When our daughter was a preschooler, we had no idea how to select a school or an academic board. How do we know what our children will want to do when they grow up? Their interests and abilities can grow and change over time. As parents, we would not be able to tell what path they may choose later on, when they reach high school. We only have an inkling of their strengths and abilities, or what structures and freedoms their personalities demand. Also, as parents, we simply cannot force our aspirations upon them.
Besides, a lot can change by the time our children transition to high school. Already, we have a new National Education Policy (NEP) that calls for many changes and a more progressive framework in terms of curriculum implementation and teacher qualifications.
If you are a parent who is bogged down by the number of choices at your disposal, here’s how you can choose schools for your children and understand the role of an academic board in your decision-making process.
Find out what works for your family
Fatema Agarkar is the Founder of ACE (Agarkar Centre of Excellence) and works extensively in the education management industry in India, apart from helping parents understand school choices and board selection. She states that while families have specific aspirations for their children, a learning environment that benefits one child may not necessarily suit another. She cautions families against making school decisions based on rankings or popular parent discussions in WhatsApp groups.
“Identifying a school environment for your child is a complex process,” she says. “In many ways it is about understanding the academic boards, the school’s proximity to your residence, the kind of financial investment required, the school’s infrastructure in terms of co-curricular programs, the management’s vision, and the ethos of the school. It is about choosing the right environment for the child to learn and how this fits into the family’s personal circumstances and vision.”
For Veni Prasad, parent of a 6-year-old child in Bengaluru, her vision is clear.“I chose a school near my house that happened to follow the national curriculum, which is the CBSE,” she says. “I studied in a government school and I worked hard to complete my medical graduation. I somehow could not send my daughter to a school with high fees. I can afford it, but if she finds that she needs better choices and an international curriculum when she is older, I will definitely support her interests and views. Also, I am a full-time working parent and I simply cannot devote time to sitting with my daughter and helping her on multiple projects until she is able to do them on her own,” she adds.
I, on the other hand, was keen on a school that valued experiential learning because it tied in with our family’s personal philosophy of education. Again, this philosophy differs from family to family. Every choice is equally valid, as long as it places the child in a nurturing learning environment.
The curriculum is just a framework and it is up to the school to implement it
In India, parents can choose among schools affiliated to six academic boards — the State Board, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), the International Baccalaureate (IB), the Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE), and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). Some schools in India are affiliated to the Edexcel Board, which is part of the Pearson Group.
When looking for information on the national and international curriculums available in India, most websites give us standard information. For instance, loosely, the CBSE is believed to focus on the accumulation of knowledge, particularly in subjects like math and science. The CISCE, it is said, gives equal importance to languages and literature, and helps students engage with concepts in a deeper manner. The Cambridge curriculum is application-based, offers a variety of subject choices, and encourages lateral thinking. The IB encourages students to take broader pathways, with a lot of focus on research and writing.
In reality, a curriculum is only as effective as the teachers and the teams that deliver it. Every board in India is child-friendly and it is up to the school to make the best use of its potential. For example, there are CBSE schools that give importance to languages and literature by way of supplemental learning and activities outside the classroom. Similarly, both the CBSE and the CISCE offer a huge variety of subjects and it is up to a school to actually include these subjects in their academic programmes.
Sandhya Sekar, a Bengaluru-based mother of a 11-year-old boy, agrees.“Many people say that the CBSE is all about rote learning but my son’s school offers any projects and activities that are given in subject-relevant topics,” she says.
Similarly, the Cambridge curriculum, which was once believed to be the choice of students who wished to study in universities abroad, has now become more mainstream, also because it aligns with local entrance exam and admission dates.
Fatema Agarkar believes that ultimately, a school’s overall vision matters. “There are state board schools that are doing really well because their management believes in incorporating experiences that will enrich the child’s life within the infrastructure they have and the cost constraints they work with,” she says.
Reevaluate your goals during the higher grades
My daughter, who loved a seamless learning environment in primary school, now needs more structure as a middle schooler and it is clear that we need to review her secondary school curriculum choices.
Today, many students who enter the higher grades may decide to switch to curriculums that align with their particular interests and strengths. I studied in the same school for 14 years of my life, but today, education is all about discovering new paths for your children, and empowering them with choices.
Bengaluru-based Shubhra Das’s son, for example, switched from a school affiliated to the CBSE to a school that offered the IB Diploma in grade 11. “He did not want to be confined to science, commerce, or art streams,” says Das about her son. “He took Physics, Economics, High Level History, Spanish, English, and Standard Level Math," she says, adding that "this was a decision he took on his own.”
“Given the number of national curriculum students who have taken the IB diploma and gone on to do very well is evidence enough that each curriculum is independent and can integrate kids from other academic boards,” says Agarkar.
Again, a family’s collective belief in the methodology and philosophy of a board is important too. Transitions to new boards need a lot of consultation with experts and teachers. Some boards are recommended for certain academic and career pathways. The student will have to adapt to a new system that could be challenging and different in terms of its teaching ad assessment methods but ultimately can be rewarding if that is indeed the pathway that he or she wanted to take. To achieve this, the student needs a lot of support from the school and the family.
As parents, we certainly want our high schoolers to go out there, explore the world, think critically, and learn to face a different set of challenges. At the same time, they need strong foundational skills, rigour, and a competitive edge for the future. Parents should consult the experts, do their research, evaluate choices, and most importantly, bring their high schoolers into the decision-making process so that they learn to achieve their goals independently.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.