As if sitting on a Boeing’s cockpit, I switched on my laptop and quickly navigated through the school websites one after another. Post the announcement, my family had gathered enough information about the schools in our neighbourhood.
I had some interesting conversations with a few parents while we were doing our research.
‘My son gets to learn concepts of grade 9th in grade 6. Its an awesome school’, said one.
‘The school makes sure that your child remembers the full book in memory’, said another.
Another parent said, “We bought the seat for our child in 5 Lakhs. We calculated RoI for the potential income of the opportunities that open from this school. All make us proud that this is the best decision for us.”
With such information, I was well-informed in terms of what are the target schools and what are the fallback options etc. At least so I thought at the time. I even asked my wife to be prepared to surrender some fixed deposits or sell some of the other assets to get schools with good ‘RoI’.
I applied in some 5 or 6 schools and then started to struggle to find more. So, I frantically starting googling for the ‘Best schools in Dwarka’. After little effort, I found a list of top 40 schools in Dwarka.
Immediately, I took the print of the web page. This print became the common reference sheet for all notes by all of the family members for the next 45 days while the admission process was in progress.
Feeling elated that I had gotten a head start in my son’s journey in the competitive academic world, I looked outside the large 4 feet by 6 feet window of my newly renovated home office, while sipping my morning dose of black coffee. This is a new room that has been recently added as part of an apartment expansion scheme of the apartment complex we live in. I had painstakingly designed it in a way to suit my working style of having ample space around myself while I nibble through the keyboard and the mousepad. A smile cracked across my lips as I sipped the coffee. A feeling of victory, as if there are points for fastest fingers first and that I would have earned an advantage for my young son. I continued with my daily routine which included going for a 5-mile walk.
However, while walking on that particular morning, my mind was racing through the various options I had punched in the application form of the top school of the family’s choice.
How many points did they calculate?
I couldn’t remember.
Now, I got really nervous.
I reduced my outing that day by half and headed back home. Making sure that safety is not compromised even in this hurry, I sanitized hands, placed my face mask at its right place and got into more comfortable attire. I then flipped open the laptop.
My face turned red in utter shock and I screamed in pain. The submitted form showed only 20 points, while the system suggested that Yuvaan will get 80 points. In my mind, the famous words of Steve Waugh echoed – “Son, you just dropped the world cup!”. It’s a different matter that Steve Waugh later denied saying any such thing. But one can imagine the trauma that Gibbs must have felt at the moment. Again, Gibbs is not a true example of sportsmanship given his track record with bookies and in fixing matches. But let’s give this one to him.
For few minutes, I sat silent. Not able to understand what went so terribly wrong.
I immediately went to the school’s website to check if I can edit the form. There was no edit option. I thought that I would submit a new form and this one could be discarded. However, the school website clearly said –
“In case more than one application is submitted per candidate, then the registration will be immediately canceled.”
I then dialed the school to check what could be the best course of action from here. The operator was a male voice. He simply said, “Well no one else has complained so far so the system should be working fine. You just fill up the form. In case there is a problem later, you can come and discuss with the Principal.”
I said thanks and simply hung up the phone.
Suddenly a new idea struck. I asked my mother to share her phone. I assumed that the application would be unique to a single phone number. Quickly I started entering details in the form. Again, I found that the distance calculation is giving only 20 points. In general, the schools use aerial distance between the school and the home address (permanent address preferably) to calculate the zoning points. Most of them ask for a screenshot as an attachment with the application as proof for claiming the desired points.
I checked everything in the new form and it all looked in proper order. I was confused and scared now. Nervously, I completed the registration process for the mobile number on the school website. I went to the payment gateway, made the payment of Rs. 25/-. However, he did not submit the application as it was still showing 20 points for the distance while they should have been 60, as per the guideline on the website.
“Why can’t anything work smoothly in this world?” I mumbled.
