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Best of luck, parents

This is it, folks. This is the morning that every competitive, professional Delhi couple with a three-year-old stumbles out of bed straight to the laptop and, still bleary from a night of restless sleep, clicks on their favourite school’s website and scans the list of applicants to see if their little darling has made the cut, writes Kate Darnton.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2010 21:22 IST

This is it, folks. This is the morning that every competitive, professional Delhi couple with a three-year-old stumbles out of bed straight to the laptop and, still bleary from a night of restless sleep, clicks on their favourite school’s website and scans the list of applicants to see if their little darling has made the cut.

It is a day of elation and self-congratulation for a select few. A day of disappointment and self-doubt for many: my own daughters are likely to be missing from the lists. We are an American family.

When we moved to Delhi six months ago, I naively assumed we would have little trouble enrolling our girls in a good local school. I would just stroll over to our neighborhood elementary, knock on the door, and be welcomed in.

I never got past the guard. My letters of introduction remained unanswered; my emails of supplication unreturned. Oh how naïve, my Indian friends snickered. You have to wait for the admissions season. You have to apply like the rest of us. And so we did.

The odds are stacked against us. Though there are approximately 2,600 recognised primary schools in Delhi, only a small handful matters to our self-selected South Delhi set. When I eavesdrop during pick-up at our pre-school, I hear the same names mentioned again and again: Shri Ram and Vasant Valley, maybe Delhi Public School, maybe Modern. (For non-governmental families, Sanskriti is considered too much of a stretch.)

With everyone applying to the same few schools, the chances of getting into a top choice are, to put it mildly, slim. Last year, the Hindustan Times ranked Shri Ram the number one school in South Delhi.

Over the past few weeks, the school’s website has listed 1,575 three-year-old candidates competing for 112 spots, including 40 spots reserved for the EWS (‘Economically Weaker Section’), staff, and management. With only 72 remaining seats, that leaves each regular candidate a 4.7 per cent chance of getting in. Last year’s acceptance rate at Harvard College was 7.1 per cent.

So what does it take to get in? That’s hard to figure out. There is, of course, the points system, a formula that ascribes points to applicants for certain quantifiable attributes. The ‘perfect’ applicant could theoretically reach the Holy Grail of 100 points, but that would require him or her to possess a combination of highly unusual traits. (A first-born child with mild ‘special needs’, adopted by a recently-transferred widow racks up a quick 30 points at Shri Ram.)

One thing is consistent for every school: geography matters. At Shri Ram, an applicant gets 15 points for living within 8 kms of the school. At Vasant Valley, she gets 25 for living within 10 kms. With competition running so high, one urban myth now circulating is that some families go so far as to ‘fake’ their home address, putting down the residence of a family member who lives close to their top choice school.

Another point-getter: siblings. At Shri Ram, having a brother or sister at the school gets an applicant a whopping 20 points; at Vasant Valley that sibling is worth 15. Some applicants complain that with such strong preference given to siblings, it is nearly impossible for new families to break into an established school. The numbers back them up: if 20 of the spots at Shri Ram are given to siblings, the school’s acceptance rate for non-sibling applicants shrinks to a cool 3.5 per cent. That’s half the acceptance rate of Harvard.

The points system was devised by an independent panel of experts known as the Ganguly Committee in 2006, following a high court order to guarantee that all private schools follow uniform admission criteria. The order of the court enumerated three basic principles for evolving a common admission procedure: transparency, elimination of interview, and minimising the discretion of management/principal.

In short, it was an attempt to make the entire admissions process less opaque and more democratic. The admissions criteria would be apparent and uniform: every applicant would be measured by the same standards; every applicant would know what those standards are. Schools would be less able to make admissions decisions based on the power, connections, and influence of a candidate’s parents. When the Delhi Directorate of Education finally issued its order in 2008, it went so far as to forbid “interviews of or interaction with the child” or his parents, though it did allow for “informal interaction with the parents(s)/guardian(s) in advance.”

Can a school choose the best candidates to join its student body without meeting with applicants or their families? As private institutions, shouldn’t these schools be allowed to choose their own members for their own reasons — barring discrimination against race, religion, caste, sexual preference, and income? Isn’t it the very quality of the carefully selected student body that makes these schools so very good? Harvard College requires applicants to write essays and to be interviewed before being selected for admission. Shouldn’t Shri Ram?

Actually, Shri Ram does. In addition to the points system, the application to the school contains five essay questions that aim to get a clearer picture of the applicant’s character and family dynamic. The school also conducts formal ‘informal interaction’ sessions during which parents are divided into groups of ten and given 45 minutes to engage in discussion as two school representatives listen and watch.

Our own ‘informal interaction’ felt achingly artificial and tense. Participants were left feeling flustered and confused. What were the administrators looking for? How well did we do?

For many Delhi parents, the Shri Ram ‘interaction’ caps off several weeks of intense admissions stress. Fathers have taken time off work to craft their child’s applications. Mothers have stood in nervous clumps outside the pre-schools day after day, talking tactics. At least it’s not as bad as Mumbai they say, shaking their heads. Or New York, I could add, where parents have been known to write resumes for their two-year-olds and pay professional consultants thousands of dollars to assist with nursery school applications.

The fundamental problem in all these mega-cities is the same: an imbalance of supply and demand. There are too many educated professionals competing for too few spots for their kids. Like New York and Mumbai, Delhi needs more good schools. Until that happens, there will be thousands more disappointed parents today and every admissions day. At least it makes getting into the Ivy League look easy.

Kate Darnton is a Delhi-based writer and editor

The views expressed by the author are personal