply is short and the demand high. This scarcity is systematically created. It is because government has not been able to create public institutions offering reliable, decent nursery education,” says Krishna Kumar, educationist and former chairperson of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
The number of general category seats in nursery went down by a quarter after the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act was enforced in 2010 in Delhi. Though 25% seats were reserved for economically weaker sections, there was no mandate for the government or private partners to strategically increase the number of schools.
Surprisingly, there hasn’t either been an effort to find the exact number of students who become eligible for admission to nursery every year.
“The government can consider making a system in which a unique number is issued to every applicant that is used to apply to individual schools. That way, the government will know the exact number of children seeking admission and the number of schools they apply to,” says an admission coordinator of a private school in Delhi.
About 100 schools in Mumbai had come together last year to conduct admissions online. This not only made the number of admission-seekers clear, but also made the process more convenient for parents as they did not have to go to individual schools.
Lack of Regulation
Though India has a powerful law that makes primary education compulsory for children aged between six and 14 years, it has fallen short of spelling out a uniform selection criterion for pre-primary classes — a level most private schools start admitting children at. Though state governments have made it mandatory for schools to reserve 25% seats for EWS, many of them have failed to ban interviews of children and parents for admission.
RTE Act says that schools can make their own policy for selection of children in the general category, but no screening or interview will be allowed.
In Kolkata, though most private schools admit children only after meeting them, it is often called an informal interaction.
Such interactions happen in Lucknow and Chennai where the state government either does not release a comprehensive schedule or changes it often.
“We see if the kid is ready and fit to come to the school. There is nothing like draw of lots,” says Peter Fanthome (MLA), principal of St Teresa Day School and College, Lucknow.
He goes on to add that in Lucknow, “schools do not follow any point system. It is only laid out in Delhi Education Act”.
According to Ashok Ganguly, former chairperson of Central Board of Secondary Education, a law to regulate the early schooling days can go a long way in eliminating the chaos.
“RTE has no provision for pre-primary. If amended suitably, then this can be made applicable to the entire country and can cover issues such as admission process, teacher recruitment, and curriculum,” he had said in an interview with HT last December.
A committee headed by Ganguly had devised the 100-point formula to replace interviews in Delhi schools in 2007. It has been modified several times since. Often in the past, governments have changed the minimum age for nursery and other parameters for admission, only to meet schools in court.
For example, when the Maharashtra government made it compulsory for schools to admit students from nursery, if it is their entry-level for regular students, the schools moved the court against the order.
They are now free to choose the entry-level from which they want to follow RTE quota. This means that the school is free to decide whether nursery or Class 1 should be the entry-point for RTE students.
In Delhi alone, the matter of nursery admission has gone into litigation at least six times in the last 10 years. “The problem of nursery admission is all over the country. However, Delhi is the only city where, through a lot of advocacy, the business of interviews has been stopped,” says Venita Kaul, a professor in Ambedkar University, Delhi.
But will this advocacy serve any purpose if children still have to struggle to even start schooling?
(With inputs from Shradha Chettri in Delhi, Puja Pednekar in Mumbai, Tanmay Chatterjee in Kolkata and Rajeev Mullick in Lucknow)