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The Nursery Rush: How start-ups in Delhi are cashing on anxious parents

Sukrita Baruah
The massive number of applications filled on behalf of each child, and the limited number of schools that are sought out, is what makes the admission process in Delhi an annual mega-event.

Every year, starting late November and lasting over three months, the national capital begins buzzing with anxiety around the futures of lakhs of three-year-olds. In a city with well over 4,000 private, government and municipal corporation schools, the race to get a seat in nursery for a child in a reputed private school is competitive, frenetic and an altogether serious business.

And as is the case in metropolitan cities, where there’s a problem, there are those offering a solution — in the form of start-ups. Over the last few years, a small economy has started to emerge around the process of getting children into school, with third parties seeing an opportunity in the trials of flustered parents.

There are 1,400-odd private schools in the city which are recognised by the Delhi government. In these, 25% of the entry-level seats are reserved for children from the economically weaker sections, disadvantaged groups and children with special needs.

Sanghamitra Pattanayak, a resident of South Delhi, recalled the long fretful process of trying to get her child admitted into nursery a few years ago. It involved her applying to 29 different schools; her child eventually got a seat in two.

“It took us a lot of time to understand the process and identify which schools to apply to. It involved sorting through so many, finding out about their fees, how far they are from home. My husband and I were both working at the time, and it was very difficult for us to get leaves to carry out the work. I took several half-day leaves over a period of 20 days just to complete the application process,” she said.

Over the last few years, the application process has increasingly moved online, which can save parents a few trips to the schools. But many of the core problems remain.

There are 1,400-odd private schools in the city which are recognised by the Delhi government. In these, 25% of the entry-level seats are reserved for children from the economically weaker sections, disadvantaged groups and children with special needs.

Admission to these is a centralised, completely online process governed by the Delhi government, through a common form in which applicants list their school preferences. Selection of candidates to these seats is conducted through a centralised draw of lots process conducted by the education department.

Unlike this, admission to general seats in these schools is a completely decentralised process, conducted at the individual school level. Each school has its own admission form. To ensure the process is fair and objective, a ‘points system’ is followed. In this, schools are free to select a set of criteria — such as distance, applicant having a sibling in the school, or the applicant having a parent who is an alumni of the school among others — against which applicants will be allocated points.

Parents find themselves having to apply to multiple schools because of the fear that their child will not get a seat in a single school, because, as Pattanayak’s experience illustrates, the odds can be stacked against them.

However, this is not because of a dearth in the number of seats up for grabs. It is because parents are primarily interested in getting their children admitted to the more limited number of top- to mid-range schools in the city, and everyone finds themselves competing for seats in those.

For instance, a well-reputed school like Springdales School in Dhaula Kuan has 67 seats at the entry-level available for open admissions. Principal Jyoti Bose estimates that the school gets over 3,000 applications against these seats — which gives a ratio of around 45 applicants against every seat.

“As multiple applicants get allotted the same number of points, we have to have at least one round of draw-of-lots every year and we have a long waiting list. It’s a real pity for the parents. It’s no wonder that they apply to so many schools even though there’s only a handful of schools that they would ideally like to send their children to,” she said.

The number is far less in a moderately placed school like Lovely Public Senior Secondary School, Priyadarshini Vihar, which receives around three-four applicants per seat. Other smaller schools struggle to fill their seats.

The massive number of applications filled on behalf of each child, and the limited number of schools that are sought out, is what makes the admission process in Delhi an annual mega-event.

When Anupama Kapoor, a resident of Gurgaon, had a hard time trying to get her daughter admitted to a school in 2018, she began talking to her friends and found that they too found the process tedious and difficult. An IT professional, she began thinking of a way to make the process easier for other parents in the future, and set up Schoolato, a start-up that will begin its operations this admission season.

The model that Kapoor and her team — around 15 members, most of whom are mothers who have gone through the admission process themselves — is that of doing the running around for parents.

The process involves parents filling out a form created by the organisation with various details required by different schools; submitting documents like copies of Aadhaar card, birth certificates, medical certificates and photographs; and selecting which schools they would like to apply to.

“We do everything manually. We collect individual forms from the schools and fill them for parents, using the information that they provide to us in our common form. We upload scanned copies for them to verify, submit the forms manually in the schools, and upload the receipt for the parents to see. We are basically trying to help them save time,” said Kapoor.

