The factories of education

Early yesterday morning I woke up to the news of yet another young girl dying by suicide in Kota, the ‘coaching capital’ of India. Niharika was 18.

With the twins in grade 12 this year, the reality of competition, the struggle, the heartbreak of it all has been too close and too real for comfort.

I watch my children trying to balance the unrelenting pressures of Board and competitive exams. I see them waking up each morning at 5 and studying through the day.

I see my daughter buckling under the pressure somedays, unable to study from the sheer stress of it all.

I hear my son’s tales of being pulled-up by his school-teacher for being late with his assignments because he just doesn’t have the time. And, I don’t have the heart to add to the teacher’s reprimand. For once, I am grateful for his relatively thick skin.

And yet, somedays, I see him withdraw into his room.

He asks me to instruct the maid to not sweep or mop, ‘It’s distracting,’ he tells me, ‘I’ll do my own cleaning. And you and papa please don’t talk too loudly.’

This boy who could study in the living room with his headphones on, while the husband watched television in the same room, doesn’t want anyone to enter his room.

It’s not us. Or the noise. Or the maid. It’s the stress, I know. 

This, when the children have everything they could possibly need. 

When we consciously avoid putting pressure on them. 
When we encourage them to go out with their friends. 
When they have each other while they are in ‘that’ phase. They chat and banter and argue and share all kinds of philosophies.
Above all, when they have the luxury and the means to take another attempt, another year to fulfil their dreams.

They are truly privileged and for that, I am ever so grateful.

What chance does a child like Niharika have? The child of a security guard studying in a madly competitive environment, conscious of every penny her parents have struggled to spare for her, knowing that perhaps this is her only chance.

I cannot get her letter out of my head: ‘Mummy – Papa I can’t do JEE, so I suicide, I am looser. I worst daughter. I am sorry mummy – papa, it is only the last option.

What prompts a child to label herself a ‘loser’? I have always had an intense dislike for that word. It’s as if the child is being rejected in his/her entirety. That was probably how Niharika thought of herself. She rejected her own self and decided to end it all two days before her exam. At 18 years of age, with her whole life ahead of her.

Making matters infinitely worse is the crowd of coaching institutes. A Netflix series correctly termed them ‘factories’. That’s what they are: soulless drivers, pushing and pushing and pushing the children relentlessly without a thought to their physical or mental well-being. 2023 saw 29 children dying by suicide in Kota. Niharika is the second one this year already.

Coaching institutes shouldn’t be required to begin with, had our grade 12 education been in sync with that at colleges. However, I do understand the need to bridge the gap between the grade 12 style of studying and the demands of elite colleges. There is hardly a child who qualifies on his own.

So then, when it’s clear these institutes are here to stay, why don’t we have any rules, any laws, any agencies governing them? Earlier this year the Union Ministry of Education proposed a few guidelines but enforcing them is what is required.

Some of these institutes are functioning without the very basics. They do not even have proper seating facilities. 70, 80, sometimes more, students are crammed together in single classrooms. To think that they’d worry about the mental health of their students is laughable. It wouldn’t even figure on their list.

All they do is squeeze out fees from anxious parents and then drive the children as hard as possible. If some students fall off along the way, well, that’s just too bad (the fees are always non-refundable). They simply forge ahead with the rest, cheering on the winners, who are just a means to lure in more students.

It is utterly utterly heartbreaking.

12 Replies to “The factories of education”

  1. omg that is heartbreaking. She was so young, she could have done good so many other fields. Getting into the elite is tough and the standards are very high, but it doesn’t mean if you don’t make it, you can’t do anything else. This undue pressure from parents adds up to the stress.

  2. This is heartbreaking! I just read the guidelines suggested for the coaching classes, but are they being followed? The pressure on today’s kids, to perform and to achieve, is tremendous. It is so important to communicate with them and encourage them to open up about their feelings without being judged. And, most importantly, to let them know that not passing an exam doesn’t make them a “loser”.
    Shilpa Gupte recently put up this amazing post…When words flow free.My Profile

    1. Like I said, I hate that word. I see youngsters use it so loosely. I believe words have power. No one should ever be labelled like that.

  3. This is truly heartbreaking, Tulika. Worse still is the fact that many of these toppers in the entrance exam have no social skills and fluency in English. When they do pass out they are still at a disadvantage. The whole system is warped!
    Wishing the twins well as they (and you both) journey through this difficult phase.
    Corinne Rodrigues recently put up this amazing post…Blooming For Myself In FebruaryMy Profile

    1. Thank you Corinne. Life’s tough for youngsters these days. No one thinks of inculcating social skills at all. Which is why they falter when they step into the real world. How can you work with people if you’ve never learnt how to engage with others?

  4. It is a shame that our children have to go through such rigorous academics. Being from an arts background, my heart always went out to my son for his academic challenges. I’m happy that some parents like us understand their challenges and do not crack the whip. Niharika’s unfortunate case should be an eye-opener to many parents.

  5. This news was on the front page of the newspaper yesterday and was the first news I read. The content of the letter to her parents broke my heart. 2 days back, D came back from school and told me 10th-grade students talked about effective time management with their class in which they mentioned the pressure is there but don’t give up on your extra-curricular activities to accommodate the academic pressure. in his response, D had to say – “I will have to give up my tennis in 10th std.” I know 10std. studies is nothing in comparison with the preparation of various entrance exams. As parents, our role is very important here in keeping the communication channels open both ways.

    1. Absolutely right. As a parent one has to be super vigilant for signs of stress. That is what has kept H and N sane and I am so grateful I had the luxury of being close to them. I’m keeping my fingers constantly crossed.

  6. It’s indeed heartbreaking…. While rules, guidelines are indeed much needed, communication with the child is also very very important. Restraint from the parents, understanding the limits and interests of the child .. so many many little things that go a long way in ensuring the child reaches his/her full potential.

    1. I agree. However, I strongly feel coaching institutes need to take some responsibility for the way they’re treating children. We have had to work extra hard with H to undo some of what the institute taught him in terms of attitude. They actively promote an extremely aggressive do-or-die theory which can confuse a sensitive child and lead to his/her undoing.

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