I mentioned in an earlier post that Ayaan will be going to a new school this year. This basically means that he will move from his current playschool to a playgroup section in a big school, where he will stay till Class X, if we stay in Mumbai. This post is about my experience with the whole process, my final decisions and my current (though constantly evolving) views on the subject of schooling.
A good place to start is always the beginning and in my typical wannabe-supermom style, I began by making a detailed excel sheet which covered all the schools that I could possibly consider sending Ayaan to and then proceeded to populate said sheet with all the necessary details for each school like the address and contact number, board of education, whether it was co-ed, starting age and application dates. After talking to friends, colleagues and a random selection of friendly mothers at the park, I narrowed my shortlist down to three schools (with a couple of back-ups in case none of those worked out).
The funny thing with the schools on my ‘Wanted’ list is that they were all very different from each other, the only common thing tying them together being the universal feedback that these were ‘good’ schools. At one extreme, there was School A, founded and run by one of the premier industrialist families in India and that came with all the frills of the IB curriculum, air-conditioned classrooms and international school trips in the later years. Then there was School B that was supposed to be really good but notoriously hard to get into, unless you knew someone on the board of trustees or a well-placed politician at the very least – and as a consequence, ended up with a fairly large percentage of students from rich and celebrity families. It’s also known for a very high emphasis on academics right from the very early years (read: lots of homework from kindergarten onwards). And finally, there was School C - which was probably at the bottom of my consideration set when I started out because in general, it is a more old-fashioned, simple sort of a school and, I am a little ashamed to admit this, ‘less famous’ (for want of a better word).
Now the real twist to the story came when I realised that School C accepts kids a whole year before the other two do. This put me into quite a quandary because:
- If I applied to School C and Ayaan got in and went there for a year, it would make his chances of getting into the other (and at this point more desirable) schools pretty slim since they prefer not to take in kids who have already been admitted to another school.
- But the flip side was that both Schools A & B are really hard to get into so I would be taking a pretty big risk by not trying School A at all because then it would mean that I would have to go for one of my back-up schools instead.
So when the registration process for School C was announced, we decided to postpone the decision by a couple of months by applying anyway and taking a call on whether to send him there closer to time, if he got in.
Anyway, we applied, he got through and we will be finally sending him there. And we won’t apply to the other schools at all. As you can see, it was quite an about turn and it’s something that grew on me gradually as I went through the process of applying and admitting Ayaan into this school. The tipping point was an interesting chat with a colleague at work about his decision to send both his daughters to this school. And he was very clear that his reason for it was peer group. He didn’t want them going to a school where even the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ on birthday presents and parties could threaten to bankrupt him. This is something that I never thought about before since it’s not an issue I faced in my schooling years but various conversations with other parents added to my belief that this is something that is becoming a big part of how your kid relates to his friends and feels about himself... Here are some examples that I have heard in the last couple of months:
- About a kid telling his parents that he felt embarrassed that his mother dropped him to school in a small car while his friends came in big cars
- About another kid who actually went up to the birthday girl’s mum and gave the return gift (a set of crayons and a colouring book) back because ‘she didn’t like it’
- And while on the subject of return gifts/ party favours, anecdotes of kids getting iPods and remote-controlled cars to bring back from the parties they attended (and if this sounds like a stretch, Ayaan went to a birthday party last month and came home with a Build-a-Bear teddy, and those are definitely not cheap!)
- Of birthday parties at 5-star hotels (even for two-year olds), organised by professional party planners and replete with magicians, fire-eaters, DJs and pony rides.
After this conversation, I suddenly started looking at this school decision from a completely different lens and School C slowly started moving from being at the bottom on my list to the top. And what I have been seeing of the school and its approach crystalised my thoughts in the same direction. Stuff like:
- When we went to pay the fees and also at the first parent meeting, we ran into atleast 7 people whom we knew from work/ college. It generally gave us a sense that we were amongst ‘people like us’.
- The school itself is very down-to-earth and by that I mean very like the schools I went to when I was growing up. The classrooms are simple. They allow the kids to distribute no more than two boiled sweets on their birthdays and when I went to buy the uniform from the authorised shop, we spent a princely amount of Rs. 1100 for four sets of shirts and shorts, 5 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes and 10 identity cards – Jai was understandably bugged with me for making him go to the ATM to withdraw cash before we went...
- There was no interview as a part of the admission process – there’s nothing I find more ridiculous than this practice of evaluating three and four-year olds on their ability to communicate with a bunch of complete strangers, something that kids at that age are actually quite averse to doing. So I liked the fact that this school hadn’t fallen prey to that particular temptation. In fact, their first criteria of selection is your pin code because they don’t want kids commuting, followed by the parents’ backgrounds (I have heard that they give preference to kids of professionals).
- This also reflects in approach they take to education in the primary school. There is no homework, no tests or exams and in general a very relaxed and play-based approach to teaching for atleast the first 2-3 years.
But there were some pretty significant downsides as well:
- Lack of space: this school is basically just a building with barely any space for kids to play. But that’s Bombay schools for you. The other schools are a little more spacious but you can forget about the basketball courts and football fields we grew up with in other towns and cities.
- This is a religious school, unlike the others which are more or less secular. Given Ayaan’s mixed parentage, I think I would have been much more comfortable with a school that did not have overt religious communication as a part of their curriculum. But then I thought about it and realised that a lot of my (Hindu) friends went to convent schools and could mouth hymns and portions of the Bible with practised ease but it was just something that they learnt and not necessarily internalised as a belief. In any case, I do want Ayaan to know as much as he can about both our religions and the school is making it easier for me by atleast telling him about one of them.
- My last niggling concern (which is also a source of comfort) is that Ayaan will have a pretty traditional kind of education – the kind that most Indian kids in my generation had. On the one hand, it is reassuring because I know what it’s all about and we all did turn out fine. But having been part of the same system, I also know how the approach (especially in the later years) sa lot more on learning by rote rather than interacting with and internalising the knowledge. And also how it can be quite restrictive and can stifle the creativity/ edge out of the mavericks. I did consider this school for a bit but in the end, it all boils down to this – I don’t have the guts. The temptation and the comfort of sticking to the tried and tested path is too high.
Just one last point (in case, any of you are still awake after that endless, meandering account). There have been a lot of words flying around the blogosphere on what kind of education is best for kids. I think we often post-rationalise these things. Three months ago, I was just as likely to have chosen one of the other schools I mentioned and then, I suspect this would have been a very different kind of post. And that too would have been a good and valid decision... so I think we should stop being so hard on ourselves and on others for the choices we/ they make. We are all doing what we believe is best for our kids and like it or not, circumstances and luck have a pretty big role to play in the whole thing.