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Now, mediocrity has become the norm

Thursday, 06 March 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped
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Access to education may have become a right. However, access to education of choice and quality is clearly not a priority. There is a certain loss of dignity in the process

The nursery schools debacle is not just about Delhi. It is about the principle of access. While the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, that unilaterally carved away 25 per cent of private school seats, is being implemented willingly by the progressive private schools, it does mean that there are fewer places available to ‘normal' parents willing and able to pay for their wards' education. It is also about a high stakes hurdle game that is being played with the lives of an entire generation. It is about choosing one kind of fairness over another kind of fairness in the name of equity. It is about centralising control in the cause of mistrust for education outside the state system.

The situation is dire. Parents are traumatised. School principals are forced to spend time and resources in litigation when they would rather support school examinations and planning sessions. Children as young as four know what uncertainty and insecurity means, what fears a form can bring and become acquainted with the term ‘unsuccessful’. High-stake hurdles come to them young — for lives can be made by going to the right school. A good school nurtures knowledge and confidence, a mediocre school can only breed mediocrity.

The situation in Delhi is a mess. The steady centralisation of admission criteria probably has just the last step left — a centralised lottery. Given the confusion and distress at this stage that may well be the only acceptable option left right now. First they removed the management criteria — so schools now have no choice left in who they choose to include or exclude as students. They have to take them as they come by the points system. The points system then became a composite of proximity to school, transfer credits, sibling premiums and alumni scores, with proximity being given the highest weight age. While each of these criteria are pretty standard across the world when deciding admissions they may not necessarily work in the context of this city. Indeed, any access criteria have to be adapted to context. Further drama ensued when the lottery was run, names selected and when the transfer criteria was tipping the balance against locals, the criteria was changed after the lottery. A new rubric emerged following persuasion by noise. The lottery for the 25 per cent category reserved for the Economically Weaker Sections was not without its own drama as it emerged that neighbourhood criteria applied here too with a one kilometre radius being given priority over others. This criteria had not been made clear earlier, it appears.

All in all, a shambles and a clear lesson on how not to run any selection process. Especially one that is created due to paucity of quality places, which in turn is caused due to an over-regulated system that makes it difficult to open or expand private schooling capacity. Government schools of course are too dire for most middle-class people to contemplate sending their child there. A better performing Government school system could have helped lower these barriers, but sadly, that is one that will take much work to cross.

Access to education may have become a right, but access to education of choice and quality is clearly not a priority. There is a certain loss of human dignity and self-worth in this process which alone should be a reason for a serious rethink. The holy grail of all admissions systems is a balance between fairness, equity, choice, ability and affordability. A system that does not provide a steady and transparent navigable path to these goals is clearly a failure and needs to be redesigned. Some of these current tangle will be arranged by the court orders when they come in.

The issue of access criteria to limited resources feels anachronistic and takes one back to the old days of bread lines and rations. But if this issue is not resolved it will lead to parents seeking choices outside the system — either this will breed corruption or a further brain drain. Unless there is more capacity in quality schooling, quibbling over admissions criteria is merely shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship is doomed; we need a rescue flotilla.

 
 
 
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