Six years ago, when Prupti Shah admitted her son Keval to Dhirubhai Ambani International School at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, she felt she was taking a bit of a chance.
Back then, international schools were just a nascent fad and very few people had heard of the International Baccalaureate, or IB, explained the housewife from Malabar Hill.
Today, Shah is glad she followed her instinct. “I’m very happy with my son’s education,” she said.
Over the past few years, like Shah, many parents of Mumbai’s elite have become enamoured of the IB programme, which was developed by a more than thirty-year-old educational foundation based in Geneva, with the aim of fostering world peace by developing global citizens.
Among Indian cities, Mumbai has the largest number of schools offering international certifications.
At the class 12 level, IB is now the most popular certification, with 22 city schools offering it. But the ‘A’ levels, designed by UK-based non-profit University of Cambridge International Examinations, has also made inroads, with 12 city schools offering it.
At the class 10 level, most schools with either one of these two class 12 international programmes offer the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, or the IGCSE. In addition, many schools that don’t have a class 11 or 12 at all also offer this certification, taking the total number of city schools offering the IGCSE to 50.
These numbers are growing rapidly.
Farzana Dohadwalla, IB’s South Asia region representative, said she is inundated with applications from schools that want to offer this programme, although she declined to reveal how many are in the pipeline.
“Every few days another school gets authorised as an international school, so the figure I give you today may not be true of next week,” said Dohadwalla.
The number of city schools offering the class 10 IGCSE has also been growing fast -- by 30 per cent every year, said Ian Chambers, the South Asia regional manager for the board.
What’s driving demand?
The most powerful force fuelling international education in Mumbai is the relentless march of globalisation. As a part of the city’s economy integrates rapidly with the world’s, the elite driving this change want their children to get an education that gives them a global orientation.
In particular, many of these parents hope their children will go abroad for their undergraduate studies and therefore look for certifications that make it easier for them to adapt to college education in the US and the UK, the two most popular academic destinations.
“Parents now have greater disposable income,” said Meenakshi Thapan, a sociology professor at Delhi University. “They aspire to convert their economic capital into social capital by getting the ‘international’ tag.”
But it’s not merely socio-economic factors spurring the demand. Some parents genuinely value these programmes’ approach to learning. Although indigenous boards are also evolving to reflect the changing economic context and parents’ aspirations, right now the consensus is that the international programmes lay a greater emphasis than the indigenous boards on conceptual learning and applying knowledge as opposed to the mere accumulation of information.
“There is very little mugging,” said Revati Gandhi, 15, who moved to an IB school from one affiliated to the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education board. “Plus, I get to do karate and learn French in school itself.”
Flexibility and variety are indeed virtues of the international programmes, allowing a student to study art and mathematics simultaneously, for example.
“Balancing science and non-science subjects within the same curriculum was exciting,” said Sudeshna Chatterjee, principal of Jamnabai Narsee School in Vile Parle (W), which added an IB stream to its existing ICSE one in 2005.
Finally, students at these schools tend to get more individual attention because these boards require low student-teacher ratios. The IB, for instance, has a ceiling of 20 students to each teacher, while even elite schools affiliated to other boards have much higher ratios.
“Certification is only one aspect of education, but since academics are an important part of a child’s life, a child-friendly board like the IGCSE can make all the difference,” said Kamala Mukunda, a teacher at Centre for Learning, an alternative school just outside Bangalore, and author of What did you ask in school today?
Is it value for money?
The rush for international certifications is unequivocally an elite phenomenon because schools offering them charge fees that are several multiples of those that offer national boards or the state board.
For instance, fees range from Rs 3 lakh a year to more than Rs 6 lakh a year — several times the fees charged even by the most elite ICSE schools, where the range is between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh a year.
No doubt, many of these international schools have what could be called “five-star” facilities, such as air-conditioned classrooms, music rooms and swimming pools.
But critics wonder whether these trappings are really what constitute a good education, and whether the schools are able to deliver the virtues of these programmes in the classroom.
A major challenge that some international schools face is recruiting teachers equipped to teach these programmes. “Are these IB teachers even qualified?” asks Perin Bagli, principal of Activity High School, Gamadia Road
This is, of course, likely to change with time, as more teachers get trained.
Also, whatever the current limitations of the international programmes and the manner in which schools are implementing them, one thing is certain: their arrival in the city has forced schools of other boards to innovate.
“The international schools have forced others to re-invent themselves,” said B. Kushal, director of Maharashtra’s D.A.V. network of schools, which follow the Central Board of Secondary Education board. “We now need to match parents’ global aspirations.”