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Schools in IndiaA brief general look at education in Delhi, with comments common to all; words of warning, info on nurseries and bus service, and some guidance about schools considered and often chosen (or not) by English-speaking expats.

By Nicola Vickers

It is probably one of the top three contenders for the sleepless nights prize before a move abroad. Educational decisions for our children rank right up there with fears about health and safety.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you escape any major decisions by moving abroad. Expat educational choices in Delhi are a condensed version of those made by parents in their home countries. Location, fees, curriculum, staff, facilities, clientele and community all factor into the equation with varying degrees of importance according to the family. The tricky part for many is that there is not as much choice as you may have in your home country, in fact less now than in the recent past. Compromises often have to be made. Delhiites are fortunate in that there are at least three viable options and all have something a little different to offer. 

It is important to note that, of late the expat population has been exploding in Delhi. It has become almost impossible to secure a place in the American Embassy School or The British School and both have long waiting lists (more details below). Other than the French School and MDIS (both very small and full) there are few other viable options and many expats are not taking postings offered to them if they have children as there is simply no space. AES, the American school, has a charter which states that places must be offered to all students with US passports who meet the academic requirements. As the US contingent is increasing, the schools future looks destined to be less international and more bubble-like than ever (see comments below).

The largest school in Delhi for expats is The American Embassy School, with about 1000 pupils from preschool to high.  Known locally as the American school or AES, it is the choice of many expats. It offers a large campus, established reputation, good administration and excellent facilities. Most parents are dazzled by it when shown around. It is a well oiled machine employing a largely expatriate teaching staff with up-to-date international experience.  The fees are huge and the international clientele privileged. The school measures up well in test scores with good public schools back in the States. This is a quite an achievement as the school is non-selective and has a large percentage of ESL students. 

The large Korean community at AES offer a Saturday school every week to keep children up to speed with schools in Korea. Children returning to the UK or Japan  from AES have required tutors in order to prepare them to pass Common Entrance or other tests required for entry to some private senior schools in their home countries. The school is happy to give practice papers, but parents have to be fully self motivated to ensure they are up to date with timings etc for applications and exams. The school has no idea about any of this, so parents would have to do all the ground work themselves.

The school is American, caters for Americans and delivers an American curriculum.  There is plenty of ESL for non-English speakers, but native English-speaking parents who choose it and expect a British-style curriculum need to read the prospectus carefully and think carefully before selecting AES.  Many believe the curriculum doesn’t catch up with the UK, for example, until the IB programme begins in High School. The head is willing to move children out of their age group in certain cases if they are academically way ahead of their peer group. But don’t count on it, or do make it clear from the start that this is what you need.  

A large number of non-American families compromise curriculum ideals in favour of an excellent campus with state of the art facilities and an enthusiastic and bubbling atmosphere where children are clearly thriving. Many parents are relieved to escape from the competitiveness which infects many countries at primary school level and allow the children to develop at a more gradual pace. There is a built-in, easy and wide circle of friends for parents and children which makes it a core of community life in Delhi for many families.

The American Embassy School is not everyone’s cup of tea by any means. Some are put off by the Americanness of it, feeling that it lacks any real Indian input at all. Life in the AES compound is seen by some as too much of a protected, bubble-like existence with none of the enrichment gained from living in another country. Others feel uncomfortable with the American culture and style of education. Others still find it simply too large. 

Right next door to AES is The British School, often chosen by those who are committed to the British syllabus and National Curriculum. It is much smaller (about 200 in primary and 330 in senior) and more affordable at almost half the price of the American school, following a more traditional and academic syllabus from an earlier start. It has a large percentage of local students and NRI’s (Non Resident Indians ie Indian nationals who travel the world for work, currently temporarily living in India and  quite often internationally educated) and is much more in touch with India than the American School. It has a waiting list for all ages and is a very popular school in Delhi.  

It is going through a period of great change as the Director plans to reverse some of the recent trends and create a more international school. Compared to UK schools, SATS results and GCSEs are on a par with a reasonable UK school but A level results have been mixed in recent years.  The planned move to IB will be a welcome introduction to raise standards at this level.

A small number of families have made the move from the British School to AES. They missed a sense of community which they felt the American School offered in a simpler way to the British School.  There are a significant percentage of Indian families attending the school who are incredibly wealthy and spend little time in the school. Ayahs (Nannies) do pick ups and arrange play dates. 

