September 29, 2009

Attitude shift

A few days ago I was part of a panel discussion at a nearby school. Our subject was the recent proposal to make the CBSE 10th standard exams optional. Each of the panelists had to speak for a few minutes to start off the discussion.

This is what I said.


I'm no educationist, I'm just a father, and I think a lot about my kids' education. As a father, I dread the years when they will come close to graduating from school, because I wonder about their school-leaving exams. I wonder about college entrance exams. I wonder about coaching classes.

And all that wondering makes me worry.

Doing outstandingly well in school-leaving exams has become such a coveted goal that there's a huge amount of pressure on kids. The marks they aspire to reflect that: to get into a good college means you need to bring home 97 percent or more -- and I'd like to know the difference between a 97 percenter who gets in and a 96-er who does not.

But you have to aim for those marks, and more and more it seems you can get them only if you attend coaching classes. That disturbs me.

What's wrong with coaching classes, you might ask. If they help you get the exam marks you need for college admissions, what's wrong? And in fact, there are proposals to recognize coaching classes as equivalent to school or college programmes.

Yet what's wrong is right there: that coaching classes are directed at one or another exam. Everything I believe about education, everything I want for my children, shouts out that there's something twisted there. An education is not a preparation for the 10th standard board exam, nor for the IIT entrance exam. It is instead an investment in turning children into thinking, questioning, participating adults and members of society. It is the most important investment I'll make in my life, the most important one my country can make.

Yet look at where we are now. From the 8th standard or before, kids take coaching for their 10th exams, then the 12th, then various college entrance tests. It's the rare child who resists all this. Too many schools are poorly equipped to fight coaching, because that's where the money is, for teachers. Too many schools become poorly staffed places that even kids know there's no point attending.

Yet in this whole enterprise, are we turning out a generation of children whose greatest skill lies in taking tests? I don't want that for my child, and I wonder how many other parents truly want it for theirs.

So what's the answer? The genie is out of the box -- there's no way to ban or stop coaching classes, not that I want to. The answer then is to remove what makes them necessary: exams. Not all of them, I realize, for you need ways to test a child's abilities. But certainly some of them.

For example, the 10th standard exam. It has never made much sense to me: you do it and you immediately go to work towards the 12th standard exam. What purpose does it serve?

Finally, I'd like to see an attitude shift towards school education, to underline the idea of it being a country's investment in its future. Education is no less national service than joining the Army. Kids who get an education serve India every bit as surely as soldiers do. Make it a rigorous, thorough, broad-based education, sure; but recognize our schoolkids as young patriots. For that's what they are.

Think of them like that, and we'll know what to do about coaching classes and exams.


Suresh said...

Can someone explain the "optionality" proposal? Does this mean that admission to the eleventh standard will not be conditional on taking the tenth standard exam? If this is taken literally, then it means every tenth standard student is automatically entitled to a seat in the eleventh standard. I don't see this happening. I guess what will happen is that if this proposal is implemented then a school will find some other way of deciding who goes to the next level and furthermore, how the all important choice of "stream" in the eleventh standard (arts/science/commerce) is made. Will this alternate system be any better? Somehow I doubt it: I think it will put as much pressure, if not more, on the student.

Actually, private schools need not even bother coming up with an alternate system. They can simply say that admission to the eleventh standard depends on performance in the tenth standard exam. Then, optionality just disappears out the window as any student who wants the additional two years in school [pretty much everyone] has to take the exam. In other words, so far as the middle and upper classes are concerned whose children study in private schools, this proposal won't make any difference.

Will it make any difference to the poor, the Dalits, the Adivasis etc.? These are the students who study in our "public" schools and who opt out in large numbers even before the tenth standard basically because the quality is so bad. Clearly, this proposal doesn't affect them as relatively few even get to the tenth standard.

Conclusion: Much hot air, amounting to very little.

Begin rant.

