Abinash of Bhaktapur went to one of the renowned schools of Kathmandu three weeks ago for an entrance exam for grade 1. Like him, hundreds of school children went there for the same. After a couple of days, when the school published its result, Abinash’s name was not on the list.
It made him sad.
“The result saddened Abinash for a couple of days; we were anxious to see him sad,” says Archana, the mother of Abinash who prefers to be known by a pseudonym. “But, somehow, we managed to convince him, and now, we have enrolled him in some other place. Luckily, he is enjoying himself there.”
There are a number of schools, especially in Kathmandu, that hold very competitive entrance exams for hundreds of young children. Surprisingly, there are also institutions dedicated to running entrance preparation classes for those young kids.
As only a few of them can make it through the tests, experts believe such exams are not desirable for young children looking forward to the first grade as a failure there will have a long-term impact psychologically.
The academics-only focus
Lately, a discourse on whether entrance exams for young children are right is taking place in different parts of the world. According to an article published by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in March 2022, such exams can be a barrier to young children’s growth and development.
The entrance examinations, according to the article, examine the children’s academic content. But, many preschools do not provide lessons above the preprimary level and instead focus on preparing students to be ready for grade one at another school. But, unexpected to them, the entrance exams ask them academic questions.
“Global literature shows that a strong focus on academic subjects during the early years of a child’s life puts excessive stress on a child and negatively impacts her or his motivation, self-confidence and attitude towards school,” reads the article.
But, about the attraction of urban Nepali society to the trend, the article comments, “Many educators and parents in Nepal may not consider such nonacademic skills and attitudes as important factors. They tend to focus on the immediate learning outcomes that they believe to be directly related to the later academic success.”
Instead, the article states nonacademic skills and attitudes and approaches to learning actually play a foundational role in supporting children’s long-term learning trajectories.
Why is it wrong?
Psychologists also say it is inappropriate to conduct entrance exams among young kids.
“Such exams can put unwanted pressure on those children. Those students who fail the entrance exam can even feel inferior at a young age,” says psychologist Gopal Dhakal. “This is a totally wrong practice.”
Corroborating the UNICEF article, Dhakal also says every individual child is unique and talented in themselves, and their ability cannot be judged on the basis of the entrance exam. He says children should not be compared with other contemporaries.
“Instead of sending children to the schools that hold competitive entrance exams, the parents should take them to schools that have a child psychology-friendly environment,” says Dhakal. “Children can perform well only in schools that have such an environment.”
Dhakal urges the parents to motivate their children in any possible way if their child has failed any entrance test.
Compulsion or wish?
But, schools have their own arguments.
St Xavier’s School based in Jawalakhel is one of the academic institutions that hold highly competitive entrance tests for young kids. It recently conducted an exam for grade 1, in which 3,272 children participated. Among them, only 175 children could make it to the list.
The school says it is its compulsion to conduct the entrance exams.
“There are limited seats for the students, but the number of students who aspire to enrol in our school is large,” says Rajendra Acharya, an administration official at St Xavier’s School. “The situation compels the school to conduct the entrance exam among young children.”
Educationalists also decry the act of conducting entrance exams among young children and advise the schools and concerned bodies to find alternatives.
“The schools jointly should adopt a system of placement tests to understand the students’ interests and refer them to the schools accordingly,” says Bidya Nath Koirala, educationalist and a former head of the Department of Education at Tribhuvan University. “The young children should never be mentioned as failed.”
Yet, Koirala admits it is still difficult to launch the placement test system in a country like Nepal.
But, he argues, “In developed countries like Nepal, the practice of denying children’s enrolment on the basis of entrance exam is considered a crime.” He says the denial also means the deprivation of the child’s basic rights.
As a child-friendly alternative to the entrance exam, UNICEF suggests local governments can promote random and fair processes such as lottery or drawing lots, manually or with the help of any computer application.
“If the school wants to do the assessment, it should be done based on holistic development, early learning and development standards and not on potentially harmful paper-pencil tests,” reads the article.