Although there are many expat families who choose it and whose children are happy with their group of friends from school, the school is not the centre of their lives in Delhi. One or two have felt that the Indian community were so self-sufficient with their extended families, there was not so much room for friendships with expat families and therefore far fewer play dates. To contradict this though, many current parents at the British School feel warmly welcomed by Indian families. One mother felt she never would have made the good Indian girlfriends she has made with other mothers had they not been at the British School.

The school is about to undergo some very major infrastructure changes with new buildings, pools, computer labs all being planned for the upcoming year. This will all come out of a fat development account that has been paid into by parents when they enrol in the school, and remained untouched for about 20 years. The feeling in the expat crowd is that more international families will be choosing the school over the course of the next few years.

The French School is often selected by non-native French speakers for language immersion and again for its smaller size and traditional programme. It is utterly French. The school attracts plenty of interest up to age twelve when numbers nose dive, leaving very few senior school children. Some leave to go to the American School or the British School for a larger choice of friends and activities, others back to their home countries.

The small German School is almost wholly selected by German families or families where one parent is German.

There is a new school called Pathways which lies on the outskirts of Delhi with a fantastic new campus and a diverse teaching staff from around the world. It is offering the IB programme all the way through from the primary syllabus. The school has only been open for a year, offers boarding and will serve day kids from the Gurgaon end of town – almost another whole new city 40 minutes south of Delhi. To drive to this school from central areas of Delhi takes 1½ hours on a good run. There is a bus system on Monday mornings, returning kids on Friday evenings on a weekly boarding arrangement.  Currently very few expat children but the word is spreading.

The American School offers a bus service for its pupils for all the main expat areas. The British School is about to do the same. Otherwise the ride to school is done by the drivers, either with or without parents, with some kids car-pooling from the farm houses. The American and British Schools are adjacent to each other and pick-up and drop-off times, although staggered, can be very congested. At AES no ayahs, drivers or other staff are allowed onto the campus and children have to be met at the gate. Anybody, even grandparents, must be signed in by a family pass holder.

Most expats on short contracts do not seem to send their kids to Indian schools. Some NRIs and long-term Europeans married into Indian families choose this system. There are schools worthy of note including Sanskriti School and the Delhi Public School chain, particularly the one in RK Puram.  Classes are universally large, about 40 and above, and the style of teaching didactic and very disciplined. The successful schools turn out engineers and electronic whiz kids by the score but they are hothouses and very high pressure with little or no extra curricular activity. There are lines around the blocks on enrolment and admission days and grades have to be very high for children to be accepted.

At nursery age there are local schools which expatriates choose for their 21 mos/2 to 4 year olds. Magic Years in Vasant Vihar is a Montessori school with a good sports programme in the afternoons. Little Senators in Vasant Vihar is also popular. ‘Your kids’r’our kids’ in Jorbagh has expatriate children and is run by the overbearing Bharat and his wife Sunam. All these programmes need to be visited as their styles are different. They range in price but are all around $200 a quarter and require various deposits refundable and non-refundable. All staff are Indian and children often end up with a good smattering of Hindi and an adorable Indian accent. 

Since most diplomats and corporate staff do not get help with fees at this stage, these local schools offer a good alternative to the oversubscribed embassy-run nurseries. The latter are Apple (American Embassy) and Busy Bees (British High Commission). Both do take from outside the diplomatic enclave, but priority is given to embassy employees and then selection by nationality and finally the Joe Ordinaries.  Apple charges $5000 for the year and is a co-operative which expects full parental involvement, and Busy Bees $330 for the quarter. You can get lucky but at the time of writing, the waiting list for Busy Bees stood at 16 kids.

There are tons of tutors who offer extra lessons for school work with kids at all ages. At the American School, assistant teachers offer extra lessons to back up classroom work or assist with English after school. The British School offer extra lessons and prefer to use in-house teachers rather than external tutors. Extra lessons for senior school children range in price from $10 to $17 per hour for a reputable private tutor who will come to your home for all subjects. 

All the schools offer extracurricular activities for children and adults for a charge. There are also a plethora of extracurricular activities available with private tutors in your home or nearby eg  Piano lessons ($22 per hour for the best), Tae Kwan Doe ($4 an hour), Yoga, tennis coaches ($10 to $22 an hour for an hours lesson),  horse riding lessons (approx $8 an hour), ballet and jazz (breaks down to approx $7 a lesson at AES). Nearly all extra lesson teachers want pupils to take their classes twice a week to make real progress. Children’s play time gets eaten up very quickly and if you want your child to do a sport or activity purely for the pleasure and not to achieve excellence, be prepared to stand firm for one lesson a week. Delhi suffers from the modern-day worldwide disease of parents overdoing the extra curricular activities. Be warned: at these reasonable prices, it is highly contagious.

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