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A-level admission woes

As if the accelerating school fee rates were not enough, A-level admission seekers are required to pay exorbitant amounts enough to burn a hole in any pocket. The rates vary from around Rs60,000 to Rs95,000 for good reputable institutions and can be a lot more for some others. Contrary to previous belief that only the upper-middle class could afford the luxury of studying in such fine institutions, even they now struggle to make ends meet while granting their children such education.

Ironically, the huge amounts of admission fees are not just paid by students who are acquiring admissions in a different school. In fact, certain schools even require their own O-level students to pay up if they want to pursue A-levels from the same school.

To further agonize the parents, the dates on which the admission lists are put up are such that at times they feel trapped. If a certain school puts up its list on a certain date, it would require its entrants to pay the entire admission package and hence confirm their admission before the date on which another school might be releasing its list of students. This puts those students, who get calls from their backup schools before the list of the school they actually want to go to is put up, in a difficult position.

If the student pays the fee to the first school while awaiting response from the second one and is consequently granted admission there too, he/she is in a fix. The first school does not refund the admission fees and paying the fees for two schools falls heavy on most people's pockets.

Halima, who currently seeks admission for her A-levels says, "While awaiting a call from the school that I actually wanted to go to, I got accepted in another school as well and was asked to confirm my admission within a few hours. I didn't really want to go there but there was this constant doubt of not getting into my first-priority school. I even considered paying the fees for it to be on the safe side."

When talking to a senior administration member at a private school that offers A-levels, she said that this can only be dealt with collectively by all A-level schools in the city. She says, "If everyone gets together and decides to release their admission lists on the same date, the problem can easily be prevented."

After paying such huge amounts of fees, one would at least expect to be able to freely choose the subjects that he/she studies during A-levels. But even here the issues are numerous; most schools have various groupings of subjects and the students get to pick their group rather than individual subjects. This means that it is highly likely that students don't find the groups catering precisely to the subjects they want. Many times out of the four subjects in the group, there is at least one that the student is forced to take only because it is in the group that has the rest of the subjects that he/she may want.

Sara, who is just starting her A-levels at one of the most elite schools in Karachi faces a similar problem. She says, "I wanted to study Arts, Physics, Maths and World History. But the most appropriate group that I managed to find was one that offered Arts, Physics, World History and Economics. So now I have no choice but to study Economics, which is a subject I don't want and then privately study Maths as an extra subject."

But on the flip side, Mrs Chishty Mujahid, head mistress of Karachi Grammar School's A-level section says, "We cannot increase our blocks (of subject combinations) unless we can get excellent teachers to cater for them."

She also says that they need to keep a check on the number of students that they admit in each class to avoid an overload of students, especially in the science labs, where it can even prove to be hazardous.

Contrary to many people's believes, O-level exams are not necessarily only taken through the Cambridge University, but also through London University and Oxford University. Most schools in Karachi are affiliated with the Cambridge University so they make their plans for the admission processing in accordance with the schedule of Cambridge University. Nevertheless, there are also those students, though in limited number, who appear in the exams through other university affiliations and get their results at slightly later dates.

Meanwhile, admission processes are in full swing while most well-reputed schools may even have reached their deadline dates before those results are out. Hence they sometimes miss out on opportunities that they might have been able to benefit from, had the schools kept in mind the result dates of examination boards other than the one that they are themselves affiliated to.

Natasha Khan, a student who faced dire problems because of this says, "I didn't do my O-levels from Karachi so I took my exams through the London University Board unlike most Karachi students who opt for the Cambridge University Board. Hence my result came a few days later than the rest and by then most schools wouldn't even let me apply."

Many schools that wish to assure that their well scoring O-level students continue to do their A-levels from the same institution keep delaying the students' recommendations for other schools. And due to the incomplete documents, they are denied admissions elsewhere and have no choice but to stay in the same school for their A-levels.

A high-achieving student who just got her O-level result with nine A's says, "I had given an application for my recommendation way back in April but the school kept delaying it. Finally, they agreed to give it to me on the day of the O-level results but faltered back on their words again. They insisted that unless I applied to the same school for my A-levels, they wouldn't give it to me and with my grades I knew I could do much better. Finally, after putting much pressure, they gave it to me at the last minute and I applied elsewhere just in time."

A certain well-known school with branches spread all over Pakistan actually resorted to withholding its students' results for some time to discourage them from applying elsewhere. A former student of that school, Suhaib says, "They tried persuading us to pay the fee for our A-levels in the same school before handing over our results to us so that we wouldn't be able to join elsewhere."

Rather than resorting to such lowly tactics to secure the best possible students or in some cases just a large number of students, these schools should try implementing other changes that would make them more appealing.

Despite all the difficulties involved in the process, most of us insist on following the same system of education. In fact we strive even harder to attain admissions in those very schools about which we complain so much. But one cannot be blamed for making such a choice as there are not many alternatives; all those institutions that offer A-levels and have a considerable standing in the market are the ones that thrive on such practices. Hence students looking for a good reputable A-level school don't have much choice. So whether we love the system or despise it, we all end up advocating it because at the time of admission the situation is so desperate that one cannot bring him/herself to raise issues on such apparently "petty" matters.

By Amena Jafri
* Certain students' names have been changed to protect privacy (Dawn)

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