Choosing CBSE: Go beyond the pros and cons

Choosing CBSE: Go beyond the pros and cons Cover Image

Most of us choose a school because of the syllabus. But how many of us actually know what that syllabus involves? Here’s a complete view of the CBSE format.

Every year when school admissions begin, forums and web sites go into overdrive over which syllabus to choose. Cursory lists are drawn up comparing one syllabus against the other and as helpful as they are, we need to think for ourselves as parents and understand a syllabus for what it really is in conjunction with the school that is implementing it and the teachers who are driving it.

A syllabus is only a framework and it is up to a school to implement it!

A syllabus is only a framework and it is up to a school to implement it. On our part, we should be open-minded in accepting new systems. Talking to a teacher who has taught across all syllabuses for instance, or speaking to the school about how it works within the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) framework will show you the real picture.

Every parenting or education platform worth its salt features articles on the pros and cons of choosing CBSE vs. ICSE. It lists the usual positives of the CBSE syllabus as being a perfect entry point for the IIT-JEE and medical exams, which I think is such a limiting view of a syllabus, because isn’t it supposed to achieve so much more?

Articles about CBSE also cite its limited range of subjects as its biggest impediment and again, this is a misconception. CBSE does have different subjects; it is just that the schools aren’t willing to offer these or that there are very few children who even opt for them, which is why the schools cannot afford to pay a teacher for gender studies or theatre as much as it pays the others, if only two children sign up for the subject. It has to be said though that the CBSE has been trying to bring in new systems constantly but invariably ends up succumbing to pressure from parents, schools and even the opposition, but there is no doubt that it is heading in a more flexible direction.

A nine-point grading system and open book assessment

In 2010, the CBSE introduced the nine-point grading system over the marks system, which means that a child gets Grade 1 (91% to 100%), irrespective of how much he or she got within that range, and the onus to prove oneself by an extra mark is eliminated, although the flexibility to request for marks if pursuing a PUC is also open.

“Students are given texts of 5-6 pages well in advance. On the day of the exam, an extract of the text is available along with essay type questions. The children really think through such questions and I have personally read and valued some fantastic answers from so called under achievers of the class.” Says Ranjani Ayyar.

Another welcome change by the CBSE is the Open Text Book Assessment, introduced in 2013 for Classes 9, 10 and 11 and for Class 12 from 2014, which has been received favorably by most teachers. Says Ranjani Ayyar, a CA by profession who used to teach economics for 11th and 12th students in NPS, “Students are given texts of 5-6 pages well in advance. On the day of the exam, an extract of the text is available along with essay type questions. The children really think through such questions and I have personally read and valued some fantastic answers from so called under achievers of the class.”

The OTBA is an attempt by the CBSE board to make its syllabus more practical and application-based. Nevertheless, the mileage of parents, teachers and schools vary when it comes to ambitious testing methods. For instance, in March 2015, there was an uproar over how the new pattern of the CBSE Maths paper for 12th standard was very different from the usual paper pattern, with the matter even traveling to the Parliament in March, with those pressing for “a more liberal attitude” from the CBSE. The Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) accounts for only 10% to 20% of the Maths paper but this year, it accounted for 50% of the paper. Many students who usually aced in Maths were depressed and one can understand their frustration. On its part, the CBSE should hold its ground and instead look at equipping the teachers better and pressing for better expertise and a continuous preparation for the children.

“How to draft answers is a bigger issue and children need help with how to answer value-based questions,” says Ranjani. “The level of question papers is changing but teachers need to be equipped to teach children how to tackle application-based questions, instead of blaming the syllabus and reverting to the old pattern of question paper.”

In this instance, the CBSE introduced the Assessment of Speaking, Listening Skills (ASL) in Classes 9 and 11, to gauge the students and their competency in English, with 20% being allocated for the same across FA and SA.

A step forward and two steps backwards

Most people believe that the CBSE is not as application-based as an IGCSE but most schools refuse to make the changes based on the directives issued to them by the board. The CBSE’s scope is broad and some of the new subjects it offered include theatre, library science and even Mandarin but schools invariably find it easier to opt for history and geography, primarily because of the teacher training that must accompany it.

One of many examples of CBSE trying to do something different but buckling under pressure from schools, teachers and parents, is the Problem Solving Assessment that the CBSE introduced in 2013 but scrapped recently. Introduced for classes 9 and 11, this assessment was designed to test a child’s ability to use research and analytical skills. Says Sandhya Viswan, a homeschooler, educationist and mother of two children, “I think it should have continued as skill development and been implemented. It was a ‘good experiment’ and the board should have explored why it wasn’t working at schools. I have a feeling that the teachers had no idea how to approach it. It is part of developing HOTS (higher order thinking skills), which is a requirement in today’s world.”

In other words, CBSE comes up with interesting ideas but buckles under pressure from teachers and schools who either resist change or don’t have the expertise to implement it properly. Says Viswan, “I wish CBSE would focus on training the existing teachers and keeping watch on the implementation before giving up on its initiatives.”

PSA was not without its faults. Says Ayyar, “The valuation was not perfect. The way the grade is given, you don’t know which subject you aced and where you lost out. No special classes are taken. Guides are used to help children literally mug up the answers. And the teacher has vast portions in social science to cover so she finds it easier to resort to the guide in any case. It’s a vicious circle.” Despite all this, CBSE should have persisted with the program and given it some time to evolve.

Look for a strong primary program

The basis of any syllabus should be a good primary program. A lot of teachers and parents ask what the point of teaching skills-based syllabus is, when clearly the children anyway steer towards exams later but an enquiry-based primary program provides a good foundation and encourages skills;  think about it, isn’t this excellent foundation for your child? If you are choosing a CBSE school, make sure that it has a strong primary program. The CBSE’s formative assessment (FA) was introduced to understand where the teacher needed to improve on their teaching and summative assessment (SA) was introduced to test the child’s knowledge. SA isn’t necessarily a traditional pen and paper test but can even be a project or an oral test, or even a mix of both and should cover all subjects.

To NCERT or not to NCERT?

One of the charges being levelled against CBSE is that their text books don’t really make the cut and rightly so. However, NCERT books should be looked at in the context of the schools that they cater to, which are not only from the cities but also from small towns and villages. The CBSE on its part sets out a broad framework but it is up to the schools to complement it efficiently by using an integrated curriculum, non-NCERT textbooks and to go at a child’s pace, while at the same time preparing them for the exams to come in the higher classes. In fact, most CBSE schools use ICSE text books or text books brought out by private publishers.

An integrated international curriculum

In 2010, the CBSE introduced CBSE-I, which is CBSE with a more international focus, a syllabus that is decisively more skills-based, pluralized to cater to different learning styles. Under CBSE-I, Maths will be divided into 2 segments for classes 9 and 10, elective and core, and will be left to the students to choose as per their interest. Subjects like English, languages and social sciences will receive added attention, apart from focus on communication, analytical and social skills. CBSE-I hasn’t taken off as well as it should have but one hopes that the board keeps at it instead of scrapping it before giving it time to evolve.

On its part, the CBSE Board is trying to innovate and change its approach. It will be introducing financial marketing management course in association with the National Stock Exchange, as part of its National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) and the School Bank Champs project, wherein children can open bank accounts and understand finance on a day-to-day basis.

Will all these measures add up, so to speak? Should you choose CBSE? It depends on what your child wants to do, but it is good to look for a school that builds a certain flexibility around the syllabus in terms of choice, instead of only eyeing a certain set of exams.

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