I have been an “examination warrior” of sorts for years. But in a different sense to the title of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book of the same name. Mr Modi has written a useful book to help students “slay” exams. There is a contradiction here, though, because while he urges students to treat exams like festivals (I rather liked this approach), he also advises students to be “warriors” implying that examinations are something to be conquered. My fight has been with the school examination system which requires students in their last year of school to write papers for hours at a stretch and their entry into college depends to a degree on the results of this single examination. Educators have observed to their satisfaction that many examination reforms were necessitated by the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, the same pandemic has given birth to a horrific practice, which must be nipped in the bud. This is the testing of pre-primary children for admission into school.
Even in pre-Covid times I used to be horrified to hear that little children were interviewed and assessed by the school authorities for admission into the nursery classes. Most of these children were already attending playschools, some of which would “prepare” these tiny mites, all of 18 months of age, for “The Interview in The Big School”. Mock interviews would be held so that the tots would get used to interacting with unfamiliar persons. Parents too would be given practice in responding “intelligently” to expected questions. It is believed that parents too are subtly assessed by schools to see whether they matched their preferred “client profile”. On questioning parents, I learned that some of them were even advised to dress in a particular manner. No wonder that some parents were so formally dressed that they looked as if they were attending a convocation ceremony. The fathers were suited and booted and were sporting ties, the mothers were in elegant attire while the toddlers were fitted out in their best partywear. All this for a virtual interaction from the comfort of their homes.
It is unkind to put parents through this kind of ordeal. They are already tense because even having dutifully rehearsed for the “test” with their little toddlers, there was no guarantee that the little things would perform at the right time “on command”. At this age children should indulge in free play, they should learn from the environment, dance, sing and run around. Why should they be subjected to virtual lessons, be made to sit in front of the screen and learn the letters of the alphabet and names of colours and fruits? Even if children of this age get accustomed to learning from “the screen ma’am”, this sort of regimentation is quite premature. When I asked some of the parents why they subject themselves and their children to this kind of “torture”, one parent gave a telling reply. He said that they were so eager to admit their children into certain favoured schools that they were afraid of objecting to the admission procedure and risk their application being rejected.
It was bad enough in the past, but in this pandemic year it was disturbing to be told that children who had not even turned two were being made to attend virtual lessons. Some parents went for customised activity packages which I learnt were delivered at intervals so that the curriculum could be tackled in a methodical way. Other parents said that they were lucky to find a Montessori teacher in the neighbourhood who came to their housing complex and taught a group of toddlers on a regular basis. This arrangement gave their children the much-needed opportunity to socialise with other children of the same age.
On deeper questioning, it became evident that this whole exercise of attempting to “educate” toddlers was largely to prepare them for entry into the primary department of one of the reputed schools.
In this context I have some questions to ask the authorities and teachers of the schools that assess such small children before admitting them. The first and most important question is: “Can you really identify the brighter children on the basis of naming a few colours, fruits and vegetables?” Children develop at their own individual pace and at this age you cannot make out anything about their potential. Over the decades that I have been in school education, I have seen enough to know that there are late bloomers, there are moody children and quiet ones who have eventually turned out to be outstanding students. Conversely, I have seen little children mastering formal schoolwork at the basic stages but falling behind when there was need for more complex work involving problem-solving or independent thinking. My next question is: “Will you reject a child who refuses to answer your questions or suddenly tires of the whole thing and starts bawling?” I remember the case of one little girl who stubbornly refused to tell the head teacher her name. On the way home, when her mother asked why she hadn’t opened her mouth, she said: “My name was written on the card that you pinned to my dress, why was she asking me?”
Some children are precocious, but precociousness is not equivalent to giftedness. In fact, it is accepted that IQ tests are not reliable in the case of very young children as the intelligence quotient of a child takes some years to stabilise. As for assessing parents, I suppose schools, like clubs, may feel entitled to have their own criteria for parents.
But this article is more about unfairness to children. I am calling out all schools that test pre-primary children for admission into their nursery or kindergarten classes. You are adopting a practice that goes against the principles of pre-primary education, besides adding stress to the already stressful lives of parents. Finally, you are guilty of giving some of these little children their first taste of failure. Activists need to urge the schools to stop this insensitive practice at once.