Photo by Michael Hays under a CC Licence.
A revolutionary overhaul of education policy is underway in India, and is driving a wedge through the country’s schooling sector. The Right to Education Act aims to provide free schooling for all children aged between 6 and 14. A central premise of the act – and the one that has caused the greatest stir – is the demand that private schools admit a quarter of their students for free.
There is a vast disparity in educational quality between state and private schools in India. The 25 per cent reservation aims to give disadvantaged families access to superior education at elite institutions. However, there are deeper motives: by forcing children of different groups to learn, eat and play together, the government is attempting to bridge the social chasm between rich and poor.
The proposal has had a mixed reception. The act was implemented in April 2010, but in Delhi alone at least 9,789 children were denied admission by schools in its first year, with 199 schools refusing to provide registration forms to children seeking a seat under the quota, according to the Times of India.
Schools cite several reasons for their opposition. They say they cannot afford to educate children for free. They also believe students from disadvantaged groups will struggle academically, holding back their peers. Some believe that children from two ends of the social spectrum will find it difficult to integrate. Meanwhile, the parents of existing pupils are concerned that their fees will rise to compensate for disadvantaged pupils and that competition for places will intensify. They are also suspected to be uncomfortable with the idea of their children mixing with the lower classes.
The financial argument is a weak one. Some funding will come from the state, and education consultant Abha Adams estimates that the cost of subsidizing students would be about two per cent of schools' annual income.
‘Well-run private schools generate considerable surpluses,’ she wrote in a column for the online development magazine, Education World. ‘Only a few schools won’t be able to absorb [this cost].’
The other worries are more legitimate. Wealthy children have an academic advantage. Their parents are likely to be able to help with homework and afford private tuition, while poor students’ parents may be poorly educated or illiterate. It would indeed be naive to imagine that integration will be smooth in a country where class divisions are so stark.
Already there have also been allegations of unjustified expulsion, harassment and discriminatory treatment by schools. In July, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights claims to have received 12,000 complaints from parents. Problems are likely to arise between teachers and parents of lower economic backgrounds, who may lack confidence. There is also a linguistic gap: many private schools teach in English, which most poor households do not speak.
But these are circular arguments. The purpose of these measures is to address the very divisions that schools cite as obstacles. Difficulty is no reason to abandon a progressive endeavour that could fundamentally alter the balance of power in Indian society.
Implementation will be gradual. Instead of forcing schools to apply the rule at all levels, only the lowest grade will take in free pupils to start with and, as these pupils progress, the year below it will take in another 25 per cent and so on.
This, along with appropriate training and research into teaching methods, should allow everyone time to adjust. ‘Peer tutoring and support in academic programmes would help to bridge the learning gaps that students with inadequate pre-school education will need to overcome,’ says Adams.
Integration is also achievable. A quarter will hopefully be a substantial enough proportion for pupils to feel comfortable, and mixing will begin at a young age, when children’s social instincts are still malleable. Adams says schools will need to make the financial disparity between pupils less apparent, for instance by banning branded goods and large amounts of money in school, and making it compulsory for everyone to use the school bus.
There are further complexities. Given India's population, the scheme will undoubtedly be oversubscribed. It is vital, then, that the less headline-worthy aspects of the act are given attention – such as the plan to improve the standard of state education and to eliminate the costs of sending children to school.
But there is cause for optimism. India has a tradition of using affirmative action to tackle social divisions. And it is in a person’s formative years that social attitudes are created. If parents, schools and public authorities work together, less segregated classrooms might just create a more inclusive nation.