Global Education Perspectives: School Choice — Simply Complicated!

Published on: December 30, 2013


Editor's note: Introducing Global Education Perspectives, in which we'll take you to schools around the world. What's different?  What's the same? And what do parents, students and teachers think?

My fingernails are down to the cuticles. I’ve been chewing on them ever since DD turned 4. That’s about 6 months of not having to use the nail cutter. I cannot believe that I am this tense and confused with the school admission process. And we’re not talking about college here.

It’s admission to kindergarten!

Choosing between attendance-area public schools, “option” public schools, private schools, co-op schools, independent schools ... really, could it get more confusing?  Or maybe it’s just me, because I am not used to these terms and all of these choices. I find myself constantly comparing my current experience with my experience back in India. I know it’s not an apple-to-apple comparison.

The philosophy and goals of the education systems in the two countries are different, and even as we speak, the education scene is undergoing a lot of changes in both the countries.

But it’s worthwhile to understand how each country approaches education, and what the experience and expectations of parents from these seemingly distinct systems are like.


The Indian education system

Schooling age: Formal kindergarten education begins between ages 3 and 4, and the school year is from June to March. As a March-born child, DD would be in her second year of full-day school, had we stayed on in India.

School types: Like in the U.S., India also has public (referred to as government schools) and private schools.

But any family making a decent living would choose to go the private route. That would be a no-brainer. Most government schools lack infrastructure and the resources a middle-class parent would expect. The few government schools that do have the infrastructure are most sought after, but are reserved, to a large extent, for children of government personnel.

Fees (tuition): The tuition in government schools is subsidized, but it is tacitly understood that these schools cater to kids of disadvantaged economic or social background. The fees that private schools charge are high, but keeping all other factors the same, the proportion of disposable income spent on schooling is far less in India than what one would spend on private schools here in the U.S.

Private schools are viable, and in most cases the only decent schooling options in India.

School choice: When we were school scouting in India, before we knew we’d be moving here, we had three schools shortlisted. They had a great curriculum, excellent infrastructure and staff. We chose the one closest to work because it would be the least disruptive to our schedules. In choosing a school for our daughter, the neighborhood we lived in had no role to play. It is not something the school enforces, but it’s something we would have had to consider to make our lives easier.

The illusion of choice?

There are many schools here, but only if I decide to go the private route. If I choose not to spend an awful lot of money, and the attendance area school is not the one I want my daughter to go to, I can only hope that we will get into some option school. The other choice would be to move to the attendance area of a school that we really like.

It feels like I have a choice, when in fact, I don’t think I do.

Elementary vs. middle school vs. high school: Unless you move out of the city, or country, you can rest assured your child will go from kindergarten through 10th grade (and in some cases K-12) in the same school. Here, there is a clear distinction between elementary, middle and high schools, with the exception of K-8 schools. So if I do move to an area where the elementary school is great, I may have to move again, if the middle or high school experience is different from our expectations.

The admission process: The process of applying to schools in India is fairly simple: Apply to the schools you like, wait for a shortlist, attend any interviews and wait to hear back. Your application to each school is unique and the schools evaluate your child’s candidature as if theirs was the only school you applied to. The system does not compel you to make a forced ranking of your choices like here. But the seemingly simple process of application to schools back home can also be a painful process. Often, there are three or four coveted schools, and the number of applications is many times the number of spots available in the school.

My father still likes to recount the time he got up at 3 a.m. to stand in the admissions line in front of the gates of my school, one of the most respectable schools at the time, to submit my application. Mom brought him his morning coffee and breakfast as he waited his turn.

It’s not that scary now, thanks to online applications, but the wait to hear back on your child’s admission is still very painful.

Selection: In many ways the ‘selection’ process in India may not be perceived as an absolutely fair one. Schools that interview parents allegedly tend to evaluate the economic background of the family, in addition to the parent’s capability to support the child’s educational needs at home. The schools need to be reassured that the ‘incidental’ management costs of school can be taken care of by well-to-do parents.

Private schools do not have to ensure socioeconomic diversity. The only way they try to neutralize any economic differences is by enforcing uniforms. Almost all schools have uniforms that kids are expected to wear. (This is set to change this year, with the government enforcing a 25% reservation of seats to the economically disadvantaged kids. But one can only hope to wait and see if this will be enforced in letter and spirit.)

Some schools also "interview" the child by way of play or observation to "select" students for their schools. This process has drawn a lot of flak from the parents of kindergartners. The process still seems to be approved at higher classes (grades).

Curriculum matters

Boards of Education: There are two major categories of boards of education that decide the curriculum for the respective schools in consultation with the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT); the State and National boards. State boards are specific to the state the school is in (India has 28 states and seven union territories). In the event the student needs to move to a different state, adjusting to a new curriculum could be difficult. State boards also teach the local language, which could be a priority in deciding schools (there are some 20 official languages and hundreds of local dialects).

National boards, on the other hand, are consistent across states. The national board has two subsets: The Central Board, which falls under the purview of the government and the Council for Indian School Certificate Exams, which is not run by the government. The approach to learning and the emphasis on different aspects of the curriculum differ from one board to another. Depending on what the parents want for their children, a board selection can be made.

There are also some international schools, which have found a huge demand among expatriates and Indians who have returned from overseas. Such schools follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum or the Cambridge International curriculum.

State of flux

I've discovered that the education scene is rapidly changing in India to keep up with the demands of parents and the changing expectations of a new world. For example, homeschooling, which was not earlier recognized, is now legal and gaining momentum. But it is still in nascent stages with only around 500 – 1000 students being homeschooled.


Writing about this topic makes me realize that, on many levels, education, though a universal topic, is very personal.

It is simple or complicated from the place you’re standing as a parent.

As I get closer to the admissions process, I become more aware of the differences in philosophy and intent of the education systems in both countries.

Looking from a distance, the U.S. public school fee structure and education system seem to be aiming for a level playing field for all, while the Indian education system seems to be giving an edge to those with resources or proven capability.

The government-funded schools, which in theory are like the public schools here, do not have the resources to ensure the best facilities for the child. The sole intention of these schools is to ensure basic literacy, not necessarily all-round education. So for middle or upper class parents, private school is the way to go.

Even from the parent point of view, the expectations from schooling are different in both the countries.

The future is now?

In determining the right school for their kids, it is important for parents here that their kids feel welcome and comfortable in the school environment. The focus seems to be on the present.

For most parents in India, it is absolutely important that the school has the right resources to develop their child and ensure he/she is ready for the competitive world. The focus is on their children’s future and employability.

Although it does seem that these expectations are worlds apart, there is one basic similarity: Parents in both countries only want what they feel is the best for the success of their children.

As for me, my child’s present and her future are important. I just don’t know if they’re equally important at this stage.

I know a decision on DD’s school will be made soon. But my anxiety is over the decision: Would we be able to decide what's best, or will a decision be made for us?

Until then, my nails continue to be embarrassingly short.

193Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a new expat from India and a rookie Superwoman. This is her first time managing her family without any help and boy, does she have newfound respect for the American woman. She is the mother of a high-energy preschooler who presents her with the challenges of preserving the culture of her homeland, while embracing the culture of her new home in Seattle. From driving on the 'right' side of the road to understanding the craze behind Halloween candy, Padmaja's trying to make meaning out of the madness around her. For a peep into her expat life, check her blog.

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