My eyes went to the laptop screen again. I noticed that I was using the Apple Safari browser in my MacBook. A light bulb of thought lit up in my brain. Did I use the wrong browser all along? I immediately switched to the more popular Google chrome browser.
While browsing through the instructions again, I noticed that the school had notified to submit a fresh application in case any changes are required as the current application form does not support an edit option. I immediately took a screenshot of this and saved it in my computer. In case tomorrow, if it comes to the point that there is a disqualification issued by the school on grounds of multiple applications, this screenshot will come handy in staking your claim.
Once again, I filled up all the details. To my delight, the points calculated by the system for the distance were reflecting correctly as 60. I submitted a fresh application with all the details completed meticulously and clicked on the submission button.
“Dear Yuvaan Tyagi,
Your application for Pre-School admission has been received. Points allocated are 80.”
This email came a lot of relief to me. Relaxed I proceeded with my rest of the day.
Over the next few days, we submitted Yuvaan’s application in 19 schools. At Rs. 25/- it was dirt cheap to apply and since most were to be submitted online, it was fairly easy. However, there were a couple of schools that required in person form submission. One school even asked for a Demand Draft submission of Rs. 25/- to be done.
With the whole process of application submission closed in a course of a week, we sat relaxed and thought that now our son is set for next phase of his life. The Department of Education for Delhi Govt publishes a specific schedule and any deviation from there is assumed violation. Below is the schedule for 2021-22 cycle.
At that time, couple of schools asked us to come over and ‘explore’ the school. As. Closing exercise, we were asked to meet a ‘counselor’ who advised that we can pay Rs. 40,000/- and the admission with be confirmed. We were all geared up for the lottery system but such side arrangements were good to confuse us but not convince us.
Then from one of our target schools, we got a call that our son has been shortlisted and we can come to meet the school principal. We met the lady and she asked to deposit the fees as our ‘son was selected’.
But we stayed course to participate in lottery system. Finally, schools started calling us one after another for the lucky draw. Between and me and my father, we covered around 10 schools to attend the lucky draw. Based on her good run in Tambola (Housie) over the years, we sent my mother to our top preferred schools. She was our lucky winner in Housie.
My wife avoided going to schools because she obviously hadn’t had any kind of record to speak of in housie.
The lucky draw itself is a pretty transparent process. The parents are called for picking up chits from a fish bowl and then announce the names to the crowd. One makes friends as well in the process. You see all kind of parents in these places. Ones who are confident that their children will have an easy run, some who are nervous, some boast their money power or reach and some who are just going through the motions.
There are anxious moments too for parents. I remember the first draw that I attended. As the Principal of the school was drawing the chits out and announcing on a loudspeaker, the heartbeat of each parent takes a pause. It’s an orchestrated moment of silence when no smartphones distract your eyes. All gawk in only one direction. That is towards the fish bowl as if its some kind of a crystal ball.
At one such occasion, a mother cried out loud with tears when her child didn’t feature in the selected list from lucky draw for her school of choice. For her the world seemed to have come crashing. That scene reminded me of the world my son was about to enter. Highly competitive, highly demanding and yet the best thing one parent can think for the lives of their kids, in this part of the world. I only wish good for him.
Generally, schools have a main list and then there are waiting lists that can run 200% to 300% of the actual requirement. The process for few hours in every school.
I have to admit we enjoyed going to these events and attending multiple such sessions.
At the end of the process, our son had gotten into 8 schools – main list in 4 schools and waitlisted in another 4. We were satisfied that atleast Yuvaan’s life is about to change.
He finally got into the second most admired school in Dwarka after making it to their waiting list. The school is hardly 800 meters away from our home.
Overall, the entire March 2021 was nerve wrecking and the only discussion amongst the four of us was about Yuvaan’s admission.
Our journey in the Indian education system had finally begun.
Things became more worrisome for us post Diwali of 2020. The notification of commencement of Nursery admissions with full details of the schedule, process and compliance requirement is published by Directorate of Education, Government of Delhi. Typically, this notification comes towards the end of November and the overall process concludes around third week of January.