I hate to say this but this entire discussion illustrates all too well the upper class bias of our polity, running across the political spectrum. The problem in our school education is the lack of access of many to decent school education, not the "excess pressure" on mainly middle/upper class students which is mainly due to the limited supply of good university education. Not that middle class students don't deserve consideration but with all due respect, I don't think this is the problem that should get Kapil Sibal's attention.

I have seen very few make this point but I think a good public school education is important from a social viewpoint. Do we want a school system where all our children study together? Or one where there is de facto segregation as currently? I studied in a private school and I don't think I met a Dalit during that entire period. Muslims? May be a couple. Is this what we want to continue? But unless we build a good public school system, we will continue to have segregation. All these laws like having private schools compulsorily admit a certain fraction of "poor" children will make only a cosmetic difference -- something we as a nation specialize in. (Caste Discrimination? Oh, we have laws against it. Never mind that they are not implemented most of the time.) Why doesn't Kapil Sibal address what is really important?

End rant.

Dilip D'Souza said...


your rant is on the money, and people like me deserve to hear it.

As a part defence, I'll say that I agreed to this discussion because it was at this particular school. Its educational director is making an honest, conscious effort to broaden its student base. Her board wanted to admit only students from a particular part of a particular state; she has insisted that it be open to all, regions/religions/castes as well as income levels. There are other schools like that too.

I would have liked my children to attend this school, but two things: it is quite far, and our kids are settled and happy in their current schools.

Apart from that. While I would like to see a broader based, more inclusive educational system, and will help any efforts towards that, I also have the personal concern of seeing my kids thru school. And that's why the pressure of school-leaving exams disturbs me. I will also support any effort to reduce that.

As for what's optional, yes, I can't see what's particularly different between grades and marks (the new proposal says kids will be given grades). Yet one less exam, and that one an exam whose purpose I'm hard pressed to divine, is something I welcome.

I'll leave someone else to explain Sibal's proposal in more detail.

Suresh said...


No need to be defensive. We all (including myself) want the best for our own children and that's understandable. It's not that I am unconscious of the stress placed on students by our education system. But one expects a minister and more generally our polity to take a broader view of the situation. The fact that so much attention has been devoted to "lessening the stress" and so little to improving the access to students at the bottom of our society (and preventing them from dropping out) is what triggered the rant.

It is disturbing that even Dalit/OBC/Muslim politicians and intellectuals seem to have little to say on the importance of good school education. All the attention is focused on university education and the quota regime, but if the basics are weak then even a poor student who overcomes the formidable hurdles to pass high school will find himself/herself handicapped at the university level. This has been documented time and again, and yet the need for good public school education gets little attention in our polity, not even in the "leftist" states like West Bengal and Kerala.

as said...

It all comes back to demand and supply. As long as resources(teachers) are scarce in Class 11 and 12, schools will find a way to slot children into artificial categories. The same story repeats itself after class 12, and then again after undergraduate studies. Heck, it all starts when the kid is 4 and starts off in kindergarten. Of course, the methods used are barbaric and stupid and the losers are children today and all of us tomorrow. Until this scarcity goes away, our children will continue to lose their innocence at age 13.

anita lobo said...

As parents many of us are worried about schools and the way the education system seems to be evolving.

Changing the education system to one where schools remain a playground for discovery, not a grind that replaces wonder with conformity - is such a big challenge.

But small in comparison with the need to bring quality education for all.

School teachers are struggling with the system as much as children.

Alternate schooling in India isn't as evolved

Some thoughts here:

Alternative Schools in India: Some advantages and disadvantages]

What did you discover at school today?

Well I do seem to have meandered! Still looking for answers on this one!

Thanks for provoking this discussion.

Anita Lobo

Annie said...

true. and yes, the 10th exam didn't make much sense. the only thing it does is allow you to choose subjects to major in, when you give your actual school-leaving exam. unless, of course, like in bombay, you leave school and go to junior college.

jonny said...

thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...


Came across this post while surfing the net....

