What Do We Look for in Our Students and Their Parents?

Matthew Raggett

Headmaster, The Doon School, Dehradun

It’s admission season again… and parents who have spent months, sometimes years, looking for the ideal school are going through the process, and the anxiety of their child clearing tests, handling interviews and working their way through whatever imaginative selection procedures schools are coming up with to fill their seats and beds with the best students. There is even a parasitic industry of coaching centres, counsellors, and tutors out there offering to groom students for admission to the country’s most selective schools at a cost comparable to the school fees.

The Indian educational landscape, in which as many children go to private schools as to government schools, provides enormous choice for parents. For certain schools, it also provides as much choice for their admission departments and I think that this is something that is not talked about enough.

What parents should be looking for in a school is the subject of many discussion forums, kitty parties, and books. What a school is looking for in its students and their parents is a little more opaque.

I want to share what I think schools should be looking for in their students so that everyone can make the most out of what is, from my experience and all too often, a stressful and unpleasant experience… not only for the children. Can you imagine what it is like meeting 200 children who have been so highly prepared that thy no longer know what they really think about anything?

Schools like the one I work for are all trying to put together the most interesting, curious, collaborative teams they can so that whatever curriculum they deliver, activities they do, or opportunities they provide, their staff will be able to use the experiences, the interests and the enthusiasm of the children to bring out the best from every opportunity that they have to learn together.

Certainly, they will want to know whether they can read, write, and have a reasonable understanding of mathematics, but there is so much more that we are looking for… we can teach all of that stuff. Make no mistake! Life is competitive, but we will very rarely be competing on our own, we will always be part of a team, a partnership, or as we tend to do it in school, part of a class; this is why all of our admissions interviews are group interactions with four children together.

So what can we as parents be doing to prepare our children to be the people who others will want to work with?

  • Read with them from the moment they can sit up and do not stop when they are able to read to themselves; this is as much about cementing your relationship as it is about the reading itself. Think of reading as nutrition for the brain, it is like a software update.
  • Ask them questions that do not have clear answers; they will never learn to think for themselves if they are only asked to give the right answer to unimaginative questions.
  • Understand what is really relevant. With our outdated obsession for quizzing and general knowledge, we are leading our children down a rabbit hole that has no end and almost no utility. When my smartphone can answer almost any question in no time at all, the value of knowing anything becomes far less important than knowing what to do with the information and how to use it, how to create something new from it, or how to collaborate around it. Challenge them to tell or give you something more interesting than facts and play with them in ways that build their capacity to get things wrong and not worry about it.
  • Recognise and reward effort and hard work rather than achievement. No one becomes good at anything without putting in time and practice or without making mistakes from which they learn. By focusing on the outcome, we enable our children to give up too soon or to see themselves as not good at something. This fixed mindset is the opposite of learning.
  • Realise that the work you do in establishing their core values and attitude towards work will do more for their success than any school you can send them to. Don’t think that you can spend the money later to make up for something that you missed out on along the way; solid foundations are what allow things to grow and are very difficult to fit later on. It is far better to invest the time sooner than any amount of money later; you just cannot buy neural connections as an afterthought!

The earlier we practise this empowering parenting and teaching with our children, the greater their learning will be… and the better they will do in any admissions process… and I will have far more interesting conversations around the table at our group interviews.

Matthew Raggett

Headmaster, The Doon School, Dehradun