Forget top institutions such as IIT and Delhi University, the most highly sought-after education places in India this month are being contested by a much younger crowd: three-year-olds.
As income and living standards in the country rise, upwardly mobile Indians are keen to do whatever it takes to get their toddlers into the right nursery schools to set them up for a bright future in an increasingly competitive country.
Private education was once a luxury reserved for the super-rich but now, with diverse job options requiring a more sophisticated skill-set, more parents are demanding a better and more well-rounded education for their children than they might themselves have had.
In the capital New Delhi, even second-tier nursery schools have up to 40 applicants vying for each spot. This week, as nervous parents waited outside in the cold Delhi winter, nursery schools released their first round of offers.
“The job situation in India has totally changed,” says Rajan Arora, founder of NurseryAdmissions.com, which counts around 40,000 members. “Parents want more than just information-based education, they want comprehensive personality development and sporting facilities, so their child is equipped to deal with the world when they leave school in 14 years.”
What does the application process for a toddler involve? Across most of India, three-year-olds are required to sit an interview with the school’s top brass. However, New Delhi education authorities have replaced this with a points system: applicants are rewarded if there’s a sibling already at the school, if they live within a 3km radius, if parents have achieved national recognition or perhaps for just being a girl. However, there has been considerable confusion over the exact criteria involved.
Arora says some schools install their own measures. “The most desirable school, Shri Ram, last year required parents to join in a group discussion and give two-minute presentations on various topics, like why they wanted their child to attend the school,” he says.
The opaque guidelines even prompted one man to file a case in the high court, alleging a school that did not admit his son had failed to follow official procedures. (The court pointed the petitioner in the direction of the education department.)
And then there’s the matter of bribery. Parents have reported schools requesting money, as much as thousands of dollars, in so-called “building funds”, even saying it’s part of the school fee system, but failing to issue receipts.
“Some are direct and ask for cash, saying it guarantees admission,” says Arora. On his site’s forums, potential parents often post saying they have a certain amount of money to offer in bribes, and ask just what they can expect to get for that amount.
There’s no shortage of nursery schools, just of good ones that offer education up to the standards demanded by an upwardly mobile population. Many parents apply to a number of schools and most take around a week off work to spend laboriously filling out application forms.
“It’s a highly stressful period, perhaps one of the most stressful of a parent’s life,” says Arora. “Perhaps even more stressful than childbirth.”
But after this there’s secondary school, university and public service entrance exams. Perhaps for parents, the pain of childbirth never really ends.