Sunday, June 14, 2009

All that glitters...

By Erum Hafeez

My son is hardly four. He was promoted from pre-nursery to nursery recently. His first academic year cost me Rs100,000, a lot of hard work and anxiety. Like most parents, I want my child to get the best education to ensure a bright future for him.

It all began a year ago when I frantically surveyed all accessible schools and interviewed seasoned parents among my circle of family and friends to find the perfect school for my child. Considering his age, and the lamentable public school set-up, I opted for a leading private school’s branch in Karachi in my area. After the initial formalities, I was instructed to pay a hefty amount of Rs40,000 which included the admission fee and a security deposit. After that, I had to make haste to purchase prescribed books, stationary, accessories and uniforms along with other anxious parents. It took me a dozen trips and another couple of thousand rupees to get everything ready for my child’s kindergarten experience.

On his first day of school, my husband and I accompanied him. It was more of a trial of parents than of children. Oblivious to the brightly coloured premises and made-up teachers, little kids were running and crying frantically for their mothers. The lack of planning, staff and facilities despite the tall claims made and the high cost of education was bothersome for most parents. Interestingly enough, parents were made to stand outside classes while a single lady teacher was helplessly trying to control and console two to three dozen frightened kids in each class. A handful of domestic and administrative staff present at the spot seemed puzzled and tried to comfort parents by explaining that this was a customary practice during the first few days of school.

Most of the classrooms were small and appeared congested in the absence of proper ventilation and electricity — most private schools are housed in residential bungalows without generators and air conditioners and this school was no exception to this rule. Children, thus, perspired profusely given the humid weather. Two weeks passed by and gradually the children learnt to adjust while parents tried to make their peace with the situation. However, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not I made the right decision by sending my toddler to school at such a tender age.

Soon I came to know that with a few exceptions, most teachers in this highly reputable school are mere graduates. They neither have professional training, nor the necessary experience to handle little kids. Thus, they usually rely on the trial-and-error method. An extremely low criteria for teachers is common in most schools, evident from job advertisements for Montessori and junior schools teachers which appear in newspapers.

Most parents enroll their children in these posh English-medium schools so that they can speak and write English fluently. However, I hardly found any teacher who had strong language skills. Most private school teachers rely on artificial accents and a colloquial style to impress parents in meetings while in classrooms children are exposed to incorrect language.

Within a few days, I noticed horrifying changes in my son. He turned rowdy and impolite with each passing day. When he started using expressions that bordered on obscene, I approached his class teacher but she showed ignorance, refused to accept any responsibility and blamed a few kids from uncivilized families for spoiling others. The lack of professionalism and sense of responsibility in most teachers is because of the fact that they take up teaching as pastime and as an added source of income. Moreover, the tactics that these private schools employ to attract their clients (parents) through cosmetic measures like highly decorated classrooms, extra-curricular activities, meetings, publications and assessments consume most of their teachers’ time and energy. Thus, they hardly take interest in their pupils’ progress.

Since Montessori is the child’s first exposure to the world outside, they need a facilitator and a friend for confidence-building. However, every second day I had to remind my son’s teacher to send him to bathroom after break, as he is partly potty-trained. Soon, I learnt that I had to please the school maid with regular bakshish (tip) and clothes if I cared about my child’s health and hygiene.

The class teacher hardly noticed whether a child needed help wiping his/her nose or washing hands for that matter. She also didn’t seem to care whether or not children ate lunch or drank water throughout the day and often left it to their will. All this was highlighted all the more when children had a birthday party and spoilt their clothes and faces with food stains.

No doubt, it is impossible for a single teacher to take care of every child when she does not have an assistant to control the hyper tots. However, the school administration believed in economy of manpower. On every complaint, parents were told that they were the only ones who have problems while the others were pretty pleased with the entire set-up.

Unfortunately, all this adversely affected my son and he became disinterested with school. He often complained about his teachers’ negligence, harsh words and bullies. For him, the only attraction is his friends from whom he managed to learn bullying tactics to defend himself.

When the things got out of control, I decided to draw teachers’ attention towards serious matters through frequent notes in school diary. Consequently, I was labelled as a nosy parent. Thankfully, it did make the teacher a little conscious of her language and she also separated my child from the mischief-makers.

In the meanwhile, co-curricular activities started in school. In the name of charity events for earthquake victims, parents were pushed into contributing thousands of rupees through tickets. Despite extravagant preparations, most events disappointed both students and parents as they lacked creativity, organisation and participation on part of the students.

Throughout the first year of my child’s academic life, I desperately felt the need for a platform for concerned parents especially when I learnt that most of us are in the same boat. However, most parents are reluctant to voice their concerns as they are afraid of the consequences. On the other hand, the authorities can’t dictate anything to private schools even though they keep on increasing their monthly fee periodically along with taking the tuition fee in advance.

It is only parents, clients of these private businesses, who can question and control them. Parents can get together and establish an organised parents’ council or association where parents can gather fearlessly to check and balance the school administration and staff initiatives, monitor their kid’s academic progress and counter the highhandedness of private school mafia regarding fund-raising and money-making tactics.

