The rat race of KGS admissions

Published: May 11, 2012
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'My son was asked to identify a polar bear and a penguin! That’s a bit much don’t you think?'

Mrs A remembers it as ‘the most horrible week of my life.’ She cried frequently; she had trouble sleeping at night; she had to leave a party early because she felt like she ‘couldn’t breathe’. And too many of her hours were filled with ‘whys’; why did this happen to her? Why?

A child stricken with life-threatening illness? The collapse of the family business? The death of a beloved parent?  No, the darkest week of Mrs A’s life came two weeks ago when her daughter was rejected admission in the nursery at Karachi Grammar School (KGS).

It’s hard to imagine writing such a sentence as anything other than a joke, but for well-heeled parents across Karachi, the elite like Mrs A; the ambitious, the academically inclined and the socially well connected, nursery is intensely serious business. Between growing populations and an increasingly competitive job market, getting your child into one of the city’s most prestigious private schools has become a gruelling, multi-year competition, with its own rules, code language, and intrigue. It’s a mean competition too – one that can turn sensible, mannerly, child-loving parents and educators into hard, calculating, and paranoid operators. (Almost everyone interviewed for this article insisted that she not be quoted by name and that all identifying characteristics be disguised.)

That applying to nursery should become such cut-throat business is doubtless a joke to those not in it – “yet”, said one parent darkly – or with children already past that age. However, the pint-size contestants of this game are merely the most striking example of a profound change in sentiments about early childhood, achievement, status and what it means to be successful in Karachi.

Karachi’s greatest school: Do you have ‘it’?

The opinions you will hear about Karachi Grammar School are as varied as the students who attend it. Most people, some grudgingly, will admit that the teachers are by and large seasoned educators, the nursery program one of the best in the country and the A’ Level graduates, the highest scoring, frequently of world-wide fame.

And with very few exceptions, everyone will also concede that KGS has one more notable quality that holds it aloft year after year; age. The red brick building is as integral a part of Karachi architecture as anything else. It holds the mystique of privilege that is hard to manufacture anew and that continues to radiate the old-money glamour that makes even the nouveau-riche of Karachi aspire to some post-Colonial remnants of English polish. The colour of students’ uniforms, the prefectorial gowns, the historical connotations of the many, many success stories that are KGS alumni, has given the institution an affiliation to triumphant achievement hard to match and understandably, in a country full of suffering, one that parents are desperate for their children to at least be near to.

Estimates for the number of nursery applications the school receives each year varies wildly, depending on how hysterical the parent being questioned is feeling at that point. Some put the figure at about 800, while others swear it’s closer to 2,000. The selected candidates amount to 100 usually and so the odds are similar to some of the top universities in the world. Add to this the number of children of alumni and siblings of current students, both of whom get preferential treatment in admissions, and what you have left is only a handful of openings for the general populace.

However, though no one likes to talk about it, there is more at work here than increased demand and low supply. The almost Darwinian struggle for a KGS nursery spot is also evidence of the triumph of the cognitive elitism that has swamped the upper middle class of this country. The obsession with academics has been a prominent part of Pakistan for a while now (perhaps evidenced by the star status handed to established teachers and tutors).

To get your child into KGS is to confirm that he is one of the cognitive elect. As a result, the school becomes part of a product orientation – measurable success: where you go to college, what kind of job you have, how you dress, how well you speak English. In short, who you are in Karachi’s society.

Making things more loaded for today’s parents is that other sources of identity and status have faded in significance.

One mother confided:

I know plenty of women who would rather die than say their child got rejected from Grammar

It’s effectively admitting you don’t have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ might be.

In short, your child’s perceived brain power and social polish says a lot about who you are in Karachi!

Race to the top: Who says what’s fair?

The result is an admissions process that is not for the tender-hearted.

The parents and the child are evaluated. The parents have their own interview which includes a pleasant but thorough examination of the family culture, the professional lives of both mother and father and the manifestation of their relationship to their child. And then, it’s the child’s turn.

And, just how do admissions directors measure up the four-year-old? Through a test, though no one dares refer to it as a test. It’s euphemistically referred to as an “interview” where the child is taken to a separate room where two or three adults will be watching as various questions and tasks are placed before him. No parent interviewed for this article could comprehensively articulate about the test.

One mother says laughingly:

Keep in mind, we’re relying on a bunch of four year olds to tell us what went on in there.

The irony that those same four year olds, who are too young to be trusted when it comes to accurately describing what just happened in the room, are the same ones expected to perform (willingly, intelligently, graciously) on demand to total strangers is not lost on her.

