Last week, a UK government study found out that top companies in the country recruit 70 per cent of their talent from private or selective schools.
The ensuing debates have polarised that country: there is talk of the perpetuation of the social divide, the impact on the wellbeing of children, the upending of the twin beliefs in meritocracy and social mobility. But at its core, this hidden ‘poshness test’ is the embodiment of every parent’s nightmare, globally — a barrier they cannot scale, that will hold back their child.
Pakistan has yet to experience the nursery consultant phenomenon, where experts chart a child’s educational trajectory from nursery to Ivy League. Or even the playdate tutoring popular in New York, where parents pay $450 an hour for trained psychologists to prepare their toddlers for admission to elite kindergartens. Since the focus is on academic ability as well as social and emotional IQ, the toddlers are taught reading and math in addition to social skills such as waiting for their turn and looking at the person they are talking to. But for many older Pakistani children, particularly teenagers at the country’s top schools, the curating of CVs by ambitious, aspiring parents, is a way of life. And summer vacations are a chance for these parents to remedy the ‘defects’ in their child’s CV before it is time to apply for college.
Once, extra coaching over the summer was for remedial learners. But the explosion of the private tuition market changed that perception and the newest fad is enrichment. The idea is to gradually pull a child over an ever-steepening learning curve and, as such, provide them with a competitive advantage over their peers by the time the school year begins.
Interestingly enough, grades are rarely mentioned. Of the eight parents interviewed for this article, only one admitted to terrorising her children by saying anything less than an A was unacceptable. She was also the only one who confessed that her kids also bring home — oh, horror — Cs. The others spoke of the importance of fostering critical thinking, of striving for excellence, of inculcating good working habits and allowing children to explore what interests them.
Repeatedly, parents said they wanted to help their children achieve their full potential.
Significantly, most parents had colourful stories of other, hyper-competitive parents who bully their children and hound teachers in the pursuit of As. And as many as four parents accused the others of having “lied” when they professed to not caring about grades. Clearly, grade-chasing in 2015 is what child-beating was in the 1980s, everyone does it but no one admits to it.
The curation principles are also applied to other areas on the CV. Thanks to Tiger Moms across swathes of Asia, the competition in the global university market has heated up particularly over this last decade. The crème de la crème of the global elite are now vying for the same spots at the same universities. “It’s not enough to have 5A*s when you’re applying to Cambridge — everyone has that,” says Aysha Jamil, the self-confessed ‘psychopath mum’, whose cousin happens to be on the Cambridge interview board in the UK. “The question is what else is your child offering? What are they doing? Who are they?”
The existential angst provoked by this query propels scores of parents across Pakistan to wake up at 4.30am to take their child for riding lessons, others zigzag across the city, dropping and picking (multiple) kids from language/music/dance/art/judo/swimming class. Those who can are sending their child to summer camps abroad: at universities, for niche disciplines such as creative writing or astronomy, or even regular ones with outdoor activities, language immersion options as well as leadership skills development boot camps. Some are pushing their kids to volunteer at orphanages and NGOs, others want them to tail lawyer/doctor/architect friends.
There is almost universal horror at the prospect of a child — their child — spending the summer sleeping, playing on the PS4, watching movies and hanging out with friends.
Even the planned co-curricular activities are ‘structured’ for maximum impact by the parents. It’s not enough for the child to just enjoy writing; they must maintain a blog and the pieces must be published in a local, if not foreign, newspaper. Teaching art at a low-income school over the summer isn’t enough; the paintings must be sold and the proceeds funnelled back into the school for the activity to have demonstrable value.
If the child is volunteering at an orphanage, she must show ‘true commitment’ by doing it over two or three summers else she’ll be branded a dilettante. If a child is collecting books for the underprivileged or fundraising for charity, he must be able to convince a multinational to chip in too. The obsessive attention once reserved for grades now permeates every aspect of college applications — every activity needs to show that the child is more special, more creative, more worthy than his peers and every activity must count.
