CBSE, ICSE, IB, Cambridge? Which is The Best Education Board in India

a teacher interacts with kindergarten children

Professor Ritika Mahajan shares the finding of a survey conducted in Jaipur and NCR to understand how each education board — CBSE, ICSE, IB, etc — offers something different, and on what parameters parents pick ‘the right’ choice.

When we were growing up in the 90s, things were relatively simpler. In those days, choosing a career path after Class 12 was among the few significant life events. But as we transition to today’s technology-driven and hyper-competitive world, decision-making begins as early as the child is born, or to be specific, conceived. 

Which hospital should one go to? Which book should parents read? Which yoga class must one join? And then comes a debate of recent origin — which is the best school and board for our child? 

In the interconnected world of WhatsApp, I encounter conversations almost every day about selecting the ‘right’ school. 

In the last few weeks, my team and I surveyed different stakeholders including parents, administrators and teachers about different boards in Jaipur, as well as a few from NCR. This article presents the findings of our survey. 

It may be helpful to parents, students and everyone interested in exploring the contemporary Indian school education system. We begin with highlights of the recent Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) report by the Department of School Education and Literacy, presenting data on schools.

MoE’s UDISE+ Report 2021-22: Key highlights

children in blue uniforms write and scribble on the board

India has one of the world’s largest school education systems. 

As per the recent UDISE+ report, over 26.5 crore students are enrolled in pre-primary to higher secondary levels in 14.89 lakh schools, employing more than 95 lakh teachers. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) for primary to higher secondary levels increased in 2020-21 compared to the previous year, as did the numbers of SC, ST, OBC and students with disabilities. All major infrastructural facilities improved. However, the number of schools and teachers declined by 1.34 and 1.99 per cent respectively, due to the shutting down of some schools. 

The report presents disaggregated data for the first time for government, semi-government and private schools, as well as data on indicators like integrated science labs, co-curricular activity rooms, initiatives for sustainable development etc, in line with the NEP 2020.

Out of 14.89 lakh schools, affiliation is not applicable up to the elementary level for almost 11.96 lakh schools. Nearly 2.5 lakh are affiliated with CBSE, 1.5 lakh with the State board, 22,000 with both State and ICSE, 351 with ICSE, and 2,200 with others. 

According to an IBEF report, almost 85 per cent of schools in India are in rural areas. Thus, the spectrum of schools is vast. On one end, some in rural areas struggle with basic infrastructural needs. On the other hand, posh urban ones compete for state-of-the-art facilities. Among the latter, there are various education boards, as discussed ahead.

A comparison between the boards

Apart from CBSE, ICSE, and State board, there are international boards like IB (International Baccalaureate) and Cambridge Assessment International Education, different systems like Waldorf, and ‘radical’ options like homeschooling, unschooling, and road schooling

We surveyed stakeholders to understand the boards based on parameters like (a) minimum age for admission, (b) curriculum, (c) assessment, (d) recognition, (e) cost, (f) learning pace, (g) relationship with parents, (h) diversity and inclusion, etc. Key inferences follow.

I) Age for Admission

According to the Right to Education Act of 2009, elementary education must be free and compulsory for all students starting at six years. The minimum age for admission in India to Class 1 is usually between five and six years for all boards. 

Structurally, CBSE, ICSE and the state boards follow the Class I-XII pattern. At the same time, IB has introduced the primary-years, middle-years, and diploma programmes comparable to class I-V, VI-X, and XI-XII, respectively.

a teacher interacts with kindergarten children
India has one of the world’s largest school education systems. 

II) Curriculum

On average, at the primary level, the boards offer six to eight subjects, including English, Mathematics, Science, Computers, Physical Education, Arts and a Second Language. IB and Cambridge provide additional courses like yoga and stretching, life experiences, global perspectives, digital literacy, music and students’ engagement in creativity, activity, and service. Waldorf, along with basic subjects, provides exposure to theatre, movements, recorder (musical instrument) and handwork, including knitting and crocheting.  

These subjects appeared to be very interesting to us. But the expert opinion was divided. 

Anita Sharma, who teaches in a primary school in Jaipur, said, “It is amazing how our children have opportunities to explore so much these days. They are exposed to diverse skills, and finding their calling very young will benefit their mental and physical well-being in the long run.

Anshita Gupta, founder of Sun-India pre-school in Jaipur, said, “Advertisements must not sway parents and disregarding options without any analysis is not useful. Each board has its advantages and disadvantages. IB boards provide more room for experimentation and nurture an aptitude for research. Similarly, CBSE enables the child to handle pressure and become hard-working.” 

She emphasised the need for a “balanced approach” in all the schools. For instance, some schools focus mainly on typing or oral communication. While students must know how to work with computers, they must also write. A skill like writing is inextricably linked to a child’s future development.

III) Assessment

For assessment, CBSE, ICSE and State boards employ a combination of written tests, projects and viva. The evaluation also includes fieldwork, artistic performances, essay writing and case studies in IB. Cambridge supports written, oral, coursework and practical evaluation. In comparison, Waldorf follows child-centric learning, and there is scope to modify the pace to suit each child. They provide detailed individual feedback. Unschooling and homeschooling parents may opt for open-board examinations.

While traditional assessment focuses on lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy — like remembering and understanding — the international boards emphasise higher levels, like evaluation and creation. 

