Around this time last year, a horde of panicked parents made desperate phone calls to their local post office. “Please check again, letter aaya hoga” they badgered the local postman who in turn, started to silently calculate the baksheesh inflation rate for the year. The pack wasn’t checking on some urgent medical test results – panic had spread because admission decisions to the city’s most elite kindergarten were in the mail. I know because I was part of the herd.
For the next few weeks, Mumbai’s most powerful talked nursery admissions.
“Did Aavarna get in?”
“I can’t believe Aavir didn’t make the cut.”
Until this point, things still made sense even though I realized we were discussing the academic prowess of children who were too young to recite their ABCs. We wanted our children in the ‘right schools’ and so we pulled strings like crazed guitar players on LSD to get them there. Logical, right? But shortly thereafter, all logic fell apart as I realized that virtually every parent in these elite schools enrolls their children in a parallel education system – tuitions. Here was my confusion: why is getting into the right school so critical when in fact, all our kids are going to end up in the same tuition class? And more importantly, what impact do these tuitions have on their lives?
According to a recent nationwide survey a whopping 95% of high school students receive private tutoring in Indian metros. That is a staggering statistic and should be enough to stop the herd in its tracks. In an effort to understand this mass migration towards tuitions, I spoke to several students in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. They uniformly described a situation that sounded more like medieval torture but in fact, is their daily reality. Devika, studying in Class IX in one of Mumbai’s most coveted I.C.S.E.schools, describes herself as an average student. On Monday, straight from school, she goes for Mathematics tuition followed by Chemistry tuition (she eats in the car), on Tuesday, she has two back-to-back tuitions at home – Hindi tuition followed by English tuition which wrap up only by dinner time. She paused while telling me about Wednesday, the day that her group tuition for Physics starts at 8 pm.
“I noticed something about this Physics tuition” she said pausing thoughtfully, “all five of us come to this tuition in our school uniforms.” “That’s strange,” I replied “didn’t you say this tuition starts at night?”
“It starts at eight but until then everyone has been running around going to different tuitions. We don’t have time to change”she mused as if the manicpace of her day had occurred to her for the first time. The drill continued on Thursdays and before she could tell me about Friday, I interrupted her. Surely the weekend would be a break from tuitions? Not at all,” she answered tiredly “Saturday-Sundays are the best time for tuition because the teachers don’t have school on the weekends”.
Weekend tuitions are popular because many private tuitions teachers are also school teachers, often part of the the same school as the children they tutor. Given that teacher’s salaries in India are often low, studies reveal that many of the best teachers of reputed schools take up private coaching because the monthly income of good tutors is equal to the annual salaries of school teachers. As a result, tuitions are scheduled for early morning before school starts, the hour school ends, late at night and on the weekends. A mother whose son is an elite private school in Delhi told me that her son’s Hindi tuition teacher (who is also his class teacher) rides back home from school in the same car with him for tuitions three times a week. “We pick her up from underneath a tree which is a few meters away from school”, she said “but I can just start picking her up straight from school. Everyone is doing it.”
She’s right. Everyone is doing it; regardless of whether their children are in C.B.S.E., I.C.S.E., I.G.S.C.E. or some combination thereof, tuitions are the ordre du jour. In addition, to regular tuition that focuses on coursework, many children also take ‘super tuitions’ in subjects like Mathematics to give them an extra edge.In fact, parents are so culturally compelled to enroll their children in these coaching classes that even children studying in the I.B. system – an educational approach that has shunned tuitions globally– are regularly sent for tuitions. I spoke toAmol who has carved out a special niche in the multicrore tuition industry; he is a self-described “tutorsupplier for IB children”. “It’s the parents”, Amol says emphatically “in Maths, English, History, everything – everyone wants tuitions for their children. Parents want their children to do more, more, more.”
Conversations with two of Delhi’s leading school counsellors confirmed this: parents have moved from gentle supporters of their children’s achievements to fierce ‘tiger’ parents that are driving their children to exhaustion. “Most parents work their children round-the-clock to get admission into Ivy League type of schools. Regardless of the child’s natural academic ability, they have to live their parents’ dream or pretty much die trying” says one of the counselors. I thought back to the panicked herd that I encountered during nursery admission – apparently, this feeding frenzy for the ‘right school’ never quite dies down as parents work their children to the bone to ensure entrance to the ‘right college’. Once, students arrive at these colleges, particularly those in the US, they often find themselves ill-equipped to handle the challenges of creative thinking and problem-solving–skills that even the best tutor doesn’t teach.
Namrata Saxena, a leading child psychologist says that the academic burden that this generation of parents has placed on children is “often crippling with long lasting effects”. India has one of the highest suicide rates globally amongst young people and many of these deaths are linked to “failure in examination”. But how do we stop? We have herded our children – our Aaravs and Aavarnas (sounding like double AA batteries) – into mass production factories for too long. To break the cycle, there will have to be coordinated effort from all three principal stakeholders – government, schools and parents – to break an atmosphere of stifled creativity and abandoned dreams. The government should progress to a less exam-oriented system, schools need to be solely responsible for teaching the curriculum and simultaneously parents need to ease up on the pressure.
In some places, change has begun albeit slowly. Easily among the top academic institutions in the country – the IITs – have decided to revamp their entrance test to focus more on aptitude and innovative thinking. As per the Mishra Committee recommendations, the weightage given to Board marks in JEE will be discontinued and the new focus on aptitude tests will discourage IIT aspirants from joining tuitions or coaching classes. This is a start but more needs to be done.
A traffic light in India is a scene of many crimes – hunger, poverty and abuse occur in plain daylight. You will confront these like you do everyday. But today, look over also at the child sitting numbly in the air-conditioned car next to yours. Really look at him – doesn’t he remind you of a passionless circus animal, a little lost, a bit broken, being trained to jump through the same hoop over and over again. We have one of the youngest populations on earth, but our education philosophy is turning us into a nation of lost childhoods and broken dreams.
It’s time to let our children fall in love with learning again. Let them break away from the herd and pursue their passions and not just the ‘highest scoring’ subject. Allow them turn their world upside down finding the rhythm in literature, the poetry in Mathematics and the history of science. Let them be disruptors, pattern-breakers, paradigm-changers. Too many of our children – numbed by our pressure and stunted by the system – have started to believe that they are not special. As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Let them swim free like the fish – entire oceans of knowledge await.