It’s an interesting reflection of the times. With Facebook, our need to be validated moved online. We learned to live online, in real time, and sought likes to validate our lives — who we met and loved, what we ate and where, what we did and how we felt. The living of life, per se, was subsumed by its performative aspect. With CV curation, parents are handing to the universities the sole instrument for validating their children’s lives — if the university doesn’t ‘like’ it, the activity may well not be.
Take travel. Families used to vacation together because they were, well, family. But for many parents now, travel — particularly abroad — is the means to an end; the production of well-rounded, cultured global citizens.
“My father was a diplomat and he took us everywhere, even against our will, and that opened up the world to us — we learned to accept diversity,” says Bashir Ahmad Khan, who is taking his 16-year-old son to London this summer where they plan to revisit the Turner collection at Tate Britain. “But how can our kids embrace diversity when they live in a country with a growing Shia-Sunni divide? Given the security situation, our kids are gearing up to not live in Pakistan.”
Unlike Khan, Gul Bukhari didn’t intend for her 14-year-old Aitchisonian to go abroad for his undergraduate degree. “Kids get radicalised and confused and are prone to identity crises if they go abroad too young,” she says. “But after the Army Public School attack and the radicalisation of places such as LUMS, we think he’d be safer studying abroad. So we’re sending him to a summer camp in Switzerland this year to get greater exposure to the international community, to learn to live independently, before he goes off for university.”
For Aysha Jamil, it is the siren call of public transport that is impossible to resist. “With the distinct class separation here, it’s hard to provide real world exposure to kids,” she says. “In the UK, I studied with the garbage collector’s daughter. My kids don’t have that at the British Overseas School here. They don’t know what it’s like to travel in the snow with a runny nose, getting pushed around on the bus or the train. I don’t want them to be shocked when they come into the real world.”
By some accounts, this new-age parenting strategy seems to be working. The children are more self-assured and ambitious, for one. One mother spoke of her 16-year-old’s anger at having messed up his percentile by scoring a 94 on his Add Math O-level exam, another 16-year-old has told his father he needs to study Russian because he intends to join a space travel programme after completing his DPhil (from Oxford, obviously). The guardian of a 20-year-old Literature student has — at her insistence — started describing her as a ‘creative writer’ and jokingly worries that she’ll kill herself if she gets anything less than a B+ in a course at college.
Equally significant seems to be the fact that the grades are better too, perhaps because the children have internalised the pressure.
Sabeen Rasool, mother of a 21-year-old aspiring financial accountant, tells of how her daughter insisted she could only deliver the As her mother expected if she were allowed to study on her own schedule. She scored 10 As in her GCSEs and 3 As in her A-levels. “A child needs to feel responsible for herself. She needs to feel her parent trusts her enough to do so,” says Rasool.
Educationist Kiran Javed concurs with the sentiment. “When the child respects and trusts his teacher, when you believe he can do it, he will. But I also learned this the hard way. I sent Hamza to the best tutors to prepare him for the Karachi Grammar School admission test but the obsession with studies spoiled my relationship with him,” she says of her 16-year-old.
When a child is interested in what they are doing and works to the best of their potential, says Ainee Shehzad who’s also an educationist, the grades automatically peak. As such, she’s a strong advocate of what she calls the “growth mindset”, when the child’s effort and hard work are valued more than their intrinsic intelligence.
And there lies the rub. Shehzad’s theory is not borne out by the experience of those routinely reduced to threatening, begging, guilting and bribing their teenagers to revise.
Increasing income inequality, job and economic insecurity, fears regarding the future are issues parents have, teenagers rarely have the tools required to plan long-term. Social mobility and the expectation that a child can achieve anything if they work hard enough, too, are adult constructs that are increasingly being contradicted by the evidence, as the UK study shows. Every child is not a self-starter, every household does not foster a culture of excellence and all employers are not fair. As for potential, how can any parent be a disinterested arbiter of their child’s true potential?
Instead of using the summer to pimp up their child’s CV, most parents would probably be better off revisiting In Praise of Idleness. This time, with their teen.