With lot of anticipation, we as parents started looking forward to the notification. We eagerly opened the newspaper on November 22nd, 2020 and scanned through each page.
New threat of Corona virus spread in the city after violation of norms during the festive season.
Fresh spell of snow in Kashmir and Himachal lead to record low temperatures in Delhi.
Kejriwal denounces new farm laws enacted by the Government of India.
Consumer spending boom during festival season.
These and many more news headlines and supporting content captured the real estate of their subscribed newspapers but there was nothing on the Nursery school admissions.
Thinking it might come the next day. We repeated the same sequence on Tuesday. Outcome was again nothing.
Then again on Wednesday, Thursday and finally on Friday.
Assuming that it might have been delayed by a week, we eagerly waited for our newspaper vendor to drop the newspaper on Monday November 29, 2020. Another set of scanning through the newspaper yielded nothing.
This went on for a couple of days. Fearing that we may have missed the notification, we frantically searched on Google about any news on the subject.
Outcome again was nothing.
We even went to our target nearby school to inquire if the admissions have begun. The security guard on the gate informed us that even school is waiting for the notification from the Government of Delhi.
Convinced that the process has not been initiated yet, we carried on with our day-to-day work and business activities.
Right before Christmas, a Delhi Government official told the local media that Delhi Government was planning to scrap the nursery admissions. The statement was backed with the logic that most of the nursery classes in the session of 2020-21 were held online. Since this particular year of education is more about interacting with others, the online method perhaps was not that effective. Hence it made sense to completely remove the nursery class from the academic year 2021-22 and induct these kids in the pre-school (also known as Kindergarten). The argument further goes that there will be no loss as there is nothing to catch up with at this age.
As parents, we assumed that if the experts in the field are stating so, it must be an acceptable thing and went on with our lives as usual.
But there were many who didn’t see it this way. Multiple schools and existing parent associations denounced the statement citing that such a move will affect all the stakeholders adversely. The common argument being that these kids did not have the exposure of a play school and if we now cancel the nursery admissions, it will be very difficult for these kids to cope up with the social settings on a school when they join in per-school.
In the back of our minds, as parents, we also felt the need for the child to have more exposure to social gatherings in a controlled environment of a school so that he can groom into a fine gentleman. Certainly, this news was something that was bothering us but we still did not debate internally with our own views on the topic.
Leaving things for the heavenly powers to decide, we celebrated Yuvaan’s third birthday in a low key event but compensated with extra gifts for him.
In the meantime, a set of stakeholders filed a public interest litigation seeking cancellation of the nursery admissions in the academic year of 2021-22, based on the Covid-19 situation in the world. The Government of Delhi in its response cited that there is no plan to scrap the plan. It has been delayed due to the pandemic situation and that it would take the input from the petitioners into consideration while making a decision.
Around the same time, we went to meet some of our friends in mid-January 2021, while maintaining the pandemic protocol. During our meeting, the topic of nursery admissions came and we discussed the current approach of ‘wait and watch’ for the notification from the Government of Delhi. Some of our learned friends advised otherwise.
“Why make Yuvaan lose out a year of education?” one said.
“Enrol him into any good school in Gurgaon or Noida. He doesn’t have to come to the school premises physically anyway. By the time, pandemic subsides, Yuvaan would not have any break in his schooling.”
This view gave new mojo to the school hunt for us. We decided to contact schools in Gurgaon. Noida being much further away, distance wise, didn’t fit in our overall scheme of things. We started writing to the popular ones. Shiv Nadar School, DPS, Amity and many more. Most of the schools reverted that the admissions are closed now. However, one of them reverted citing that they would like to interview the parents and the ward before taking any decision. They also sent link to an admission form where we were asked to fill in multiple details.
Details such as our age, educational qualifications, nature of occupation and salaries were regular inputs that the schools form sought. In addition, there were questions that were difficult and tricky to respond to.
