In India, playtime ends early for preschool hopefuls

Like most doting parents, Rocky Gupta wanted the best for his daughter: a future career as a doctor, lawyer, or Internet start-up chief.

But in 21st century India, where spaces at even ordinary preschools are far fewer than the demand, Mr. Gupta was shocked to learn that his daughter - then a 3 year old - would have to take an exam to get into a neighborhood preschool. He was even more shocked to find that many parents were sending their children to rigorous cram schools. The tots were memorizing poetry and learning the proper way to walk, all to prepare for the preschool tests.

When the school in question, Montfort, wouldn't even give Gupta an application, he filed suit. Last week, the Delhi High Court overturned a magistrate's ruling in favor of the school and demanded an appeal by March 15.

"She was going to a play school," says Gupta, three years after the event, and still midway through the trial process. "I feel a child of this age should not be bothered with all this. It's useless information they expect them to learn, and it's harmful for the child to undergo this stress. And if a child is supposed to know everything, then why are we sending her to school?"

India is not the first nation to experience such pressures on the road to prosperity. High-schoolers in Japan, for example, have been known to commit suicide after poor results on year-end exams.

But in this country of educational extremes - home to 52 percent illiteracy as well as elite universities - the growing pressure to make it to the educational mountaintop and obtain high-paying tech jobs overseas has created fierce competition all the way down to a child's first step into school. Elite private schools offer the promise of a leg up. While few can blame private schools for their need to winnow the thousands of applicants for the few hundred available school desks at an ordinary preschool, a growing number of Indians are complaining that the method of choosing children is arbitrary, costly, and cruel.

"Forget the parents, what about the poor children?" asks Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and no relation to Rocky Gupta. "These kids become so stressed out. It's extremely cruel; it's the most heartless system ever."

"You can't imagine the sort of effect this has on Indian families," Mr. Gupta adds. "I've seen fathers shouting at their children after an exam, saying, 'How could you be so stupid to forget that answer?' And these kids are only 3 years old."

Suneeta, a mother who works in the office of an elite kindergarten, recently has begun to face that stress. Every afternoon, she reads to her daughter and teaches her poetry and songs. Then she takes her child out to a park and teaches her the names of common birds and other animals. She has even begun to simulate the shock of a one-on-one school examination, separated from the parents, by asking friends to take her daughter for long walks.

Despite cramming, no guarantees

"It's incredibly stressful," says Suneeta, who requested anonymity because she didn't want her comments to hurt her daughter's chance of admission in April. "My husband and I are both educated, but even then it's very difficult to get a slot at one of the better schools. Basically for the past six months, we haven't been able to just sit and play with our daughter. Whenever we're with her, we start preparing for the exam again. We ask her what is the name of that animal, what is the color of that bush? And in the end, there's not even a guarantee that she'll get into school."

Children who do not enter private schools early face an extremely difficult time cutting in at a later age. Those without private nursery school training will most likely not get into the better public schools either. These English-medium schools, starting at kindergarten, have their own entrance exams. Public schools that teach in vernacular languages receive little funding, and very few students go on to higher studies or sought-after jobs. High school graduates must pass a battery of exams to obtain one of the seats at India's elite colleges, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, which statistically speaking are more difficult to get into than MIT, Yale, or Harvard.

Ashok Agarwal, the attorney who filed a lawsuit for Gupta and two other families, says that in a country where demand for quality schooling is much higher than the supply, the only solution is a lottery.

"This is having an adverse psychological effect on children," says Mr. Agarwal. "Even affluent parents are not sure their child is going to get into school. There's no transparency to the system, which makes it corrupt and susceptible to bribery. The only way around this is by drawing lots, because a child is a child; there's not much difference at the age of 3."

Not all preschools have exams

Not all schools have examinations for preschoolers, however. Some, like the Shri Ram School, an elite preschool in New Delhi, examine only the parents about their attitudes toward education and their willingness to support their child in a rigorous academic program. Others, like the Pinnacle School, give examinations to children entering kindergarten, but not to those entering nursery school.

"When they are in prenursery, they often don't know their alphabet, but by prekindergarten, they usually do know it, so we try to match up the child who is going to do well in that environment," says Jyoti Sodhi, head of admissions for the Pinnacle School. "Some children are quiet in the first exam, so we often give them a second chance. But if a child doesn't respond, he isn't going to be comfortable."

Fortunately for Gupta, the stress of those preschool exams is long gone. His daughter, now aged 6 and attending first grade at a local private school that didn't require an exam, is performing well and enjoying her work. But he continues with his case nonetheless, so that other families won't have to face what he faced.

"I know a lot of people who have put their children through this grueling process," says Gupta. "I feel a child should not be burdened by all this. This is their childhood."

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