The writer is a freelance contributor

Did you know?

• That the average monthly fee for kindergarten for most privates schools range anywhere between Rs. 4,000-6,000.
• There is one kindergarten teacher for a class of about 40 children in most schools.
• The entire school day for children that young comprises three hours at the most.
• Most teachers learn how to handle children that young on the job.
• Kindergarten teachers often resort to corporal punishment.
• Nine out of 10 parents feel like their children are not doing anything productive when in Montessori.
• Nine out of 10 kindergarten students in most private schools are exposed to some form of expletive in class before the age of five.

(Courtesy: “Dawn”; Sept. 3, 2006)


  1. THIS is with reference to Erum Hafeez’s article “All that glitters…” (September 3, 2006) in which the writer voiced her disappointment and concerns regarding her son’s school. Her concerns are valid and shared by other parents.

    Today, children are being sent to schools at an extremely tender age, forced to “learn” for half the day, five-six days a week, for almost 12 years of their lives. After spending a few years in conventional schools, many children do not want to learn because the system bores them. Inadvertently, they end up learning things that they shouldn’t be exposed to in the first place — lying, cheating, making fun of others, foul language, etc.

    However, there is a ray of hope which I discovered when I was about to admit my child in school. It was then that I learnt of an alternative route of education which has, in fact, been around since time immemorial. This system was revived some 30 years ago in the US and more than two million children there are acquiring education through it (and also worldwide) with excellent results. That route is home schooling (also known as home education or alternative education). Simply put, it is education given by parents and is not restricted to one’s home. An underlying theme is that home is the best base for learning, regardless of whether or not the school is good.

    The home is a natural and real environment for children, whereas school is an artificially created place. At home, the mother does not have to attend to 20-40 children, nor is she bound by bells, rigid curriculum, and unproductive work. Parents let the child learn as per his/her interests and at his/her pace.

    Home-schooled children also enjoy a healthier social life. John Holt, an ex-schoolteacher and pioneer of the Growing Without Schooling Movement has written two eye-opening books on the subject: How Children Learn and How Children Fail. In his own words, “children, without being coerced or manipulated, or being put in exotic, specially prepared environments, or having their thinking planned and ordered for them, can will, and do, pick from the world around them important information about what we call basics... Ordinary people, without special training and often without large amounts of schooling themselves, can give their children whatever slight assistance may be needed to help them in their exploration of the world. Doing this requires no more than a little tact, patience, attention, and readily available information.”

    I am in the third-year of our home-schooling journey. It has been a rewarding and enlightening experience for my family. We have gathered friends on the way. When we started out, we knew no other home schooler in our city. I now know 14 families. Home schooling has made it easier for us to raise our kids as practicing Muslims.

    The internet is a very useful resource for home schooling. John Taylor Gatto’s articles “The six-lesson schoolteacher” and “Why schools don’t educate” are good starters.

    Erum Asif
    Abu Dhabi, UAE

  2. Loved your article dear Erum Hafeez, I would call it ‘meray dil ki awaaz’, my daughter will be turning 4 years old next month insha Allah although I am home schooling her and Alhumdulliah she is doing pretty well but due to immense pressure from family and friends I went to check out this reputable preparatory school in Lahore. The setup was great the principal as impressive and knew the skill to convince parents to get their children admitted in her school but I was unimpressed with the teacher who will be the one dealing with our kids.
    There were 3 classes before the child would enter kindergarten. Hand eye coordination can easily be improved at home also one can easily develop the gross motor skill etc. I wonder what the kids learn in those 3 years before kindergarten where as in kindergarten, the major goal is to help your child become comfortable in school. She'll learn to get along with others, follow rules, and some of the basic skills needed to read, write, and do math. During her kindergarten year the child should learn to:
    • Recognize and form uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
    • Match sounds to each alphabet letter.
    • Recognize and use rhyming words.
    • Begin reading words by using initial consonant sounds and such sound patterns as -an and -at (fan, man, can) and (sat, rat, pat).
    • Recognize a few frequently used sight words such as: the, and, is.
    • Capitalize the first and last name of a person and the word "I".
    • Count, recognize, and write the numbers up to 20.
    • Identify, draw, cut, and name squares, circles, triangles, ovals, diamonds, and rectangles.
    • Classify and group objects according to such characteristics as shape, color, size, texture, and so on.
    • Understand how people in communities work together.
    • Use their five senses to make simple scientific observations.
    In Pakistan we over burden the child and depend mostly in rote learning method.
    My friend’s son goes to a reputable schooling system in Karachi which has branches all over Pakistan, according to her, her son can write number till 5 but his teacher says his pencil grip is not good. When the child’s pre-writing skills are not fully developed he should be asked to do more of line tracing rather than jumping on writing.
    Any way great article. After reading this I am more convinced for home schooling.
    And yes the initial payment we have to make in order to get our daughter admitted in that school is rs.63, 000 which does not include books, stationary, uniform etc. the monthly fee which is rs.7500 has to be paid quarterly along with half yearly charges rs.3500 for doctor on call and field trips.