“What values other than the academics will your child bring the school in line with the school’s credo?”
We wondered what could Yuvaan take to school. He is only 3 years old and can barely speak a sentence fluently. It took us half a day to decipher this question and another half to come up with an answer. We finally wrote something about virtues like self-discipline, minimalism and spiritualism. It was surprising that we were forced to think beyond their usual selves to make Yuvaan look good in the application form.
Few days after the submission of the form with a fee of Rs 300/- only, we were contacted by the school for a virtual interview. The school official insisted that both the parents should be there and that Yuvaan should be dressed properly for the interview. Initially, we were irked by the school’s use of word ‘properly’. However, they didn’t contest much.
Anyway, the day arrived and we eagerly sat down in front of their laptop and logged into the Microsoft Teams room as was shared by the school. 5 minutes passed, then 10 and then 15, finally the school official called me on my phone and informed me that there is a delay as there was a technical glitch in the current interview. Before closing the call, the official reiterated – “Please make sure that Yuvaan is dressed up properly.” Desperate to get my son admitted to the coveted school, I simply responded, “Absolutely!”.
Finally, we could hear some voices in the Microsoft Teams room and the school panel arrived. However, the long wait in the lobby, completely disengaged Yuvaan and he was more interested in his toy stack in the room than the interview. The meeting started with the Chairperson of the panel (and the school board) asking Yuvaan about his name. As expected, he ignored the prompt. She persisted with a follow up question, asking him to tell what is the colour of his father’s shirt. This caught his attention and immediately came the answer ‘Ellow’.
The school admissions panel then quizzed us on how do we go about taking care of Yuvaan.
‘How much time do you spend with him in a day?’
‘What do you mean by success for him in his life?’
‘How much does the father pay attention to Yuvaan’s activities?’
And so on…
The interaction lasted for around 25 minutes. We handled the questions fairly well. Yuvaan on the other hand preferred to stay behind the laptop screen. At times, he spun the chair on which his father was seated. He also peeped through a couple of times, just to distract the panelists from their discussion with us.
Confident that Yuvaan would make through the interview, we along with my parents started discussing about the logistics for Yuvaan’s schooling in case he is to complete his nursery there.
“Let’s get a driver”, my mother opined. “I shall go and drop him in the morning and bring him back, once the schools open after Corona.”
“It would have been better had he got admission in a school close by. I could have dropped him and picked him every day”, wondered my father.
“We will see once the school opens post pandemic”, my wife retorted.
A few days later the school principal sent the email congratulating us for Yuvaan’s ‘selection’ in the Nursery section there and also shared details for payment of Rs. 80,000/-.
However, by then the Delhi Government had made its intention to kick-off the nursery school admission process, public. So we decided against pursuing the Gurgaon school admission any further.
Within a week from then, the announcement of Nursery school admissions process kick-off came from Delhi Government. Almost entire process was to be done online. Parents could go to the website of the school of their choice. Fill up the online form. Pay the fee and then wait for the next steps.
On 18th Feb, 2021, I woke up really early. I was very excited with the thought that Yuvaan would soon be entering formal education. I felt that I was on the pilot’s seat for the career that was going to be launched for Yuvaan with this first action. I thought that I was scripting the destiny of my child. I thought that these first steps would enable Yuvaan to make a dent in the Universe. Consequently, I felt a rush of adrenaline in my body. I wanted to do everything right in this go. Nothing should come in the way of my child’s success, I thought.
Till that point I had only heard about the point system in the admission process. My wife and I had learned about the process followed by some of the schools from online resources. The point system is the outcome of the zoning that the Ganguly committee recommended and was adopted on the orders of the Honorable Delhi High Court.
I was about to have my first encounter with the points system.
A non-government organization ‘Social Jurist’ took up the cause of nursery admission and education at pre-school level as a subject of discussion and debate. Their primary contention was the lack of proper definition of a nursery or pre-school leading to children even below the age of 4 years making it to class 1st. It needs to be noted here that over the years, the bone of contention has always been the age of entry for Class 1st with the primary concern being that formal education should not start for a child before the age of 5 years.
