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.

11 Comments so far

  1. PSUDesi (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 6:33 am

    It seems cruel. But when in Rome blah blah…
    It is easy to say that neither Steve nor Bill finished college. But how many college dropouts have made it big. It is very difficult for NRI mothers to see the amount of work our little babies are put through. But trust me, the US schools especially the ones in the “rich” school districts step up the assignments geometrically in the middle school. It is a very rude awakening to the students. So every coin has 2 sides. The rat race to get into good “schools”, here I mean MIT, Harvard, Duke, Berkeley is no less than in India. So it is more a question of personal priorities. My children are in the rat race because that is the world they will have to live in after I am gone.

  2. Orchid (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 7:59 am

    I enjoyed reading your post. I am about to move to Blore for a 6 mth stint and have a 3 yr old and am definitely on the look-out for a pre-school. Like you say “its good to know what the problems are even before you think of solutions” I bet as a parent it is going to be a challenging time for me especially since I don’t want my child to suffer socially, culturally or in any other way. Will keep you guys posted on how well it goes. Btw, I have heard the name Euro Kids thrown around a lot. I am looking for a pre-school to keep him occupied during the day as well as get him ready for school in a couple of years. Any suggestions??

  3. usha (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 10:57 am

    A very good post. It is terrible to see competititveness beinga decider from such early stages. In spite of the fee structure for schooling that seesm quite excessive, I think most schools do not provide the environment for an overall development of a child’s personality.

  4. Shruthi (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 1:00 pm

    Great post. And very informative too. Thank you.

  5. Mehak (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

    awesome post. its a nightmare for parents to get their kid into a ‘good’ school…
    i have seen 4-5 yr olds write hindi n other regional languages when they have just learned to hold a pencil properly…
    more time is spent is memorizing than in actually understanding n enjoying the topic…
    aaah…school fees…better not mention..exuberant
    LOL @ entrance tests for admission to class 1…tooo much
    then what does one do…..start running the rat race…

  6. AkaRoundPeg (unregistered) on April 6th, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

    I think you should mention the names of the school. What the intl school did was unforgivable and they don’t have the excuse of being understaffed considering the fees they charge.

  7. randramble (unregistered) on April 9th, 2006 @ 11:21 pm

    From what I’ve heard, school education is so screwed up that it’s a nightmare parents are having to go through…

  8. Abi (unregistered) on April 10th, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Sujatha.

    Our son goes to the Montessori section at Hymamshu in Malleswaram, and it has worked out quite well. We are quite impressed with the progress he has made (painlessly, too!). They do have reading, numbers (a little bit of addition, too), cursive writing, but none of it is so taxing as to tire the children out. In fact, they seem to enjoy all the ‘work’ at their school. After reading your post, I now know that not all ‘Montessori’ schools are the same.

    Not all is great with this school, though. The space there is cramped, (and the school has plans to expand further!), the play area for little children is quite pathetic, etc., etc. But, the bottomline is that we can’t have everything; like you said, the child just spends four hours at school, and whatever is lacking there — play, creative activity, etc. — has to be taken care of at home.

  9. sujatha (unregistered) on April 11th, 2006 @ 12:07 am

    PSUDESI, hi, thank you for your comment. I understand what you’re saying and I think I echoed some of your sentiments in my post. The rat race here starts at preschool level and not later. That is a problem, in my view.

    Orchid, thank you for your comment. I’d be glad to help you out. I’m going to be out of town the rest of the week. If you send me an e-mail, I’ll respond when I get back.

    Shruti, Usha, Mehak, thank you.

    Akaroundpeg, was hesitating to do so and only wanted to tell parents who were considering particular schools.

    Randramble, I agree…

    Abhi, thank you.

  10. Srividya (unregistered) on April 11th, 2006 @ 2:23 am

    Thanks so much for your post. I am especially interested since I have a 1 year old and a 6 year old, and considering relocating to India by next year. Having lived in the US for the past 15 years, I am totally out of the loop as far as schools, etc., go. It looks like my older one will have a rough time getting settled in there, judging by what you had so say about the excessive homework, learning by rote, etc. He goes to our neighborhood school that has a typical American curriculum, barely any math to speak of, but reasonably okay language arts. I am worried about the second language problem. Do all schools require kids to learn a second language? Also, are you aware of kids who have joined at a later stage, say 3rd grade level, and if so, how have they fared? Thanks once again for your time.

  11. Johnson (unregistered) on April 22nd, 2006 @ 4:13 am

    Indian schools … the debate goes on.
    Bangalore has hundreds of schools (2-3 in a road, in some places). Lots of schools have montessori, international in their name tags, but don’t follow anything in principle. However, there are exceptions.

    Eurokids, I heard its good. My nephew has recently joined in.

    Sophia school (ICSE) follows an casual approach from nursery to 2nd std with pressure building on, later. NAFL, (their sister institution, NPS, was my old school) is one of the good international schools out here.

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