Some children have described basic pre-school tasks such as stacking blocks, separating objects by color and identifying farm animals. There are flash cards and a little bit of art. Other candidates have mentioned physical activity areas and being asked to navigate structures similar to those found in indoor playgrounds.

Sounds simple enough at this point, doesn’t it? Except of course, as with any situation where passions are running high, there are also the stories which seem to be the stuff of urban legends. That’s where it gets tricky and the parents begin to hyperventilate.

My son was asked to identify a polar bear and a penguin! That’s a bit much don’t you think? Lucky for us, we’ve just moved from Canada so he’s familiar with winter animals, thanks to all the Christmas advertisements he’s seen on television. But, how is this a fair question for Pakistani kids?

My daughter was practically grilled on what kind of time her dad spends with her. How many hours per week, what do they do together? Okay, so he travels a lot for work but is her confusion over this question a fair assessment of how happy and stable our family is? And how exactly is this relevant for a child’s nursery education?

A third parent questions the setup of the interview itself:

Why should a kid, a smart kid, but maybe with a bit of social anxiety, want to perform for total strangers all of a sudden? How is this a fair indication of their intelligence?

‘Fair’ – the word that comes up frequently. It leads to much greater questions about the validity and practicality of the approach that private schools must take due to space and time limitations. No more so than when it comes to the well-known philosophy KGS has of giving preferential treatment to the offspring of their alumnus when it comes to admissions. This has led to generations upon generations of KGS graduates coming from the same families – a community within a community.

Those not in the ‘in’, insist on the inherent injustice of this. Others, especially those part of the familial legacy say, this is common practice all over the world. Alma mater pride is built by these ideas, and as one Grammarian says:

You don’t see me complaining when Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employees’ family members get discounts. It gives a sense of community which feels good and I suspect most people would like to be part of it which is why they lash out so badly when they don’t get in.

“Not your parents’ nursery!”: Battling for a spot

Because no one really knows what happens in the entrance test for Karachi Grammar School’s nursery admissions, the idea seems to be to prepare for everything. Web forums are littered with pleas:

Does anyone know anything about the KGS entrance tests? Please help. Desperate!

There was a time, not that long ago, when few parents attempted to prepare their four year olds for nursery admission tests. But then a few more began to do it, and then more, and then suddenly, normal-seeming people with normal-seeming values began doing it too, and an arms-race mentality kicked in. Responding to parents’ anxieties and fears, some of the fancier pre-schools began subtly prepping their students and private tuition flourished.

When I asked a mother from Defence if she knew of any children being tutored for the Grammar test, she said no — before proceeding to describe how she had placed her own child in a program “to develop her fine motor skills.”

When I asked another mother to share the name of the educational videos she had been raving about (brought from London for a cool 1,200 pounds), the woman refused:

It is a wonderful DVD set, but this is my find. I don’t want to share it, otherwise everyone will just copy me.

Actually, the unspoken rule seems to be that you never allow anyone to know your child is being tutored or prepped in any way. This is partly because parents want their child to seem effortlessly brilliant, a studied carelessness or sprezzatura for the educated elites.

One lady who regularly advertises her services for admissions in to KGS, Bayview, Froebels and Foundation Public School says:

People are quite secretive about hiring me. Many parents go into full battle mode over the interview/test. Families hire tutors and that’s where I come in. It’s my job to prep the child with as similar a test as the school itself.

She shows me her workbooks and flips it open to the “Vocabulary” section.

Any vocabulary the child needs, is in this book, whether it’s to complete picture analogies or understand questions that are asked of them.

When she works with a student, she says with a weary sigh, “the primary challenge is keeping their attention.” With a three-and-a-half year old at home, her statement is just a reminder of something I already know: Four year olds, no matter how smart and delightful they may be, have obvious limits as test takers. Many, especially boys, can’t sit still; others can’t concentrate for that long, choosing at some catastrophic point to crawl under their desks and give up. Nor is the context in which these tests are administered exactly relaxing for young children.

The tutor lady explained to me:

To be fair, KGS does give three chances for the child to try and come inside but it’s still pretty daunting, wouldn’t you agree? But then school itself is just so much harder now. It’s certainly not the nursery of our parents’ youth!

In addition, on the part of the parents themselves, a certain polish and je ne sais quoi are a must. No small measure of the enormous anxiety among today’s prospective KGS nursery parents arises out of the recognition that this, the elitest of private schools retains a modicum of class snobbery.

To make oneself of that class, prospective parents have to play their cards right and have that odd combination of old-world manners mixed with knowledge-economy hustling and self-promotion that characterises the winners of this game.