This led to the landmark decision of the Delhi High Court wherein it constituted the Ganguly committee in 2006. A small group of eminent educationists under the aegis of the then CBSE Chairman Shri Ashok Ganguly, submitted their report to the Delhi High Court as requested by the court.
Multiple landmark recommendations were made in the report. The key and relevant ones have been highlighted below –
Any formal education should be started from the Class 1. There would be a pre-school class. That’s the educationist recommendation. However, in lieu of other societal and parental concerns especially for the ones who are both working parents, two years of pre-school is prescribed. In some cases, recommendations for a creche are also made.
Zoning of the neighborhoods in Delhi so that there is equitable distribution of quality schools.
It was a strong observation of the committee that school’s mushrooming is a big issue. Paraphrasing the words of the committee, it’s easier to setup a school in the vacant land available in South Delhi than to setup a mall.
Consequently, there is a lot of inconsistency in the quality of schools in Delhi.
The committee so recommended providing a neighborhood constraint to the school with the virtue of distance of child’s home from the school. This is commonly known as zoning
The class prior to class 1 was also named as preparatory or pre-primary and the one before it as pre-school.
To make the education more equitable and accessible to all, irrespective of whether the schools are government funded or unaided educational institutes, the Right to Education (RTE) act mandates a quota of 25% seats for Economically Weaker Section (EWS), with the exception of minority institutes that are exempted from RTE. Primarily, the intention was to provide access to unaided private educational institution’s infrastructure along with aid to students from this section of the society as well. The intention is to accelerate the coverage while we come to the point when government and other municipality schools measure up in terms of performance and facilities.
There are strong rumours though that people doing reasonably well in their lives have also devised creative methods to obtain the EWS certificate from competent authority. The Bollywood movie ‘English Medium’ rightly pointed out to this ‘route’ of parents to admit their kids to the top schools in Delhi.
The next major change was brought in 2016. With a new government in National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, the concept of ‘management seats’ which was typically kept as 20% of the overall number of seats became a sticking point. The new Government wanted to abolish the management quota and open the entire 75% seats (remaining 25% reserved for the EWS category) to the general category and so through the points system.
The Deputy Chief Minister in his statement in the court, in context of the zoning of educational institutions, compared the work done by private institutes with the contracting firms doing civil works for the government. In his argument, he emphasized that since these institutes use the land allocated by the government, so they are no better than any contractor who can be asked to leave anytime. Obviously, this naïve comparison didn’t go down well with the private unaided institutions. This was contested heavily in the court and the court decided to maintain the status quo i.e. 20% of seats as management quota for the time being.
Thanks to all the great efforts from various individuals and institutions, the nursery admissions process puts a lot of pressure on the average Joe, who neither has the EWS certificate nor the deep pockets to participate in the auction of the management seats.
Quite obviously, Yuvaan’s parents were also worried about his admissions given the complications of the whole process. Within a couple of kilometers from their current residence, there were a few popular options. This gave them some relief and they assumed that it would be a smooth ride for their son.
As the lockdown progressed, it was clear that any kind of education institutions – pre-school or regular – are not going to open anytime soon. A year later, when I am writing this text, it is still not clear. The best guess at the moment is post summer break opening of schools and that too with partial capacity.
Yuvaan continued his learning journey with YouTube kids and ad-hoc interventions from his parents with educational toys, some books etc. I had also started reading him a bedtime story every day before Yuvaan used to go to sleep in night. This continued for few months. Around Diwali, that is the month of November, we also deliberated on engaging a home tuition for him to learn the basics of alphabet and numbers. But given that the pandemic was still widespread, we decided against it.