While I agree that something needs to be done for hte education system, making exams optional is not the answer-Dilip, do you think that your admission to BITS and then Brown (?) was because you had the option to not take exams? Exams force the student to work hard-at a time when the US is revisiting it's policy to education, and is thinking of following the Indian and Chinese model-can we afford to make things lax?

Our education system teaches hard work-and so what if children are stressed out? The world is getting tougher-the days of ease are gone-like it or not-this is the legacy we have left them-several individuals fighting for a limited piece of pie.

Ludz (of BITS Pilani)

Anonymous said...

Maybe I dont understand the grading system, but a student that would have scored 89% marks would get B grade while the student that would have scored 90% gets A? Unfair to the B grader. I'd have taken 89-90 anyday.

Destressing the exam could have been done in other ways by reducing the curriculum load; (there's tonnes of volume even at my son's junior class level) and redesigning the exam itself. Not by removing it.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Ludz, is that really you, after all these years?

Actually, it's good you brought up my admission to BITS. I got in on my school-leaving marks (11th at the time). I still don't get the point of the 10th exam when there's the 12th for you to leave school with. That's all.

I think it's still possible to learn the worth of hard work if the 10th exam becomes optional. Parents have a responsibility there.

The world is always getting tougher. I don't think there's a single generation that hasn't thought that the days of ease have gone. Pies are always limited in size. So what? I still am concerned about pressures on my kids that I don't believe are necessary.

Suresh said...

I still don't get the point of the 10th exam when there's the 12th for you to leave school.

Well, the original idea was that not everyone needed the additional two years of school education. Of course, in practice, everyone (at least in the middle class) does and so the 10th standard exam has become redundant.

As usual, many of our education ideas are copied from other places, in this case, the United Kingdom. Have a look at the Wikipedia page on GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and you might get some sense of what was the thinking behind the 10+2+3. For those with children, note very carefully the "grading" system followed in the GCSE and the O-levels (as well the entry requirement to take the O-level exams), because in all likelihood that's what your children will face sooner or later.

Sorry for the cynical tone, Dilip.

Suresh said...

Sorry, Dilip, for a typo in my comment. I should have said "A-levels" instead of "O-levels".

Anonymous said...

I'm probably still not getting it, but the same minister said he wants 80-85% marks in 12th std to appear for JEE. What happened to the grades business there? Is that like A, or A+

Need to spend more time on this.
PS: Wait I just noticed he seems to have retracted.

Jai_C said...

Anybody thats interested in this and got here may find this post and discussion in comments, informative:


Ketan said...


A post I could relate much strongly to.

While most of the issues have been discussed, I would just add a points I felt were left out.

Again everything comes down to strife & survival instinct. Few vocations are (rightly or incorrectly so) perceived to be higher paying &/or with lesser effort. People blindly try to get into courses that lead to those careers, without pausing to think how many job vacancies would be there some into the future. This creates a situation where number of 'seats' for that course would appear to be very less.

And totally forget considerations like that of aptitude & interest.

Second thing I would like to point out is exams have a role in child's development, but it has been totally ignored. Exams are good indicators of child's abilities & deficiencies. But unfortunately, exams don't even actually test the abilities they purport to. Social studies is reduced to memorization. Science is reduced to memorization. Languages are reduced to memorization. I was appalled to know that there were 'guide books' to write essays on topics like 'what would I do if I become the prime minister' or 'my best friend'! And the worst thing, teachers would allot high marks to such essays despite knowing they were mere regurgitations. Can anything else be a better indicator of intellectualy bankruptsy of our country! Mathematics is reduced to being able to fit a given situation to a memorized formula. So what abilities are we finally testing through exams?

I truly feel the root cause of all these problems is deprivation. If our society becomes more properous, people would lose desperation to get into certain careers against their interests, and they would then work with sincerity once into their jobs. They'll also create an environment encouraging of professionalism. I have already started seeing this happen in urban areas with children with affluent parents who do not have worry much about their livelihood.

But how to decrease India's poverty given the high population density is a huge problem!

I would love to see you cover such issues more often.