x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

No time off for the swot squad

For Indian pupils preparing for the examination season, almost every spare hour is spent studying.

Maneesha Pramod, 16, a student of the Abu Dhabi Indian School, devotes five to six hours to studies each night. She hopes to become a chemical engineer or architect.
Maneesha Pramod, 16, a student of the Abu Dhabi Indian School, devotes five to six hours to studies each night. She hopes to become a chemical engineer or architect.

ABU DHABI // When she gets home from school shortly after 3pm each weekday, Maneesha Pramod still faces a mountain of homework. The 16-year-old pupil at Abu Dhabi Indian High School may relax for an hour or so, but then she picks up her books again with an enthusiasm that belies the full day she has already spent in lessons.

As if that were not enough, she heads off twice weekly at about 5pm for a further couple of hours with a private tutor before returning for yet another evening buried in her books. Each day, she spends five to six hours studying after school unless exams are looming, in which case she expects to devote even more time to her studies. Maneesha is typical of expatriate Indian students, not only in the UAE but throughout the world, who routinely outperform their peers and whose example may offer lessons for other education systems, pupils and parents.

"There is a lot of expectation," she says. "Even the school expects a lot from us because they see us having a bright future." Maneesha, who was born in Al Ain but hopes to attend university in her parents' native country, is one of the top students at her school. In her Grade 10 examinations she scored 94.8 per cent. But she is far from unique in her devotion to learning. Most of her classmates, she says, spend even more time in private tuition each evening.

The work ethos of pupils in the Indian community is also driven by parental expectation. "We have a certain kind of vision, to make our children self-standing," says Maneesha's mother, Santhi. "We need them in the professional line. That's why there is much concern about these things." Indian pupils tend to excel wherever their parents have chosen to settle. Their success is particularly apparent in countries such as the UK, where people of Indian descent can be compared directly with their indigenous counterparts because they take the same examinations.

Figures from 2007, for example, show that 61.6 per cent of Indian pupils in Britain secured five good passes in their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, compared with 45.8 per cent of white children. Social factors particular to Indian culture are clearly at work; pupils from Bangladeshi or Pakistani parents also scored lower. Now is a crucial time for the ambitious Indian youngsters at school in the UAE who this month have been taking their Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) examinations, which finish on April 2.

These Grade 10 and Grade 12 tests are sat by about 1.45 million pupils in 22 countries. Pupils from 110 schools in the GCC take the tests, and include 9,000 children attending more than 55 schools in the UAE. Great emphasis is placed on achieving "topper" status - being the highest-scoring pupil in the school - and this year's entrants have a lot to live up to. The best pupils can average more than 95 per cent across their papers, with scores of 100 per cent not unheard of in individual subjects.

According to Vijay Mathu, principal of Abu Dhabi Indian School, educational achievement in the Indian community stems from "high motivational factors from the family". "Their parents like to see their children succeed much better than they have," he says. "Even in India in the rural areas where the parents cannot afford it, they will scrimp and save and make sure their children have a good education."

This is a view echoed by Nair Surendran, the vice principal of the New Indian Model School in Dubai. Hard work, he says, "always pays dividends". He identifies "a general trend in which parents work only for their children. Those who are illiterate want their children to be literate. Those who are literate want their sons or daughters to at least come up to their level or be better than their level."

The pressure on pupils to do well and secure places in top university courses in medicine, engineering and business can take its toll. The demands are such that the CBSE has made counsellors available to the pupils, for example in Sharjah and Dubai. There is also a telephone helpline and online counselling services. But aside from the pressures such a results-based system puts on pupils, some people fear that it is not producing the right kind of thinkers and that emphasis is placed on technical subjects and preparation for professional training at the expense of producing rounded intellects.

Among those who hold this view is Dr Poonam Arora, associate dean and professor in the college of arts sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. "It's not education with a view to education per se, but to compete in the marketplace, to do well economically," says Dr Arora, an Indian who is now an American citizen. "It's only those families that don't have access to their own businesses or their own ancestral properties - those are the ones that put the most premium on education because it's the only means to upward mobility."

Too few Indians, she says, follow a traditional liberal arts education or anything else that would be unlikely to lead to a well-paid profession. "Very few go to art school or music school or architecture school. They will graduate to tried and tested careers that are well paid." There is, says Dr Arora, a "huge market for technocrats", people skilled in technical fields. While the Indian education system helps them to achieve expertise in specialised fields, she feels, it can let them down if they try to take on roles requiring a broader range of skills.

"If there was a need for leadership or innovation or the roads less travelled, it wouldn't be the Indian pushed by her school and family who would do well," she says. "They would not be able to take up the risks of leadership." Dr Arora, the daughter of two university professors and the granddaughter of a college president, says even the English degree she took in India was not taught as a liberal arts subject.

"I don't think it cultivated the ideas of critical inquiry and imagination or leadership," she says. "It was only when I went to America to do a degree that I realised this was what I wanted." She believes the approach to education in India, which she says is mirrored to an extent in some other countries, such as China, "needs to be rethought". It is insufficiently focused, she believes, on "civic education".

"It is not about cultivating the civic individual in a mature democracy," she says. "As a result, Indian politics does not get the very best people at a very high level. "This divorce between civic education and financial education has led to people going into the professions and doing very well, but not going into politics." She concedes, however, that the successful development of technical and IT education in India, which is reflected in the importance placed on those subjects by expatriate Indians in countries such as the UAE, has led to great benefits for India. Without importing models from overseas, the country has developed an education system that caters to its economic needs and has helped to create globally successful industries in areas such as IT.

Some observers say Indians are becoming increasingly open-minded when it comes to subject choices, even if they still tend to have an eye on a particular career; imagination and self-expression are surfacing. "The trend is changing," says Mr Mathu of Abu Dhabi Indian School. "Before, people would look at professions like engineering and medicine, but now you will see people opting for professions like fashion design or photojournalism. They are diversifying."

In any case, even pupils who are looking towards technical subject areas receive a rounded education, according to Maneesha Pramod, whose own ambition is to pursue a career in engineering. Her school, she says, "educates the person as a whole". "At school we don't just study. We have dance, we have sports and we have a lot of cultural programmes. We are not just focused on studying. They encourage you to excel in other areas. I think we're developing all-round."

While the Indian approach to education has its critics, its emphasis on motivation and results may nonetheless offer pointers to other countries, including the UAE, where the government school system is acknowledged to be underperforming. In December, 40 per cent of Grade 12 students following the UAE national curriculum in state and private schools failed their examinations. More than 40 per cent of Emiratis are now educated privately, partly because of concerns about standards in government schools.

Dr Clifton Chadwick, a senior lecturer in international education management and policy development at the British University in Dubai, says several countries, among them India but also Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China, have education systems characterised by high pressure and high performance. The value placed on knowledge by the Confucian system explains the emphasis on education in some of these countries, he says. "In these cultures, the pressure is simply presumed to be part of the culture India has, a tradition of exceptionally high performance. They do a lot of memorising. They learn tricks for mental arithmetic."

Some other parts of the world, he says, among them parts of South America, Africa and Arabia, while keen to improve their educational achievement, have yet to develop the same emphasis on performance. "I am not sure what the answer is. I do think that improving performance is a good goal and I do think there are more positive results to be expected from following these models than there are negative results, even if they might not be perfect."

In the end, it comes down to hard work: "There is a lot to be said for having kids that simply learn more." dbardsley@thenational.ae