School choice: Do parents really choose schools?

By: Zulfa Sakhiyya

I still remember when my parents sent me to a secondary school almost two decades ago. It was a nearby school. My neighbors would also do the same. Even if parents sent their children to different schools, it was because most schools would set a minimum exam score to filter candidates.

In this decade, however, things have changed. Compared to my nostalgic past, now parents have to “choose” schools for their children. My senior high school teacher told me that my former school had declined in quality since it was transformed into an International Standard School (SBI).

The school set a relatively high tuition and other fees. Some friends of mine told me that they needed to prepare between Rp 5 million (US$580) and Rp 20 million to enter the desired school. This is undoubtedly unaffordable for families with low income.

Other changes in schooling in this era are the emergence of the National Standard School (SSN) and school clustering (cluster 1, 2, etc.). While it is good to see such a development, sadly schools are now labeled and clustered.

School labeling works by attaching a label to a school (international/national label) and clustering them based on the label.

Let us take a look at the case in Bandung. There are three high school levels — first, second and third. The first cluster comprises international standard schools; the second cluster contains national standard schools; while the third cluster is for those schools without any label (rural and disadvantaged schools). Believe it or not, the labeling portrays the current schooling in many cities in Indonesia.

Those labels affect school access. The middle and upper-middle class parents can exercise their choice to send their children to their desired school and ultimately the university they want.

I agree it is a parents’ duty to choose the best education for their children. My concern is far too often schools, parents and policy makers act as if the exercise of choice is neutral. In plain English, it means as if all parents, families and individuals have the same level of access to the available choices.

So far as I imagine, choosing schools is just like buying gadgets. Do you choose an iPad or a PC? A cell phone or a BlackBerry? It is up to you, or more substantially, your money.

There is a strong connection between a school’s capacities to provide education to children and the economic ability of parents to purchase that educational provision. Consequently, this privileges the wealthy minority and excludes the poor majority.

Not only in Indonesia, school choice has become a popular buzzword throughout the world. In the developed countries, such as the US and the UK, schools are displayed on a league table. The table evaluates each school’s performance and displays the results online. This is aimed to assist parents with decision-making. The implication is that schools are in tight competition to attract parents and they are located in circuits. Circuit A for middle-class parents, circuit B for the labor class.

Choice works if there is a level playing field in the onset. Ideally, parents should have the capacity to make and exercise that choice. But, how about families that cannot afford a particular school uniform and book fees?

If this situation continues, the gap between the rich and the poor widens. And I hardly dare to imagine how would Indonesia’s education would be in the future.

Our education pioneer, Ki Hajar Dewantara, has cogently cautioned us that “it is quite understandable why we have been so mistaken in our choice. In the first place, much has to be chosen, and there has been so little to choose from”.

So, do we really choose schools?

This is, of course, the system which governs our attitude in choosing schools. It is good to hear that the National Education Ministry has restricted the establishment of the SBI.

As parents, we do not have any vehicle to provide our input on educational policies and practices. At least, we need to do something.

First and foremost, we need to change our mind-set — do not believe in school clustering. Let us send our children to the school that places academic achievement as the passing criteria, let’s not base our decisions on labels and clusters.

Second, I believe that good parenting at home is also a form of education and character building. Therefore, we do not need to worry so much on choosing the “best” school for our children.

The writer is a postgraduate student at the Faculty of Education, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

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