‘How to study over how to score’ — why more Indian parents are choosing foreign school boards

Data shows that more and more parents are sidestepping CBSE and admitting kids into IB and IGSCE schools with eye on college abroad. But critics are worried about ‘class system’.

A class in progress at Prometheus School in Noida | Twitter/@Prometheus_Edu
A class in progress at Prometheus School in Noida | Twitter/@Prometheus_Edu

New Delhi: Undeterred by the hefty fees, more and more parents in India are choosing schools that are affiliated to foreign boards with the hope that their children will not only get an “international standard” of education but also stand a better chance of getting admission to a university abroad.

Data shows that over the last few years, the Switzerland-headquartered International Baccalaureate (IB) and the UK’s Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) have witnessed a significant rise in popularity in India.

The CAIE, popularly known just as IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) after its programme for classes 9 and 10, also offers other qualifications like the A-levels for class 12.

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of students in IB schools increased by about 24 per cent.

In response to a query from ThePrint, the IB Board issued a statement, saying: “In India we have been delighted to witness a steady growth of schools delivering one or more IB programmes to students; we currently have 204 IB World Schools and 338 authorised programmes in India. Our flagship programme, the Diploma Programme (DP), is the programme offered by most schools, followed by our Primary Years Programme (PYP).”

Similarly, the number of Cambridge-affiliated schools in India have grown by over 15 per cent over the last four years. According to data shared by Cambridge International, schools affiliated with the board have increased to 578 so far this year from 496 in 2018.

“We are seeing that every year, on an average 40-50 new schools from across India partner with us,” said Cambridge International Regional Director Mahesh Srivastava in a statement to ThePrint. The curriculum, he added, helped meet the “demands and challenges” of high school and prepared students for undergraduate programmes.

The consensus among parents ThePrint spoke to is that IB- and Cambridge-affiliated schools impart better concept-based learning than the homegrown Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), and offer a competitive edge to students who want to study abroad.

This tends to come at a price. While fees charged by private CBSE schools can be vastly variable, ranging from a few hundreds to several thousands of rupees a month, it is tough to find anything at the low end for foreign board-affiliated schools.

Parents say quarterly fees are at least in the vicinity of Rs 50,000-60,000 for IB and Cambridge schools. But for many families, it’s worth it.


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Road to a foreign degree

Several parents ThePrint spoke to claimed that majority of students from IB and Cambridge boards fly to foreign shores for higher studies, while the remaining tend to get admission in premier private colleges like Ashoka University and OP Jindal Global University.

Richa Dwivedi, founder of a Delhi-based career and college guidance firm called Inomi Learning, made similar observations: “At least 50 per cent of students who enroll in foreign boards land up in colleges abroad. It is not just because of their congruent education style with these international colleges but also the ecosystem that the schools provide.”

According to Dwivedi, these students have peers, seniors and teachers who start the conversation regarding higher education early on in their lives.

“With schools having an idea of prep requirements like SATs and letters of recommendation, it becomes easier for students to look at options abroad,” she said, adding that many students who do undergraduate courses from India later pursue graduate degrees abroad.

Many foreign board-affiliated schools also explicitly emphasise this trajectory for their students.

For example, a senior marketing team member of the Prometheus School in Noida, (an IB school that also offers Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels) said that students are taught in a way that prepares them better for foreign universities than Indian ones.

“Students in our school are taught with a hard focus on research, critical thinking, conceptual learning and become a part of larger community-driven projects. They have very few options in India for higher education as our students gain knowledge beyond the scope of your usual Indian colleges in their class 11-12 itself,” she told ThePrint, not wanting to be named.

Sanjay Bharti, an IIT graduate himself, chose to admit his daughters in an IB school because he believes they teach students “how to study” over “how to score”.

“Not only is the learning more child-centric, they also focus on research and self-study. I really liked the way they taught my daughters,” he said.

Bharti’s elder daughter chose to pursue her higher education in the University of Toronto, Canada.

