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To Kapil Sibal And Co.

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For the past few days, my elder child has been struggling with the ICSE syllabus of his science test. I am a firm believer in letting my children fight their own battle, but I did take a cursory look at his science book. I found just three chapters alone had 118-odd scientific terms that needed to be memorised. And much of this knowledge seemed unnecessary. Do we really care which living organism belongs to which kingdom — Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae or Animalia? Or that the species name for the lion is Panthera leo?

When I spoke to a few other parents, their response was: "We did it; why can't they? After all, I am a product of this system and I am doing fine." In an age when we are supposed to be preparing tomorrow's generation to be creative and innovative in thinking, I fail to buy this logic. The world has changed, so why not change the way the new generation is educated and prepared for life? What is the point of asking children to mug up stuff that can be accessed at the click of a button on the Web? Shouldn't they be trained to use their mental energy to think, instead of mindlessly memorising hundreds of terms that will be forgotten a week after the exam? What happens once they pass school boards? In the past few years, I have known some 20-25 children who sought admissions in various higher education institutions in India.

Their fate has been similar to that of my nephew, who got a rank of 8,000 in an exam taken by a million students (for architecture, mind you!). This resulted in his being offered admission in a college in Surat, not the first choice for us.

This could point to social churn. An advisor for higher education in the Planning Commission pointed out that what looks like an admissions crisis for the better-off is actually a mini-revolution for students from smaller towns. Now, their children, who are less privileged and have the fire in their belly, occupy many of the seats in prestigious institutions, while the upper-middle class children, who thought Delhi University colleges were their birthright, have to go overseas. Almost everyone I know has studied in the North Campus, but in the past few years, none of their children has made it to North Campus's hallowed corridors.

The upper-middle class in India is facing the crisis that Barack Obama spoke of for children in the US. The better-off are often being sent overseas as they don't make it to the institutions their parents regard as worthy. Most Ivy League colleges are easier to get into than our IITs, for instance. Since in many cases, parents of these privileged children can afford to foot the bill for sending their children overseas, Surat gets the go-by.

That said, why is the demand for quality education in India hopelessly outstripping supply? The number of seats at higher education institutions of repute has failed to keep pace with the exploding number of eligible applicants, and a good education followed by a professional career or one in the government is the best passport to upward mobility. That less-privileged children make it to the best institutes and colleges is to be lauded, but how about putting in place policies that expand the number of quality options?

Also, state-level education appears to be in a mess. My driver's son has arrived in Delhi from Patna with a Class 10 pass from the Bihar School Examination Board. His father wants him to pursue studies in Delhi as this would improve his future. To secure admission for him, I visited several schools in Gurgaon and a few Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs). I learnt the KVs have truly improved their standards and facilities (did you know that their all-India school board results are better than that of private schools?). For example, the private school that my children go to offers no opportunity for kids to participate in regional sports meets of any kind. But at the KV, students get to participate in every imaginable sport. The principal of a school I visited had a huge television on his wall. I was surprised that the government was willing to spend so much for his entertainment till I realised the screen was beaming camera feed from different parts of the school. He keeps an eye on students and even teachers!

While the KVs have improved dramatically, schools affiliated to state boards have a long, long way to go. Not only would my driver's son fail in the first possible examination at any CBSE school, he has never used a computer in his school life. His level of Hindi, English and Maths is abysmal simply because teachers never turned up in his school. What is the point of Right To Education if this is the quality we deliver? The state of some of the Haryana board schools I visited, thinking he could cope better, is shocking. Pay them a visit to find out for yourself, but only if you can bear the smell.

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-08-2011)