By Joyeeta Dey
Securing admission for their children in ‘quality’ private preschools is a matter of enormous competition amongst the middle and upper classes. Interviews of parents and the prospective student serve as gatekeepers determining the eligibility of parents to send their child to a particular school. As per the CBSE report on ‘Review and Moderation of The Criteria Of Nursery Admission In The Private Schools Of Delhi,’ many teachers and principals claim that the system of interviewing parents allow schools to get a sense of parental beliefs regarding child rearing and home environment, which enables ‘the schools to evaluate effective parenting support.’ Unfortunately, they can also serve as a smokescreen for concealing the perpetuation of social inequality via schooling. In fact, one could argue that the emphasis on interviews, the resultant anxiety, and its consequences for families and children overturns multiple key objectives of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).
Objective # 1 ECCE and its potential to serve as a leveler
One of the most powerful arguments in favour of ECCE is that it might provide a solution to the intractable problem of socio-economic mobility. While most children’s life trajectories seem largely determined by their family income, a research study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) goes to show that even children from less privileged backgrounds have enhanced professional and financial status, if provided early childhood interventions. If a two or three year old’s abilities are taken as a given at this point, without factoring in the plasticity of a child’s brain, the opportunity of effecting the conversion that early childhood interventions allow is relinquished. A child’s life opportunities are affected by interviews which have proved completely useless at indicating potential, according to Dr. Shyama Chona (in the ‘Ashok Ganguly Report on Nursery and Pre-Schools’) on the basis of her decades of experience.)
The Ganguly committee set up by order of the Delhi High court to look into the matter of preschool and nursery admissions had recommended a complete abolition of any interaction with children or parents before admission and argued for a system of neighbourhood schools. While the concept of neighbourhood schooling isn’t currently entirely workable in our country given the uneven distribution of schools, especially in urban areas, it could curb the persistent trend of what Krishna Kumar calls “early selection” by the elite to reproduce their positions of privilege for the next generation, which nursery interviews allow.
Allowing interviews keeps the door open for extortion of bribes and rejection due to class consciousness. The prevalence of the latter practices is common knowledge, as is the proven lack of commitment to egalitarian principles private schools regularly display in instances of maltreatment of and fake registrations to avoid inclusion of Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) candidates. Given the habitual abuse of power, a compromise in the autonomy of school management in admission procedures is not unreasonable and overrides some of the non-malicious arguments in favour of interviews. The possible furthering of ‘commercialization of education’ that this interview process makes possible, is the charge Ashok Agarwal, the social jurist, had made when challenging the Delhi High Court Judgment which stated that the RTE provision for abolition of interview processes did not apply to private unaided schools.
Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that many of the alternatives like first-come-first-serve, lottery system and points system don’t exclude the potential of corruption and elitism either, as the schools themselves conduct these processes. Each of them comes with its own problems as the lottery system is unverifiable by external authorities and the points system have stipulations like child-of-alumni preference, which many see as elitist.
# 2: ECCE should be child-centric and age appropriate
A child’s life opportunities are affected by interviews which have proved completely useless at indicating potential, according to Dr. Shyama Chona (in the ‘Ashok Ganguly Report on Nursery and Pre-Schools’) on the basis of her decades of experience. Responding to the high parental anxiety around nursery admission, preschools end up teaching preliminary literacy-numeracy skills so that children can crack the interviews. In fact, parenting websites provide advice like “Begin with simple conversation and gradually extend this activity time to say half an hour by including oral and written skills” to prepare children for preschool interview! Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a study conducted in Delhi showed that most parents with children in private nursery schools believed that early childhood programmes were meant to teach reading, writing and learning English. As a result, the structured teaching-learning activities of primary school are mimicked at the preschool level, ignoring another core principle of early childhood curriculum and pedagogy, that it must be ‘child-centric’ and age appropriate.
The NUEPA report on Early Childhood Education in India says that for the 0-3 years age group (3 is when most children start nursery), picking up abilities such as toilet training, ‘ability to communicate clearly and confidently’ and ‘sociability and ability to stay away from family for a few hours’ should be focused on, instead of reading and writing. The current stress on developmentally inappropriate soft academic skills that the nursery admissions process forces on pre-schools takes away from the important objectives of emotional and behavioural skills which enable successful transitioning into the school environment. Also, it so happens that many children display certain slowness initially but eventually, by the time school age comes around, catch up. But this needless forcing of early learning often leads to ‘performance anxiety, adjustment disorders, school phobia and more importantly specific learning ‘disability’ in these children.
Calls to Abolish Interviews
The resistance that private schools are exhibiting to the implementation of a no-interview policy has recurrently been dismissed by the policy reports and court judgments as purely reflective of the schools’ profit seeking and discriminatory behaviour. However, it is important to acknowledge what this change away from status quo is geared towards achieving – using elite private schools as motors for change from a deeply hierarchical to a more egalitarian society. Though not a new idea (suggested way back even in the Yashpal Committee Report in 1993 and being introduced in several states), it is still a radical move, and given the purpose of that these schools have historically served, at some level paradoxical. In fact, the bewildered questions by teachers and principals of private schools – about why when everything appeared to be going well in these schools such changes need to be implemented – reflect how alien these concerns are to the current functioning of these institutions.
The structural challenges inherent to this measure, even for the best-intentioned schools, needs to be recognized. It is crucially important to tailor early years learning to the child’s social and cultural world, and given the diversity that India represents, in a mixed classroom this is bound to be daunting. This recognition is not to take away from acknowledging the other motives at play, but to extend focus from suspicion driven monitoring and supervision, to investing in further local research in pedagogy and curriculum to address the challenges of heterogeneous classrooms and cultural discontinuities, and integrating that into teacher training, so that teachers can be prepared for the classes they will have to face as a result of these policies.
Joyeeta Dey is currently working with a non-profit organization. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London and Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Joyeeta most enjoys contemporary poetry and modern art.
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