“Given the fact that she had always studied in an international board I was not sure if she would fit into the way education is imparted in Indian universities. She settled there in terms of her academics very well,” he said. His younger daughter is still in middle school but she too has set her sights on studying abroad, Bharti said.

However, for international board students who do continue their studies in India, there can be some stumbling blocks.


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‘My education did not prepare me…’

For Manya Bajaj, a 19-year-old biochemistry student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the transition to college was seamless after she completed class 12 at Mumbai’s Aditya Birla World Academy, an IB school. According to her, the university classes and the focus on research were well in line with the mode of learning she was used to.

But for 21-year-old Saloni Padharia, who also went to a foreign board school — the Cambridge-affiliated Anand Niketan in Ahmedabad — adjusting to her engineering course at the Pandit Deendayal Energy University in Gandhinagar has been an uphill task.

“Initially I used to struggle in my class and I had to go back and relearn most of the topics. While learning in school focused on conceptual understanding, here questions are all about how long a student’s answer will be,” she said.

“Competing in the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam for engineering colleges) and GUJCET (Gujarat Common Entrance Exam) too was difficult for me since my education did not prepare me for such question paper patterns,” she told ThePrint.

Students also claim that the marking system of colleges in India and the Cambridge\IB boards are so different that making sense of the cut-offs and their eligibility during the admission process can be challenging.

What is of some solace to Padharia, though, is that she eventually plans to jet out of India like many of her peers.

“The only reason why I decided to pursue undergraduate studies in India was because I wanted to stay closer to home, gain exposure here, and then pursue education abroad,” she said.

However, Cambridge schools are now actively making an effort to prepare their students for competitive exams in India.

“Our students are increasingly succeeding in the highly coveted JEE and NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for admission to medical colleges), and these achievements have helped build our credibility among parents,” said Cambridge International regional director Srivastava.

The fee factor

When college counsellor Richa Dwivedi spoke of the comparative advantages of IB/Cambridge schools, she added a rider: plenty of CBSE pass-outs also pursue higher education in foreign countries and do well at it.

What they have in common with their foreign board peers is that these students are mostly from “expensive and high-end schools”.

What this brings into focus is that quality education usually comes with a high fee in India. But, as mentioned earlier, unlike the vast variety of schools under Indian boards, IB and Cambridge institutions are almost always out of the reach of ordinary Indians.

Shalini John, head of the IB Diploma Programme at Aditya Birla World Academy, told ThePrint that one of the reasons why fees tend to be high for foreign boards is because of the affiliation fee that schools need to pay, although she did not specify the amount.

“In addition to this, the academic quality needs to be maintained as per international standards which requires skilled human resources and physical infrastructure,” John added.

Nevertheless, in a country, where the per capita income — average income earned per year —  is currently around Rs 1.28 lakh, paying the quarterly tuition fee of Rs 1.50 lakh to Rs 1.98 lakh for classes 11-12 at Prometheus School, for instance, would be impossible.

This, of course, applies to any “high-end” school from any board, but a “low-end” doesn’t really exist in most foreign board schools.

In an article for ThePrint in May this year, Arvind Kumar, a research scholar in the University of London, pointed out that the growing popularity of Cambridge and IB schools indicates the emergence of a “third layer” of the school education system in India, adding to social and economic inequalities.

“Students from super elite class would go to international board schools, middle-class students to CBSE and ICSE schools, and the marginalised to state board institutions. There might be few exceptions in this schema, but exceptions don’t make a rule,” he wrote.

So far, there have only been a handful of limited systematic attempts to make education via these boards more accessible.

Last year, for instance, the Delhi Board of School Education signed an agreement with International Baccalaureate for 30 Delhi government schools to follow the IB curriculum for a year, with 20 among these being “specialised schools of excellence”.

Similar plans were afoot in Mumbai as well last year, with the city’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), looking into affiliating the schools under it with the two international boards. That is yet to pan out, but the idea was the dream project of then state higher education minister Aaditya Thackeray who wanted to “ensure quality and equality in education”.

This article has been updated with the correct name of head of the IB Diploma Programme at Aditya Birla World Academy.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


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