While his friends play football and cricket, 11-year-old Ayush Jha from Delhi is running the great Indian rat race for a coveted place in one of the elite IITs.
The Class 6 student spends two evenings a week at a coaching institute preparing for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) that he might attempt six years from now.
Engineering remains a preferred career of choice for parents figuring out what they’d like their children to do, while the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, are regarded as the premier schools of technical education in the country.
But now, families are sowing the seeds of this hallowed dream in younger minds.
“We started my elder son Yash’s coaching when he was in Class 7, after which he began doing well in subjects like mathematics. So, for my younger son Ayush, we started from Class 6 and since then he has been performing much better academically,” said Ayush’s father Ajoy Jha, a mechanical engineer.
Cram school FIITJEE, where the brothers study, says enrolment at the junior level has been shooting up 10-15% every year. The fee comes to about Rs 35,000 a year, but parents are only too happy to pay.
“When children are young they are more receptive and develop analytical reasoning. Early in life they are taught about time management and this helps in holistic development,” said RL Trikha, director of the institute.
The trend is not limited to Delhi. Nikhil Ohri, a Class 9 student from Mumbai’s St Lawrence School says he joined a foundation course for the JEE two years ago.
“It is fine to reduce time for outdoor sports and focus on studies. Though I will appear for the board exams next year, I will continue with the IIT-JEE preparations simultaneously,” he said.
Critics say coaching institutes often build up unrealistic hope for students and parents by promising results even though the candidate may not have an aptitude for engineering, while psychologists warn against the adult stress these children face at a very early age.
More than a million aspirants sat for the first phase of the JEE on Saturday, fighting for less than 10,000 seats.
“Children, who are confined to books early, develop problems later in life in having conversations with people, differentiating between acquaintances and friends, and are not able to handle rejection and failure,” said Geetanjali Kumar, a professional counsellor in Delhi.
Experts point out that moulding students from a young age to achieve their academic goals is a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, it means that students are well-prepared and focused on their academic future right from the start. But it also leaves them with little room to make a choice,” said Shivam Purohit, a Mumbai-based career counsellor.
(With inputs from Omkar Gokhale in Mumbai)