The cost of buying application forms from the schools is Rs 25, set by the Delhi government. In addition to that, Schoolato charges a fee of Rs 499 for every school that the parents apply to through them. Kapoor said that most parents who have reached out to them apply to at least 20.

One of the earlier players to enter this area was Ezyschooling, which began in the 2017 admission season. This was started by a student of Delhi Technological University (DTU), Mayank Jain, when he saw his brother trying to get his son admitted to school. His brother had applied to 20 schools, and his nephew eventually got a seat in just one.

Unlike Schoolato, Jain has developed a completely automated application process. The company developed a common online admission form and tied up with schools which agreed to accept that form for admission to their school. So far, they have tied up with 125 schools in different parts of East, North and West Delhi, Noida and Faridabad.

Their website lists out the partner schools like a catalogue — with photos, satellite locations, the board it is affiliated to, languages taught, and sports and lab facilities available.

“The first step is for parents to create an account and select schools, which they add to their cart. The second step is to fill our common form, which includes information required for all our partner schools’ processes. After that, they make the combined payment for the schools’ admission forms. Since the process is completely automated, the information is fed to the schools as per the requirements in their admission processes, and the number of points accruing to the child is calculated based on the school’s individual criteria and point system,” said Jain.

However, Jain does not charge parents for the service; the company only charges Rs 25 if parents want updates on the status of their applications. Instead, Jain is relying on the nursery admission to gather footfall to his website, and is looking to monetise through other means such as embedded advertising and other parenting services his company provides. Last admission season, they worked with 3,000 parents and had tied up with 35 schools.

Pattanayak, after her difficult admission experience, also began a start-up with a similar system in 2016. But she did not continue beyond one admission season and diversified to other services because she found working as a third party too fraught with challenges.

The first very obvious shortcoming in the model that she identified was reluctance in parents to choose this route. “Nursery admissions are seen as crucially important and a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I completely understand that parents might not want to entrust this to a third party and do it manually for every school to make sure that no stone is left unturned,” she said.

The second challenge was getting schools on board for the online process. “We had tied up with around 25 schools that year. We found them not supportive of moving to a common process. If there are only a handful of schools that come on board, it can’t be useful to parents. Then they can apply to just a couple of schools through the portal’s common process, and will anyway have to apply to another 10 or so schools through the individual processes,” she said.

Admission season is stressful not just for parents, but also for schools. With the scramble largely focused around the more established and well-known schools, there are many that don’t get enough applications to fill all nursery seats.

Here, too, start-ups have found room to work with. Ria Gupta, a student of Sanskriti School, began her start-up, Staria, last year to offer admission across different grades, including nursery. Her start-up claims to ‘guarantee’ admission to anyone who reaches out, and instead of charging parents, they charge schools they have tied up with.

“We help parents identify the optimum school depending on fee and criteria which will determine their likelihood of getting a seat, such as distance. We identify schools which have not been able to fill as many seats as they’d like to and refer children to those,” she said.

For instance, Kataria International School, located in Bhim Enclave in West Delhi’s Vikas Nagar, finds itself struggling with applications.

“Our school is located in a very low-income area where families are not even able to pay Rs 200 per month as school fee, so they don’t apply because we need to charge a monthly fee of around Rs 3,000 to pay our teachers. As we don’t have a website for our school, parents in better off areas such as Vikaspuri and Janakpuri — which is where we need to attract applications from — perhaps are not aware of our school,” said school chairperson R C Kataria.

That the needs of certain schools to seek these kinds of tie-ups can be contingent to how well they are able to fill their seats is reflected in the observations of the team at Ezyschooling, which said they do not yet have any tie-ups with schools in Central Delhi and very few in South.

“Most popular schools in Delhi will see long waiting lists but the most serious competition is limited only to a fraction of the total private schools. There are others which struggle to find applicants and students,” Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Manish Sisodia had told The Indian Express last week.

Over the past 15 years, the city has tried several formulae for nursery admissions including a government-mandated points system where distance was to be given the highest weightage.

After a prolonged legal battle which reached the Supreme Court, private schools were given a free hand in deciding the points system, provided they do not flout the Right to Education Act and do not test kids or their parents before admissions.

“Across the world, distance is accepted as the main criteria to decide where a child studies. But since our public schooling system has largely failed to keep the middle class engaged, private schools have a free hand. The only solution to the nursery admission mess and anxiety is to improve the level of public schooling so that the middle class has viable options,” said a senior Delhi government official, who did not want to be named.