Over the last year, Amyrah Oberoi’s parents have looked up every school in south Mumbai, evaluated, eliminated, studied admission procedures, and even filled in two application forms. Amyrah is one-and-a-half years old, and will not start school till 2014.
“The pre-school admission procedure is a question of the survival of the fittest. Looking up schools for a one-year-old might seem early, but in our city, that is just how competitive it is,” said Bhakti Oberoi.
As soon as Amyrah turned one, Oberoi put her name down at two of the city’s most sought-after schools, Cathedral and John Connon School, and JB Petit High School for Girls, both located at Fort. Both take in only around 40 students each at the pre-primary level, and hundreds of parents approach them every year. Also, both require parents to register their children for admission as soon as the child turns one.“We take in a very small class of only 40 students, so we pick them based on a lottery system. The only preference we give is to children of former students and siblings of students from our school,” said Meera Issacs, principal of Cathedral and John Connon School.
In 2009, the Indian government passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE), which disallowed schools from taking interviews of parents or children at the admission level. As per RTE provisions, schools are now supposed select students randomly, giving preference to those whose siblings had already been admitted, and to those children who live in the same neighbourhood.
However, the lack of information on the criteria schools actually use to sift through applicants has led to a great deal of anxiety among parents.
“The whole procedure was very stressful. We only had a handful of schools to choose from, and you hear all these stories of students not being taken in, or schools surreptitiously asking for large donations. We wanted to avoid anything illegal or problematic and finally found a place where the procedure was straightforward,” said Aneesha, a parent of a four-year-old, who recently managed to get her daughter admitted to a well-known school in Juhu.
Education activists have taken up the cause of the confusion that ensued, post-RTE, as schools started devising their own covert ways to screen applicants. “We have had complaints from parents saying that they were made to give written tests for their child’s admission. Some schools have been asking for donations under the pretext of building funds,” said Arundhati Chavan, president of Parent Teacher Association United Forum. Chavan also mentioned that schools often evaluate children based on an “interaction”, which they say is merely to check for learning disabilities, but actually use it to weed out students they do not want to take.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL), was filed in April last year by the Forum for Fairness in Education, a not-for-profit, regarding schools flouting the RTE by conducting interviews and taking written tests for parents for pre-school admissions. “A few months ago, a school in Fort was pulled up for taking only students from upmarket areas in the vicinity and this is not an isolated case. The reality is that screening of students does take place in most city schools, which is why we filed a PIL,” said Jayant Jain, president of the forum.
Despite the complaints though, most schools maintain they follow transparent admission procedures. “We follow a strictly first-come-first-served policy, but give a preference to students in the neighbourhood as the school was founded by the the builders of this housing complex. We do not take interviews as that is not the right way to admit a child to a school,” said Kalyani Patnaik, principal of Hiranandani Foundation School, Powai.