What happened when we applied to St Gregorios, Chembur
Chembur is the throbbing, though clogged, heart of the eastern suburbs of Mumbai.
It has something for everyone — broad sidewalks running alongside wide, tree lined avenues in areas with names like Diamond Garden and Deonar and low lying, flood prone, dirty, hellholes like Shell Colony.
What it does not have is a lot of school choices, especially ICSE schools.
A brief segue into Indian school boards
Primary and secondary education in India is structured slightly differently from other countries I am familiar with.
First, every state has its own board of education which decides what curriculum and content to impart to students. As far as I know, there is no specific standard to which different state boards have to adhere though most state boards end up referencing the curriculum of CBSE which I will discuss next.
As one can expect, the quality of education imparted by different state boards varies wildly. Some states with booming economies, like MH, KA, and TN, have high quality state boards while other, less prosperous states, have curriculums less relevant to the knowledge economy we are moving towards.
My wife went to a state board school. According to her, her mother had to spend quite a bit of time with her to make sure her (my wife’s) fundamentals were correct.
CBSE, or the Central Board for Secondary Education, is a Central government initiative which sets education standards that all CBSE schools, regardless of their local state board’s curriculum, follow.
Many parents like CBSE schools because Central government institutions for higher education, like medical schools or engineering schools, base their entrance exams on the CBSE curriculum.
ICSE, or the Indian Certificate for Secondary Education, is a privately managed certifying authority for schools all over the country. Anecdotally, there are far more CBSE schools in India than ICSE schools.
ICSE schools focus a lot more on languages, arts, and humanities subjects than their CBSE counterparts. For example, ICSE schools teach Shakespeare at the Secondary level. CBSE schools do not teach Shakespeare.
I attended an ICSE school and I only have good things to say about my education.
Some parents prefer ICSE schools for their focus on the arts which, they believe, will help their child develop a more well-rounded set of interests.
India also has a sprinkling of IB, or International Baccalaureate, and IGCSE schools. IB schools follow the international IB curriculum and teaching methodology so a Indian child studying in an IB school will be at par with an IB student from anywhere else in the world.
IB schools are usually magnet schools for children wishing to study abroad after finishing their secondary education. This is not just because of the international nature of the IB program. It is also because the IB curriculum is not well suited for the sort of entrance exams Indian institutions conduct so moving abroad becomes a default choice.
I don’t know enough about IGCSE schools to talk about them.
What board did we pick for our child’s education?
At first, we considered IB schools for our kid but changed our mind for a couple of reasons. One, IB schools are expensive and apparently attract the wealthier class of societies. Two, the IB education system imposes a lot of demands on parents to be fully engaged with their child’s education.
I get that we owe our child some involvement in their education but we were not prepared to act as a second set of full-time teachers at home to make up the slack of what they should have learnt in class.
Picking a state board school was out of the question because of the same reason as above. Based on my wife’s experience, we were worried the teacher quality would be so inconsistent that we would have to moonlight as teachers.
In the end, we picked ICSE because of my firm belief that knowing a language well is far more useful as a life skill than being able to solve math and physics problems for an entrance exam.
The upshot was that there are only a couple of ICSE schools in the Chembur area — Green Acres and St Gregorios. There was also AVM in the Bandra Kurla Complex area but we missed their school application deadline by a couple of days.
At first, we didn’t even consider Green Acres because of rumors that they use a lot of technology in their classrooms.
First Impressions: St Gregorios
My first impression of St Gregorios was that it was quite similar to my own high school which happens to be a Catholic Missionary run school.
Everything about the school, from the chipped enamel paint on the walls to the mounds of cement and sand bags lying around construction sites where new buildings were being constructed reminded me of my school.
They even had an open air basketball court with a gallery on one side, just like we did.
We were invited for a student interaction about ten days after the last date for submitting admission forms.
Our slot for student interaction was bang in the middle of our child’s usual sleep routine but we somehow managed to get him ready and alert for the interaction.
The interaction itself was uneventful though our son was the last to leave after making sure he visited each of the desks set up for children to play at.
At the end of it, we were told that someone from Gregorios would call us with the results of the interaction.
It was only after the interaction that we started hearing rumors about how Gregorios handles student admissions.
At the time, I used to bring my son back from play school and so, I got to hang out and chat with other parents whose children had had their own interactions at Gregorios.
We heard that “We’ll call you with the results” actually means the exact opposite. They won’t call.
After sufficient time has elapsed, you are expected to call the school and ask about the status of your child’s application.
Once you do that, they basically have you by the balls because they know you want to put your child there.
The school will give you the number of a member of the St Gregorios’ board who will tell you “what to do next”.
How it went down for us
My wife, around two weeks after the interaction called the school and was punted to someone named Susan Thampi whose mobile number ends in -5474.
When we called Susan Thampi, she had no clue who our child was, whether his interaction was over or not, or the status of his application.
Clearly, the interaction was a farce otherwise, why would the person responsible for admissions not even have a list of candidates in front of them when parents call.
Very suspect, if you ask me.
At this point, I was handling the conversations with Susan who told me she’d get back to me a few days later.
A few days later, in early November, I got a call from an unknown number once during the day, and again at nearly 9PM on a Saturday night.
It was from someone named Professor John, also from the Gregorios’ board.
He was very clear about what he wanted.
He asked ₹200000 (around $2500) in cash, and a post dated check for ₹100000 (around $1250). The annual school fee, he said, was ₹98000 (~$1250) and there was an interest free refundable deposit of ₹25000 (~$312) returnable once our child exited Gregorios.
I was asked to handover the cash to him at his house.
When I asked him if I would get a receipt for the cash, he refused meaning this money was completely unaccounted for.
He told me they needed the cash to construct a new school building.
Long Term Sleaze
We later found out that this behavior is not new. Aaj Tak, a Hindi news channel, covered this exact story in a segment 6 years ago.
Looks like their building construction is still ongoing.
There are a few ready conclusions to be drawn from this.
One, naming an institution after a Saint is no guarantee that we have any right to expect ethical behavior from said institution.
Two, instead of involving us in their shady deals, I would much prefer that Gregorios be upfront about their expectations. This low level corruption leaves a very poor taste in the mouth. As a society, India has made strides towards eliminating corruption but there is still work to be done.
Three, demonetization was supposed to eliminate black money from the Indian economy and move us towards digitization. I wonder how much Gregorios lost due to demonetization.
Four, despite TV channels covering this story, Gregorios carries on with impunity. This means that either law enforcement is toothless or they have political cover.
In the end, we decided not to enrol our child in Gregorios. Whatever be the quality of education, we didn’t want to give untraceable cash to some guy named John — we like our adventure and excitement but only on the big screen.