“You should be interested but not overly eager. You must be well-dressed but no overkilling the designer wardrobe. Your English should be flawless but fake accents are a no-no. You should be well-prepared but not seem hyper and paranoid,”

This is how one mother tried to helpfully explain what the ‘right’ type of message needs to come across from the parents during their interview.

Add to this, the lore that circulates amongst parental circles of how other parents prepared, and you have the ingredients of a highly anxious populace.

She wore diamonds! He wore Armani!

They bought a play structure identical to the one used in the test so their kid could practice!

She and her husband memorized their answers using cue cards!

They sent a thank you gift basket afterwards!

School administrators roll their eyes at all of this, and it’s clear that there’s no one correct sentence, outfit, or behaviour that will seal the deal. Of course, I couldn’t say this with a guarantee because KGS administration famously doesn’t give interviews. Couple that with the fact that admission results are revealed at midnight on a Friday – depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you see either a savvy public relations ploy designed for maximum intrigue or a mature and necessary policy to best avoid the hysteria both before and after results are announced.

How many diamonds does it take to get in?

No matter how much energy parents put into branding their child-products, what happens is that achievement threatens to become the only means by which they know and judge their children. When parents receive less-than-acceptable results from the KGS process, the doubt begins to gnaw.

My child is bright and polished and she went to the best preschool in town. My husband and I are successful entrepreneurs and well connected. And now I am spending my nights wondering, ‘Should I have gotten tutoring?’

A friend recalls one mother saying who called after her “disastrous rejection”, crying:

Is something wrong with me? Is something wrong with my son?

One mother puzzled over the rejection of her son remarked:

My sister’s son got in. And everything between her application and ours was identical. Our boys are practically twins in habits and personality. Did I do something wrong? Did he freeze? Was there some sort of performance anxiety at play?

Then she paused in a way that made my heart tug as a fellow mother. She added:

I can’t believe I am saying this about my four-year-old

But then in the KGS world, people seem to be saying – and doing – all sorts of things about four year olds that they’ve never said and done before.

Still, there are resisters. A mother of two boys, both of who, interestingly, go to KGS says:

It nags at me that we live in this mad, mad world. These are kids! Why are we rushing them in to some sort of power-life?

My husband and I agonised over it; we wanted to protect them from the craziness. We eventually decided we’d go for the admissions but it wouldn’t matter to us either way if they got in or not.

Another disgusted mother told me that she refused to go down that route at all:

Some people snidely suggest I am afraid my daughter wouldn’t get in, so that’s why I’m not trying. And for a minute, I did think ‘I’m a bad mother, I am not giving her all the advantages that a KGS student would get. But then I am like, that’s just insane. She’s going to be in nursery. She’s only three!

Which is what I said, again and again, about my own son as I researched and interviewed for this article. “He’s only three!” I would exclaim every time someone asked me if I wasn’t worried that the publishing of this article would damn forever his chances of a spot in KGS.

And then I would look at my son and wonder:

Am I doing him a disservice? Never mind the fact that I am actually not criticising the school anyways. One part of me is convinced he would never get in, so any of my published views on the subject would hardly matter.

It would seem that what is essential for myself and the Mrs As of Karachi to grasp is that, especially in today’s world, there are many kinds of stories imaginable. A child goes to some Urdu-medium school in an unknown village, but discovers his talent during A’ Levels and ends up at Oxford doing a PhD in applied statistics. His rich cousin, goes to Grammar and makes it to Harvard too, but then wanting to spend more time with family, takes a relaxed editing job at a local newspaper. The girl who was a B student at an army school launched a successful beauty parlour business. The boy who got rejected from KGS and went to St. Patrick’s instead went on to become the CEO of the biggest bank in the country.

And that’s the tricky thing to remember about the wild ride of this life. It can be hard to guess the end from the beginning.

But at the same time, as one KGS teacher (off the record, naturally) said:

Look, the school is great, no doubt about it. But the gloriously shiny beacon of all that is excellent and true, this whole larger than life image it’s been given? That’s the parents doing. Not the school-walay. And certainly not the kids. I mean when was the last time you saw a four-year-old staring bereft at his little Transformers figure because he didn’t make the cut at an academic institution? On the other hand, when you see the star-studded alumnus and you hear of their achievements and you see how people sit up just a little bit straighter and pay you a little bit more respect when they hear your kid is a Grammarian, that’s a nod to something, isn’t it? So can you blame the parents for wanting that for their child?

She has, it would seem, a point.

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Hiba

Hiba Masood

Mother of two young kids and the Drama Mama columnist for Express Tribune's Ms.T magazine. Writing about parenting affords her time away from actually doing it.To read more by Hiba, find her on facebook.com/etdramamama.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.