Yuvaan in the meantime continued watching more advanced videos on YouTube kids. It became an essential companion for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He wouldn’t start his meal till the iPad, that he had taken away from his grandfather, was switched on and placed in front of him. Like a deep researcher going through his notes or an optimist swiping through Tinder app, left or right, Yuvaan would scroll through the video stream. He made friends with ‘Diana and Roma’, joined as a silent companion in ‘Dolly and Friends’, learned poems in Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and many more other languages, and also started getting scared with Halloween based episodes of ‘Aldo’.
He had his own songs and enjoyed his own little world he stitched around himself. And he continued to provide the love and happiness to his family members and their friends, with his naughtiness and cute demands.
How oblivion was he from the fact that the education and schooling system he is about to enter has been a topic of debate and intense wrangling between school managements, parents and, in the last few years, the elected government in the (semi-) state of Delhi.
Delhi education system was enabled via Delhi School Education Act of 1973. The initial act provided a robust framework covering a host of aspects in the school’s education – infrastructure, pedagogy, pay structure for teachers, management structure, governance from Directorate, student progression, grievance management etc. It provided a bedrock for multiple schools to thrive and provide world class education to the local population. Needless to say, Delhi education system and Delhi schools became one of the most coveted institutes in the country. Students from far and near started aspiring for the right kind of education for their kids and very soon the performance at external examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education, popularly known as CBSE, became benchmarks of schools’ reputation.
As the country chugged towards more and more industrialization and building larger manufacturing bases, need for engineering talent increased dramatically. During this, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) emerged as meccas for engineering and talented students from all over the country started appearing in the Joint Entrance Examination, popularly known as JEE. For a few thousand seats, lakhs of students started appearing in the JEE. So much was the intensity of competition, that some schools shifted the axis of competence and performance from not just board examination results but also from number of students ‘cracking’ the JEE.
A direct correlation between the school and engineering examination performance, which also meant employment options in future, changed the game completely. The best performing schools became preferred schools for parents. Parents started using all their means to enter the school of their choice. The ones who could afford to ‘buy’ a seat via donation or capitation fee, started buying the seats. The ones with political or bureaucratic connections started trying to influence the school management councils with referrals (also known as ‘sifarish’). The average Joe though felt completed left out and settled for whatever he could get in the schools within his reach. Finding nothing else, the average Joe increased their trips to the temples, mosques, churches or other religious places of their faith seeking a miracle. A common phrase one could hear from parents whose kid got through the prestigious schools was ‘Life ban gayee’. A clear demarcation of haves and have nots started emerging in the Delhi education system.
In addition, the Delhi School system deeply embraced the concept of ‘Catch Them Young’. Very soon a lot of pre-schools mushroomed all over the city that boasted of their close tie-ups with the top schools in demand. Parents beelined in front of these pre-schools to seek an early advantage for their ward’s admission to the coveted school of their child. An ever-increasing desire of parents to provide for the best, led to these pre-schools ‘preparing’ kids for nursery school admissions by training them with material from Class 1st onwards.
Imagine, a three-year old child being made to memorize things instead of learning by grasping. Such an attempt permanently changes the child’s cognitive abilities, as their approach to learning is distorted for life.
The whole education system became more and more ‘parent-centric’ or ‘school-centric’ than being child-centric. Parent preferred to have kids in the pre-nursery and then not to worry about the kids till they finally complete their schooling in class 12th. Thus, the same school had kids from the age of 2.5 years to 17 years.
The whole education system has been a subject of intense debate for many years with eminent people. In 1993, the famous cartoonist R K Laxman raised the question of school bag weight and other perils in the then prevailing education system in Rajya Sabha. The Home Minister of the day formed a committee under the chairmanship of Prof. Yashpal to evaluate the system and come back with recommendations. Prof. Yashpal prepared a crisp 30-page report famously known as ‘Learning without burden’. It highlighted various fallacies in the education system that leaned more towards rote and using guides and keys to clear the examination, than actually educating with observation and understanding.
Just as anything that starts to rot, things were about to change for the Delhi Schooling system.