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Classes for hypocrites

Bristling about the way schools function, and commercialistion of education, while we send our children to those very schools exposes our double-standards, writes Nandita Sengupta.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2006 03:43 IST

You can yell from the rooftops that education mustn’t be ‘commercialised’. But if you look at how our ‘best’ schools operate (‘best’ defined by parents, students and teachers in surveys), you will find that schools only stick to the brief dictated by parents.

Private schools have flourished in the last 20 years. They, and not any State school, give parents the pattern of learning that parents want for their kids. It’s not a long or complicated list: good academics, a healthy ambience, warm teachers, an approachable principal and a curriculum that will develop hidden talents. When a child graduates from Class 12, he is expected to have good marks, excellent communication skills (read: proficiency in English), confidence and the ability to land a well-paying job. Parents are looking only for all-rounded personality development. They want a school that will erase background ‘deficiencies’ and ensure ‘individuality’ as an ingredient in its assembly-line procedure.

This is what Shayama Chona has been offering in DPS, RK Puram for years now. Parents have been falling over themselves to ensure their kids get a ticket to ride in this school. Would this be the case if the new style was really perceived as ‘bad’? Once DPS, RK Puram began to be recognised by the mid-Eighties, the entire DPS chain and a host of other private schools followed suit. Chona had reasons to be proud. Her students made an impact, made it to the news — which, in turn, fed a new trend of doing things to make it to the news. (Today, schools hire PR firms). Chona has received the maximum flak among principals for ‘corporatising’ school education. Flip the coin and she’s hailed as the one who brought in a professional touch into education.

Through the Eighties and Nineties, schools galloped to shift paradigm from an NCERT/ CBSE dictated regime to a far more flexible and keener learning environment. Competition began in full force. Private schools were in the race to cater to a demanding society —  eager to have its young grow up into smart global citizens. Schools complied and how.

The formula was simple: expose all children to the same set of stimuli, academic and otherwise. Pick up the ones with aptitude and groom them thoroughly. Parents were trained to knock off the blinkers and let kids engage in what they had aptitude in.

The range of extracurricular activities expanded furiously, most of the costs borne by parents. If parents objected, they did so in their living rooms. Classes 4 to 9 became the busiest.

To add to the frenzy, there were newspaper-in-education programmes that brought in inter-school competitions and a keen image consciousness among school managements and principals. Not least among the agents here, the NIE projects were welcomed as a perfect catalyst for the change from a quiet, disciplined, linear education process to being a dynamic, competitive, multi-dimensional force.

Donations became par for the course and parents complied. If any Parent-Teacher Association protested, their voice wasn’t strong enough. Investments made by schools were in building auditoriums, swimming pools, multimedia/audio-visual rooms and mini-golf courses.

Libraries and science labs didn’t benefit as much as they could have because you can’t demonstrate much in a well-stocked library and, well, only accidents in labs make good photo ops.

Emphasis was on recruiting nutritionists and counsellors, on holding personality workshops and ironing out creases where there were none. All this needs good hard cash. Fees couldn’t be raised beyond a point. State guidelines suffocated the opening up of additional revenue streams.

Eventually, the pressure built up on parents and the crib got louder. But no one I know has moved his kid from a ‘good’ school to a ‘not-so-good’ one on the basis of his convictions. But a terrible thing was happening. There was too much ‘society’ on campus.

The learning lost focus on language capabilities and social perspective. The stress was on presentation and developing inter-personal skills. No one, the State included, complained about education getting commercialised. Parents were transformed into clients and bringing up children was outsourced to schools. We never questioned the paradigm shift. The only point debated was how difficult admissions into a ‘good school’ had become.

No one questioned why a parent should grudgingly buy a seat in a school if a government school will admit the child. The much-acclaimed Navodaya schools are an excellent chain, as are the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas. This is not to say that ‘contact’ does not work in these schools. But they focus mainly on academics.

When the donations began to get out of hand and the government was forced to take note, schools swiftly changed tack. The new tune was how parents could ‘help’. Could the person working in say, a FMCG, give the schools gift hampers for the junior section sports day?

Could the parent with the private hospital organise a free eye camp? Parents obliged, all for the good of the child. This, of course, isn’t corruption. It’s a simple barter between representatives of two organisations. Almost in tandem followed the institutional sales pitch. A chief concern for corporates recruiting at the senior level is where their children will study. A simple solution was to work out a corporate quota. Did anyone complain?

In all this, the government schools were happily oblivious to the furious pace just outside their campuses. The State that should frame the guidelines for private education was too busy rewriting history or figuring out how best to extend the benefits of the private school experiment to the poor through absurd diktats. What about the government schools? Who cares?