Life in Bangalore: Schools
Schools are aplenty in Bangalore. There are schools of every shape, size and hue occupying every street in this sprawling metropolis – from ‘international’ schools to unpretentious playhomes for toddlers.
Finding a good school that meets all your criteria, on the other hand, is a near-impossible task.
The only criterion I had in my mind for my son when we first moved here was that his school should be within walking distance from our house, preferably a school that followed the Montessori method. Under no circumstances was I willing to put him (my baby!) on a bus to and from school. So we picked a house that was close to a school with kindergarten classes.
He had been going to a Montessori school in the US and it had worked beautifully for both myself and my son. He was happy at school, I was happy with the pace at which he was being taught and at which he was learning. As luck would have it (or so I thought) the school we picked in Bangalore also a Montessori school (they had all the Montessori materials – many of which my son recognized and was very happy to be in the midst of – and they followed the concept of mixing age groups in their class rooms).
That illusion was shattered within the first week of school. My son came home with three pages of homework on the first day. By the end of the week, he’d had three pages of homework every day, and about eight pages to complete over the weekend. And he arrived from school every day, exhausted from the amount of writing work at school, in addition to working on the materials.
I had a chat with his teacher, and her justification was this: he had arrived late in the school year, and she was loading him up with work because she had to ‘finish the portions’ for the year. That of course, is antithetical to the Montessori method, and, it was my reality check. As the year progressed, it was obvious that all these young kids (3, 4 and 5 year olds) were being prepared to face the entrance tests for first grade!
Yes, there are entrace tests for first grade, some lasting two to three hours. And get this: they test the children on skills that are beyond the first grade curriculum. As for the logic behind that, I am at a loss.
At the other end of the spectrum from my son’s school is another Montessori that a friend’s son goes to. Complete lack of structure there. If a child wants to water plants all day, fine, he could do that. At the end of the year, my friend realized that her son had not learnt anything to do with reading, writing or math. And the management took offense to any inquiry from the parents as to what their children are learning. She finally pulled her son out of that school two months into the 2005-2006 school year and put him in a new one. Because, as all parents are, she was concerned about her son having to pass those first-grade entrance tests.
The reality here is that the schools, especially in Bangalore, are catering to a wide variety of demands – those of the returning NRIs many of whom have had their children in Montessori or alternative environments in the US, a burgeoning expat population, and those of the local parents who are more intimately aware of the demands put on young children in grade schools. So the schools call themselves Montessori schools to attract the NRI population, but follow a strict, rigorous, traditional curriculum (writing work beginning in nursery, local language and multiplication tables in upper kindergarten, cursive writing in lower kindergarten, etc.) to train the children to pass the inevitable entrance tests. I’ve heard of parents complaining that the schools don’t work the children hard enough.
Most parents, frankly, are scared. Admissions to the schools that are considered good (although overpopulated and understaffed) are extremely hard to come by. Parents stand in line for days to get registration forms at these schools. So that first grade entrance test is a defining event in a scholastic career.
As for the social aspects of schooling, that topic in particular and schools in general, tend to be the center of discussion whenever we go out to meet our friends, and they all have one story or the other to tell. A few months ago, a friend recounted this story in which her daughter’s entire second grade class was locked in the classroom because a few of the girls had misbehaved. The teacher padlocked the door and left. The door was finally opened half-an-hour later when another teacher heard the children crying.
Then there is the story of a 4 year-old who attended an international school. He did not come home on the school bus. He had gone off with his friend to his house and no one on the bus or among the school staff realized that the boy was not on his bus (although the minder on the bus did take a roll call – go figure). The mother finally came to know where her son was when her son’s friend’s mother called her up to tell her. She of course raised a big ruckus at school, but realised that nothing had changed a week later to ensure that children went where they were supposed to go at the end of the day. She promptly pulled him out and put him in another school.
