DUBAI // Thousands of Indian pupils will take a high school exam next month that many regard as the fulcrum of their future.
The stakes are so high and the students so taut that schools following the Central Board of Secondary Education curriculum have started counselling sessions for Grade 12 pupils.
The goal is to prevent unhealthy competition for marks and help pupils overcome the pressure surrounding the examinations, which begin on March 1.
"They want to succeed and get into the university of their choice back home," said Rohini Jairam, principal of the Asian International Private School in Al Ain.
"And it's tough competition for places at Indian universities."
Last year, a pupil in Ajman jumped from the first-floor window of his school after learning he had failed two subjects. And in India last year, an 18-year-old girl who feared she had performed badly in her physics exam jumped off a rooftop and died.
The exams, which are conducted by the Indian central education board, play a pivotal role in university admissions and future career options.
Top-ranking universities reserve a limited number of seats for Non-Resident Indians, and they must get marks above 90 per cent to secure one of those places. Most UAE pupils turn to private tutors to help them make the cut.
Svetlana Jose, 17, a pupil at Our Own English High School in Dubai, said there was no option but to join extra classes.
"Most of us take extra coaching classes for certain subjects," said the Grade 12 science pupil. "The syllabus is vast and some of us need to more intense classes to be better prepared."
Sharan Mirchandani, a science stream pupil at the Delhi Private School in Dubai, said he aims to be the top in the UAE this year. "My aim is to get 95 per cent or above," he said.
He wants to apply for medicine at Kasturba Medical College in India and has been attending extra lessons after school.
"Just a week remains for the exams to begin and there is a lot of pressure," he said.
"In school, we try to have group study sessions. It's a good extra push and also eases the tension."
The high expectations result in competition between pupils that can take a toll on their health.
The Indian education system follows a percentage-based assessment in Grade 12, although the procedure for Grade 10 was changed two years ago to grades in an attempt to ease over-competitiveness.
Sharan said he did not prefer a grading system because it did not adequately reflect his hard work.
"It places achievers within categories of grades and does not particularly show how much more I have achieved than the rest of the group."
Svetlana, on the other hand, said she preferred the grade system because it reduces the stress.
"With percentages, every mark counts and pupils vying for the top positions are under great pressure."
Vignesh Krishnamurthy, a classmate of Sharan's, believes accepting the grading system would require cultural change.
"The grade system has worked in other countries," he said. "Our Indian system does not even consider extra-curricular activities during assessment, which is a downside," said the pupil, who has applied for mechanical engineering at 12 universities in the United States and Canada.
He said universities in both countries base their enrolment decisions on pupils' all-round development during school years. "Our system focuses heavily on academics and I had to do a lot on my own to boost my resume and develop my skills."
School heads said parents, too, needed to be educated against pushing their children in an unhealthy way.
Dr Mohammed Aslam Khan, principal of the New Indian Model School in Dubai, said most parents still prefer end-of-year exams with clear marks.
"They want a paper and pencil test where they can see the marks and compare them to others," he said.
He added that it would take time and effort to convince them of the merits of the new method. "We have to make them understand that it is not exams alone that assess a child's ability: it needs to be a comprehensive method that allows us to determine and develop their strengths and skills."