Nightmare on Nursery Street

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No child’s play The burden of ‘capitation fee’ could end if the courts share parents’ views
No child’s play The burden of ‘capitation fee’ could end if the courts share parents’ views. Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Gone are the days when young, married couples had children. They now ‘plan a child’. Among the many sociocultural reasons for this shift in attitude is the expense of bearing and educating a child.

While public-funded government schools cost next to nothing, educating a child without compromising on the quality of her/his education remains an expensive prospect in India. The ordeal begins with admission to nursery schools. Schools exercise discretion in admissions, but that discretion can often be influenced if the parent is willing to pay a donation, especially when the number of seats is limited.

In a move that would have let parents breathe easy, the well-meaning Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung, worked out a practical and fair system that plugged loopholes exploited by private schools in the capital to demand donations. And like it happens with all big businesses, the courts have now been invited to play the arbiter between parents and private schools.

Unlike in the mid-’90s when higher education pinched the purse, with higher fertility rates and more babies being born, the cost of quality elementary education in India has sky-rocketed. With countless kindergartens coming up, elementary education has transgressed into a business opportunity.

By the late ’90s, nursery admissions at most private schools meant shelling out high donations, amounting to lakhs of rupees mostly in cash or disguised as ‘capitation fees’. The only way you could jump the line or not pay the exorbitant capitation fee was if you were an alumnus or knew someone in the school administration.

Schools turned into old-boys clubs and started a social profiling of three-year-olds and their parents before granting admissions. The Right to Education (RTE) Act prohibits social screening of guardians or children, and any sort of screening meant taking away opportunities from children of backgrounds that did not suit the management’s prejudices.

In the capital, schools have been fighting a messy legal battle for over a decade now, demanding autonomy in deciding whom to admit and on what parameters. This year, things took a nasty turn after the Supreme Court intervened in the process. Many a heart skipped a beat when the media reported that nursery admissions in the capital were stayed.

The story of the legal battle for nursery admission in Delhi dates back to 2002, when a group of lawyers that called itself Social Jurists, filed a petition before the Delhi High Court, asking the government to monitor corrupt practices in admitting a child to nursery schools. Ashok Agrawal, a former national executive committee member of the Aam Aadmi Party, led the group.

This was before the Right to Education (RTE) regime was enacted and thus, before there was a legal philosophy of the way education should be administered in India.

The Delhi High Court appointed a committee led by the then chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Ashok Ganguly. The committee came up with a points-based system in deciding whether a child could gain admission to a given school. The court noted, “…educational institutions cannot be allowed to run as ‘teaching shops’ as the same would be detrimental to equal opportunity to children.” Upset at the high court’s order, the schools appealed the Supreme Court, which refused them any relief.

While the RTE Act’s passage by Parliament in 2002 made it mandatory for schools to not screen the applicants, the Social Jurists challenged this legislation for nursery admissions process. They suggested that admission should be by a transparent draw of lots for those living in the vicinity of the school. The state could decide the actual perimeter of this neighbourhood.

Points-Based System

Neighbourhood up to 8 km: 70 pts

Sibling studying in school: 20 pts

Parent alumni of school: 5 pts

Inter-state transfer case: 5 pts

Source: Delhi Government Notification

Dec 18 and 27, 2013

In 2013, the HC said that RTE could not be made applicable to admissions to nursery schools and suggested Agrawal to approach the LG. In December 2013, Jung notified an amendment to the law for admission to pre-primary schools, setting off a battle between the schools and parents seeking admission for their children.

To the chagrin of schools, the LG did away with management quotas and reserved 25 percent seats for children from economically weaker sections, as under RTE. He further reserved 5 percent seats for the children and grandchildren of staff, 5 percent for girl children in co-ed schools based on a draw of lots for girls within an 8-km radius and a general category for the remaining 65 per cent. The LG stipulated a points system for the rest of the seats (please see box). In case of vacancies in the reserved or general seats, these were to be filled through a draw of lots.

Minority religion-based schools were excluded from the EWS quota, except in cases where they had been allotted government land, in case of which the LG stipulated a 20 percent EWS quota.

In effect, the points-based system ensured that a child living within an 8-km radius of the school got 70 points. If she/ he had a sibling in the school, another 20 points, and five points if the parents were relocated to Delhi from another state. Children with 100 points were eligible for the first lottery. The leftover seats, if any, would require a second round of lottery to children with 95 points and subsequent rounds for diminishing points till all vacancies were filled up. This spelt greater opportunity to families who live in the vicinity of the schools.

On 27 February, just before admissions for the coming academic year, the Delhi government withdrew the five points given to children whose families had relocated to Delhi.

Major Saurabh Charan of the Garhwal Rifles was posted in New Delhi last year. He was relieved with the LG’s earlier order. It gave his child a fighting chance to gain admission to a school without greasing the palms of authorities. The withdrawal of the additional five points for inter-state transfers pushed parents like Major Charan to approach the courts, throwing the spotlight on the issue.

During the course of the hearing of the petition, the courts discovered that the schools were manipulating the system. In a sample survey of 58 schools, the courts noted that 46.8 percent admissions were granted under the inter-state transfer quota, and 844 of the 1,520 applications processed by the schools were fake.

On 6 March 2014, a single bench of the HC stayed the government’s earlier order, withdrawing points for children whose families had relocated. This riled parents who saw the neighbourhood quota (70 points) taking a hit, and appealed against the order. The division bench reversed its 6 March order. In the next stage, the Supreme Court, on 11 April, stayed the division bench’s order.

“The Supreme Court’s order makes it very clear that the apex court has stayed the operation of the division bench order dated 3 April. It has thus restored the earlier single bench order dated 6 March. In my opinion, the schools are free to proceed with the nursery admission process as per the 6 March order. It is wrong to say that the Supreme Court has stayed the nursery admission process,” says Ashok Agrawal.

The confusion arose because of media reports that the admission process had been stayed. Let us hope that the apex court clears the confusion and the regime of management quota and ‘capitation fees’ in a child’s education are over.

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