Monika Gupta, who returned from the US a few years ago and chose IB for her children, said, “I am delighted with the assessments in IB because rote learning is not encouraged. IB aims to create lifelong learners who are responsible, caring and open-minded citizens worldwide. It takes more of a holistic approach to education. I did not have many opportunities in my school to experiment, and sports were almost negligible. The only challenge is that we are engaged throughout the year because the assessment is continuous.”

children of the waldorf school in jaipur participate in an activity
Waldorf provides exposure to theatre, movements, recorder, and handwork, including knitting and crocheting. (Ms Gurpreet, Waldorf School, Jaipur)  

IV) Cost

In our survey, the cost of education emerged as an essential factor affecting school choice. 

The international boards are relatively expensive. To put things in perspective, on average, a centrally-located CBSE school in Jaipur charges nearly INR 75,000 per annum for Class I, Waldorf around INR 1.25 lakh, and an IB school almost INR 2.5 lakh. 

The fees may change based on location, brand, and type of facilities. Nisha Gupta, an HR professional, consciously chose a CBSE school for her child over an IB school. In her opinion, school is only a part of a child’s life, and learning happens everywhere — at home, in a park, and at social gatherings.

“What happens beyond school is equally important. I chose the CBSE board because I wanted my child to remain grounded and study amongst students from all socio-economic backgrounds. Such an environment is missing in an IB school because it is affordable only by upper-middle class families,” she said.

V) Diversity and inclusion

Apart from socio-economic diversity, the boards express varying degrees of concern towards students with different abilities and needs. In a 2019 circular, CBSE provided details of exemptions for special-needs students. In some cases, as explained by experts, for instance in the case of students with Attention Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder (ADHD), IB shall be more appropriate at initial levels. But when there is little scope for modifying the pace of learning in a system, the school unintentionally admits students with similar abilities or needs.

Waldorf is suitable for students with varying needs as the system adopts a child-led learning approach. 

Gurpreet Kaur, the founder of Uday Waldorf Inspired School in Jaipur, shared, “My search for a school for my daughter led me to start Uday Waldorf in Jaipur. The journey has been challenging but fulfilling. Inspired by Waldorf’s philosophy, the school aims to develop a child’s uniqueness and love for learning. The curriculum places an equal emphasis on the head, heart and hands, unlike the traditional approach focusing mostly on the head. Music and theatre are integrated into the curriculum. Our design is backed by scientific research into stages of human development.”

VI) Pace of learning

In a school, the learning pace is similar because everyone moves together, unlike homeschooling or unschooling. In simple terms, unschooling is a conscious decision to not enrol a child in a regular school. 

Pooja Somani, a freelance writer, chose to unschool her daughter. “The pace at which she is learning is faster. She is an avid reader and grasps logic easily. We spend an hour on studies daily, and the rest of learning is naturally built into our routines.” 

school children sitting on the floor
The cost of education emerged as an essential factor affecting school choice. 

According to her, unschooling seems unconventional, but it has been the best experience. We asked if she ever felt worried about her daughter’s social wellness. She did not and shared that her daughter has many friends; from the neighbourhood, common circles, community gatherings and extra classes she chooses to attend. Pooja is a part of many unschooling communities and online groups where parents lend each other support and advice. Some prefer unschooling because of moving careers and frequent changes in cities.

VII) Recognition

Homeschooling or unschooling is illegal in countries like Germany, Greece, Greenland, Turkey and Iran. Apart from that, all the boards are internationally recognised, with a presence in several countries. For instance, CBSE has more than 250 schools in 26 countries worldwide. 

Biju MP, vice principal at a well-renowned CBSE school in the city with an experience of more than 28 years, said, “The schools have come a long way. Even CBSE schools have gone international. We now offer electives that are creative and unique. However, implementation is a challenge. In the higher secondary, students hardly show any interest — they are engaged in preparing for competitive exams.”

VIII) Relationship with parents

Another factor not discussed often but emerged in our survey is the school’s relationship with parents. 

Some parents prefer a school open to feedback, which is not encouraged in older, established schools. Vaibhav Aggarwal, founder of an NGO promoting sustainable development in Jaipur, shared, “We chose Waldorf because we felt connected when we visited the school. They were very open to listening to us, unlike an older school where we were not allowed to go beyond the gate. Even today, the most important aspect is that our child is happy and does not feel scared or anxious going to school.”

Making the final choice

In our survey, we came across diverse opinions. Each had a story. In some cases, the story originated in the parents’ childhood. In others, it was rooted in the family’s culture. We encountered that the choices made by parents were neither good nor bad — they were diverse and real.

Harshita Aggarwal, a freelance corporate trainer based in Bangalore and Jaipur, researched for many months before finalising a school for her daughter. She said, “To me, the boards can be compared to different feeding types. While some follow spoon-feeding, others are similar to baby-led weaning. Both options exist.” 

Thus, each board has its advantages and disadvantages. To begin with, affordability is a fundamental factor. Then comes curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. The overall philosophy, culture and relationships are also significant. 

But a lesser-known aspect that stood out in our survey is the quality of teachers. Harshita expressed, “During my visits to various schools, I felt teachers had a key role in driving the curriculum. The best teachers never encouraged rote learning, even if the curriculum or examinations were designed to measure the capability to remember the solution rather than analyse the problem.” 

On a final note, the choice of school must rest with the child — parents may facilitate accessibility. 

Anil Sharma, a child psychologist, said, “Until the children become old enough to understand if they have made the right choice, the parents may gauge if the school is their child’s happy place. It can create a negative impact to be part of a system where one is unhappy or uncomfortable. There are no rules to explain; the parents would just know.” 

Written by Ritika Mahajan, assistant professor at the Department of Management Studies (DMS), Malaviya National Institute of Technology; Survey conducted in collaboration with Manish Joshi and Sebin S John, second year MBA students at DMS, MNIT Jaipur.

Edited by Divya Sethu

 
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