I see them huddled outside the school gates. Some are engaged in chit chat, others stare at unread newspapers as they wait for their children to emerge from the examination centre. They are this year's batch of anxious parents, prisoners along with their children in the annual rite of board examinations.
My daughter has another year to go. Yet, I'm already laying out commandments: coaching classes in the summer, no missing school and just forget about holidays. But I'm no tiger mother. My children have never sung nursery rhymes for uncle-aunty or competed for every trophy from elocution to compost-making. They were never packed off to the dozens of 'self-improvement' and hobby classes so popular in the city (hell, I said, my kids need time to dream). And when a child says she wants to bunk school because she's going to the book fair with her grandfather, I say, yeah, that's education too.
The board exams represent the culmination of 12 years of school but they don't represent education. Last year, CN Rao, head of the prime minister's scientific advisory council complained that India had 'an examination system but not an education system'. In October, Infosys chairman emeritus Narayana Murthy said the quality of students getting into the IITs had deteriorated due to coaching classes that teach limited sets of problems. And the only time the late RK Narayan spoke in his six years in Parliament was to lament the heavy schoolbags children were forced to carry.
Yet, no matter how high pitched the complaint or how extensive the reform - Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has made the Class 10 Boards optional and has announced plans for vocational training - there seems to be no getting past this dreaded month. Performance is reduced to five, three-hour-long, 100-mark pap-ers where the ability to memorise rather than analyse is tested, where intelligence is measured by academic ability, and where a half percentage point will determine your child's college and subject. The sheer numbers would make for stress. This year 1.3 million students will take the Class 10 and 12 boards, up from 1.2 million last year. More numbers than before will compete for finite college seats, for the 1,200 seats at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) or the 5,000 IIT seats.
But it is parents rather than peers that account for much of the stress, says Roopak Kathpalia, a suicide counsellor with 13 years' experience. It's parents who stake prestige on examination results. And it's parents who need to see their kids as individuals with different aptitudes and talents rather than as cogs in the board system. "It is natural to have some ambition for your kids," says Kathpalia. But unrealistic and unrelenting pressure can rub off on the children, sometimes with disastrous results. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 5,857 students attempted suicide in 2006 due to exam-related stress. What can be more tragic than a promising life cut short because someone, somewhere determined that self-esteem was about the ability to score high marks?
One of my closest friends failed his Class 12 board and is now at the very top of his career, a published author, a wonderful human being and a great dad. I was the sort of student who made parent-teacher meetings a nightmare for my mother but I blossomed in college and did OK. Others talk of the importance of failure: those who succeed in life are undaunted by the fear of failing; in fact failure prepares them for life's inevitable hardships while continued success makes people risk-averse.
The purpose of education goes beyond an exam that asks predictable questions. This year's English paper, for instance, asked students to report on a bomb blast and contained a comprehension passage, aptly, on stress and competition. Parents were reportedly furious for this out-of-the-box questioning. The purpose of education is not college admission; it is not to create skilled workers but well-rounded individuals with sound values. As this month unravels, perhaps we'd do well to remember that. These exams do not measure success or ability or failure. These exams are not a battle. These exams are not life.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.)