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February 10, 2010

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India's race to nursery schools

EVERY year at this time Indian parents are racing to get their tots' tiny feet into the doors of one of New Delhi's 250 elite nursery schools. It's a desperate process, often involving bribes, to get a three-year-old into school. Ravi Nessman reports.

The Indian nursery school scramble is on. Tens of thousands of parents across New Delhi are taking off work to complete applications, paying poorly disguised bribes to school officials, and obsessively checking Websites in desperate bids to win spots in good private schools for their three-year-olds.

"It really makes you nervous," says police officer Madan Mohan, who was waiting to hear if his daughter, Esha, made it past the first round of cuts at one of the five schools she applied to. "We have no choice."

Private education in New Delhi, like its counterparts in New York or London, once was a luxury reserved for India's upper class. But with government-run schools largely a shambles and the rapidly growing Indian middle class suddenly flush with cash, the demand for private schools has exploded.

The problem is growing in cities across the country, but it is particularly acute in the crowded capital. About 1.4 million pupils in New Delhi alone attend 1,900 private schools, which generally run from nursery school through high school. The government runs another 3,000 schools.

Each January, parents race to get their tots' tiny feet in the doors of one of the city's 250 elite schools.

Many schools receive four applications for every slot. One well-known school, Air Force Bal Bharati, received 1,600 applications for 85 places, according to Principal Anand Swaroop.

Government schools rarely have working libraries, science labs or computer rooms, the curriculum is based largely on rote learning and teachers are poorly trained and so unmotivated that many do not bother to show up for class, says Ashok Ganguly, former head of the Central Board of Education, which oversees thousands of public and private schools across the country.

"There is no scope for a student to excel," he says.

The demand for better education created a free-for-all among private schools, which began soliciting hefty contributions, or outright bribes, from applicants, rejecting parents based on their professions and even interviewing prospective three-year-old students to see if they were worthy of a coveted space.

"The process of admission was totally arbitrary," says Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who sued in 2006 seeking admissions reforms.

A court-appointed commission led by Ganguly set down new rules for New Delhi schools that banned child interviews, allowed schools to charge only nominal application fees, and demanded the schools be more transparent in how they choose students.

It set a calendar for applications - pick up forms in December, submit them in January and find out results in February. It also mandated a standardized 100-point system for acceptance, with children getting credit for their parents' level of education, how close they live to a school, and whether they have a sibling already enrolled.

The rules apply only to Delhi, and chaos reigns in cities outside it. Even in Delhi, schools still have wide discretion to award bonus points for other factors of their choosing, which they are supposed to make public but often do not.

The application process remains so fraught it has spawned at least three independent Websites, with more than 40,000 members, to guide confused and frustrated applicants.

Pankaj Walecha, a 33-year-old doctor, applied to 13 schools to guarantee that his son, Kabir, would get in somewhere. Sireesh Bansal, a 43-year-old government employee, applied to a staggering 45 schools for his son, taking 15 days off work to collect and fill out all the applications.

Rajan Arora, who started the Website after fighting to get his son into school, says the process is as stressful for parents as childbirth.

"This is the craziest period of their lives," he says.

His Website lists 69 questions schools ask parents, from the routine - "Is your child toilet trained?" - to the perplexing - "Are you a vegetarian?"

For some parents, the worry begins even earlier than age three.

One post on the site wonders whether the choice of day care center could affect a child's chances of getting into the right nursery school. Arora says no.

Despite the rules, some Delhi schools were demanding hefty contributions for "building funds" from parents and one school was asking for 31,000 rupees (US$675) in cash, Arora says. Some desperate parents also fall victim to scam artists posing as "consultants" who promise to get their children accepted into the school of their choice, he says.

With demand for quality education surging in recent years, new and increasingly lavish schools have opened across the city, some charging as much as 100,000 rupees a year, a huge sum here that dwarfs the cost of college and is about four times the country's average annual income.

Dozens of children in matching corduroy jackets and brown slacks climb on shiny plastic slides and bounce on seesaws in an indoor playground underneath a soaring glass atrium at The Sovereign School, which opened in 2008.

In a nearby classroom, five-year-olds practice typing their names on computers. The school, parts of which still are being built, has WiFi and central air-conditioning, and plans to give all its students personal laptops for classroom instruction from the sixth grade.

The school, which costs 56,000 rupees a year, is targeting parents from India's growing professional class who want their children to have the computer and technology skills needed to compete in modern India, says Preetika Jindal, the principal.

"Parents are more educated, and they want to provide the best education to their children," she says.

Outside Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, one of New Delhi's most renowned private schools, parents waited for hours in the evening cold for school officials to post the list of those who made it to the interview stage.

Simin Jaffry, a 39-year-old psychologist who applied to 10 schools for her son, did not make the cut.

The interviews she did get at other schools left her feeling that officials were only interested in her middle-class family's pedigree: "They go for the elite class," she says.

She is frustrated, but "slightly hopeful" her son still might get accepted somewhere.

If not, she might have to seek out an influential politician for help. Or, if things look really grim, she could be forced to turn to an old acquaintance who called a few weeks ago offering to get her son into a top nursery school for a commission of 400,000 rupees.

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed," she says.


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