Class Apart

The murky world of Delhi’s private-school admissions

Neha Mehrotra Illustrations By Jignesh Chavda
31 August, 2022

KARAN KALUCHA WOKE UP early on the morning of 9 February and did something he rarely does: he prayed. His son’s future was at stake. The drawing of lots for admission to Kalucha’s “target school,” Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Lodhi Estate, was scheduled for 9 am. Kalucha was seated in the school auditorium an hour in advance. Before long, the room was humming with anxious chatter from the parents of around three hundred prospective students, all waiting for their children’s fates to be decided. Some faces exhibited anticipation; others, resignation. There was justifiable cause for the latter. Of the 1,844 children who had applied to SPV, 63 had been admitted while 310 others had been shortlisted for the lottery. Of these, 34 would be selected in the drawing of lots, and only 11 of those would be offered admission. If you were a parent applying to SPV, the odds were abysmal: almost twenty-five to one.

By 1 pm, the verdict was out. Kalucha’s son had not made it. Kalucha was disappointed, but it was not like he had not anticipated—and even planned for—such a scenario. Why else had he applied to 19 schools across the city? “Honestly, in a place like Delhi, you don’t have the luxury of choice unless you’re an alumni or have certain credentials,” he told me. “So the strategy everyone follows is that they apply to the maximum number of schools, knowing fully well that their name might not appear in certain schools due to lesser points. But they still apply, they take a chance.”

Kalucha’s son was selected by four schools: Delhi Public School, Mathura Road; KR Mangalam World School in Greater Kailash; Amity International School in Saket; and Birla Vidya Niketan in Pushp Vihar. Kalucha ultimately decided on DPS Mathura Road. In addition to being the closest of the four to their house—a mere two kilometres away—DPS had the added advantage of being Kalucha’s old school. Both these “credentials” had secured his son an impressive 85 points out of 100 in Delhi’s points-based system of admissions, Kalucha said, making his a “very strong candidature.” 

Delhi’s elite private schools can be a murky realm, and entry to it is jealously guarded. On the face of it, the process is supposed to be transparent: it follows a system that allots points to applicants based on government-approved admissions criteria. The highest weightage is usually given to proximity—the closer to the school you live, the more points you score. This is followed by bonus points if either or both of your parents are alumni of the school, or if you have a sibling already studying there. Some schools also allot additional points to girls, adopted children, relatives of staff, regional minorities and children of single parents. Ties are broken by drawing lots.

This seems straightforward enough, but things often do not work quite this simply. Children are admitted to schools an hour away from their home but not shortlisted for the one across the road. Results of the drawing of lots are not always honoured. Admissions criteria deemed unfair, unreasonable and opaque by the Delhi High Court—such as parents’ professions, whether they have won national awards and what transport arrangements they can make—remain in use. An element of mystery still pervades management quotas—a proportion of seats that the school administration can fill as it sees fit—while some schools allegedly continue to ask for donations in exchange for admission.

For parents on the other side of this inscrutable system, the stakes are high and extremely personal. It is easy to be confused over who is the actual candidate for admission: the child or their parents. After all, the school a child gets into often says less about the child and more about the parents. Most times, it is a direct reflection of the parents’ social, cultural and economic standing in Delhi society.

Parents throw themselves into the process with frenzied fury. The more one delves into this world, the more bizarre it seems. There are dress codes and social cues, right and wrong professions. Parents make Excel sheets, shift houses and conduct “principal prep,” sharing information on what to expect during interviews. They are no strangers to the importance of schooling in a status-steeped society like Delhi’s. They know that when someone asks you which school you attended, they are asking about your family background. As one parent put it, “It’s not just a school, it’s a lifestyle.”