This summer, India missed the historic deadline to implement the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. This landmark law, the fruit of more than a decade of civil society activism, has many path-breaking clauses. For the first time, it bans schoolteachers from offering private tuition on the side – a rampant conflict of interest. It also legally prohibits corporal punishment.
Most powerfully, it insists that every private school must reserve 25 percent of classroom seats for children from poorer or disadvantaged families in the neighbourhood. This quota is by no means a silver bullet. After all, eighty percent of schools in India are government-run and in dire need of teachers, infrastructure and more.
Nevertheless, this masterstroke, which aims to piggyback on the rest of the mushrooming for-profit private schools, single-handedly opens the door for at least 1 million eligible children each year across the country to receive 8 years of free education.
Despite strident opposition from school management and parents’ associations, the Indian Supreme Court last year upheld this visionary clause. Though it may not (yet) be as internationally renowned as the United States’ Brown versus Board of Education ruling, its ripple effect will be no less important in a country as socially stratified as India.
In the last three years, apart from resorting to the courts, private schools have used every trick in the book to deny children their rightful admissions (see video). Despite a ban, some have held separate evening classes to accommodate students from poorer families. Others have sent eligible parents literally in circles over admission paperwork. As a result, last year, Maharashtra state, for example, filled only 32 per cent of reserved seats.
One bone of contention is who will foot the bill? The Act is categorical that the state will reimburse private schools only based on what it spends per pupil in government schools, which is typically much less. For-profit private schools are therefore keen to pass on the burden and increase their already inflated fees for the remainder of the class. Unfortunately, this has pitched wealthy parents against semi-literate ones, further aggravating tensions across the class and caste divides.
On the other hand, many civil society activists are disappointed that the legislation only reserves 25 percent and does not embrace the more inclusive concept of a ‘common schooling system’.
But, even this diluted, watered-down 25 percent reservation clause offers an unprecedented window of opportunity to break the shackles of centuries of social prejudice, which has pigeon-holed and stymied educational, occupational and social opportunities for generations. For the first time, there is a genuine effort to ensure that that children — rich and poor, upper and lower caste — are schooled together at an impressionable age, perhaps laying the basis for India to overcome centuries of divisions.
Even today, children of marginalized castes and tribes are less likely to attend pre-primary and primary school and the quota defines them as primary beneficiaries of the new legislation. The law also supports the entry of children with disabilities. In addition, some states have devised truly progressive rules. Tamilnadu, for instance, has recognized transgender children as eligible. Andhra Pradesh explicitly includes orphans, street and homeless children. Gujarat has clarified that teachers should be professional trained and sensitized for the proper integration of children and warned that schools which discriminate could face closure.
These gems in the rulebook could revolutionize private education in India.
Sister Cyril’s award-winning elite Loreto School in Kolkata, has over the last three decades, already showcased first-hand the transformational potential of integrating street children in mainstream classrooms.
Now, the key to the success of this dream to create inclusive classrooms lies with the burgeoning Indian middle class — to support rather than oppose — this transformative initiative to build the foundation for a more integrated India.
Swati Narayan is a social policy analyst