Although there are procedural issues such as the one above and international schools have a reputation for discouraging parental involvement, for expat families, international schools offer a few advantages. Aart from the diverse international student population, I understand that most international schools follow US teaching methods (low student/teacher ratio, time for extra-curricular activities (music lessons, for example)), and that the management works with each family with full awareness of a student’s educational background. The expat community naturally gravitates towards these schools. I don’t have personal experience with those schools, but I do know that most are expensive by Indian standards. For an expat, if school expenses are included in the compensation package, this may not be an issue.
International schools have entrance tests too, but they are sympathetic to the diverse learning environments their students come from. In that sense, their tests may not be as bad as those at some of the established old schools in Bangalore.
Note that the international schools merit close scrutiny as well. There is nothing preventing any school from slapping on the ‘international’ tag.
As for a plan, here is what I think might just work:
For a pre-first grade child, a neighborhood school will be ideal. The child will not have to travel to and from school by bus (it’s such a pitiful sight to see little kids trudge off to the bus at 7 in the morning) and again, most neighborhood schools have a better student/teacher ratio. The only caveat is that the parents need to watch what is being taught and how it is being taught.
In terms of homework, there is no alternative but to have your child do it (I did not want my son to think that I did not expect him to finish the work his school had given – so he did everyone of those horrid 8 pages every weekend for 5 months last year). The bright side is that of course, he is learning a lot, and I provide other outlets for his creativity.
When the time comes for first grade, there are less-expensive alternatives (a friend mentioned the National Academy for Learning (NAFL)) to the international schools that discourage learning by inifinite repition and rote. The NAFL, for example, says that it uses an ‘alternative approach to education, through an integrated curriculum and innovative learning techniques’.
There is a wonderful book ‘Bangalore Mums’ Guide’ (by Reena Mehta, published by Navneet Publications) that lists all the schools, various kinds of classes (music, dance, drama, etc.), and other information for parents in Bangalore which is a great reference to have. It lists the contact info for the schools and the facilities available at each school, and the admission process.
With a little bit of homework when the child is still in kindergarten, it’s possible to whittle down the number of schools you want to approach and only target the ones you are comfortable with. Parents with kids already in those schools are excellent sources of information regarding entrance tests, the teachers, and so on.
I do want to mention that I grew up in the school system here and as I’ve heard time and again, especially from Indians who have gone on to study in the US and from American students and faculty, the Indian school system provides a strong foundation in the basics. Multiplication tables may be learnt by rote, but Indian kids are taught their tables by the time they finish elementary school and that is a key factor in many Indian kids doing well in math. The principal at my son’s school says to me that when some of her students go back to the US after finishing kindergarten at her school, they’ve been able to do second-grade level work straight away.
That’s all fine, but it’s no use if my son hates going to school in the first place. Before we came here, he used to hate weekends because there was no school on weekends. Now, it’s the other way around, although, thankfully, that seems to be changing as time goes on.
I also write about this with the understanding that parents being parents, no school system is perfect for their children. There are problems with schools in a lot of other countries as well, even in the US. One only needs to look at the newspapers on a daily basis for an inexhaustible list of problems plaguing our school systems in the US. There was a recent, horrific story in the Washington Post about the goings-on on school buses, including first-graders being bullied into blowing condoms, elementary school girls being prodded and poked by the boys on the bus and so on.
No matter where you live, the only way to deal with problems is to be aware of them in the first place. By recounting my experiences here, I do hope to make you aware. And I do not mean to suggest that these are insurmountable problems. There is no alternative to being an involved parent and to making sure that the schools are aware that you are watching.
If you are a parent considering moving your child to a school in Bangalore, the thought that I want to leave you with is this: there is nothing wrong in children learning to read and write and do math (and color, although my son hates it) and, if you want your children to grow in this school system, they do need to. Unless you want to be an outlier and send your children to schools that have no tests whatsoever until high school (Valley School, for example).
If you want to be in the mainstream, however, be prepared to put your foot down if your child is being pushed too much. You are the best judge of your child’s mental framework and nothing is worth squashing his creativity (which I guarantee the reams and reams of repetitive homework will do), not even a seat in a ‘good’ school.
Suck in your breath and steel yourself for the ‘untidy’ or ‘could be neater’ comments on his homework. It’s a safe bet that neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates has pretty handwriting, and remember neither finished college.