That’s my seat

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Rich parents are demanding schools withdraw poor students, calling them bad influences. Anumeha Yadav tracks the prejudice against the Right to Education

THE BELL rang; lunch break was over. Fourteen-year-old Vineet waited quietly at the school reception. “The principal’s assistant came to the reception and said I must fetch my bag and go home,” he recalls. His request to make a phone call was turned down. Fever? Poor grades in social science? As he was sent home, Vineet, a student at Delhi’s elite GD Goenka School, did not know why he was being punished.

Vineet joined the posh private school in 2006 thanks to a Delhi High Court order that all private schools granted land at nominal rates must reserve 25 percent of their seats for children from poor families. Back then, his father Satyapal, a postman, earned less than Rs. 1 lakh annually. This helped son Vineet secure a seat under the state-stipulated Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota. But as Satyapal’s income increased a trifle more than his previous salary of Rs. 6,900 per month, the school asked him to either pay the full fee or leave. A Rs. 8,000-a-month tuition fee was too much for Satyapal’s pockets. And even as he made rounds of schools — both government and private — Satyapal could not find a place for his son in the middle of an academic session. Vineet was home for 12 days till Ashok Agarwal, a senior lawyer, helped Satyapal access the local media. Fearing public criticism, the school took Vineet back.

There are instances where rich schools have gone to appalling lengths to get rid of poor students admitted under state norms. Ashish Diwedi, who was a part of the same school’s clerical staff till two years ago, says the school first volunteered to admit his children and a year later, turned around. “They offered me Rs.1 lakh per child to take my children out of the school,” he says. “When schools can charge a couple of lakhs per seat as ‘donations’, it makes commercial sense to get these seats vacated, even at a cost,” he says bitterly, tending to customers in his small shop in Masudpur.

The principle behind Right to Education (RTE) Act, a guarantee of primary education for every child, has faced little opposition. But implementing it hasn’t been a smooth ride as it opens private school doors to children from poor families in the neighbourhood. The Act says that 25 percent of admitted students in Class I or nursery in all schools, including private schools, must be children from disadvantaged groups (based on state-specific socio-cultural, geographical factors ), or ‘weaker’ sections (income-based). While this rule has been in place in some states like Delhi, it now applies to schools across the country.

The provision is beginning to fan a battle between the government and private schools associations, and is raising the hackles of the urban rich who do not want their children to study with kids from poor families. “Those kids have bad habits, they use foul language,” says Rohini Manchanda, mother of a seven-year-old studying at Delhi’s Raghubir Singh Junior Modern School. “I don’t want to sound snooty, but these children will not be able to cope,” says a teacher who teaches grade IV at Ahmedabad’s elite International School. Parents and teachers say this is a bad idea and will be too harsh on children brought up in hardship. Clearly, examples like KR Narayanan, the first Dalit president of India and son of a small-time medical practitioner, and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, son of a semi-literate fisherman, are not good enough even if they reflect the change that an opportunity can bring to lives of the underprivileged. But is the fear of prejudice a reason to not attempt something that breaks the same bias?

IT IS not just opinions that threaten to derail an attempt to make schools more inclusive. Organisations like the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan, an association of 1,100 schools, has gone to the Apex Court challenging this reservation, saying it “takes away the autonomy of schools to choose students whom it wants to nurture” and contravenes a school’s right “to maintain its personality, atmosphere, and standards”.

The RTE came into force this April, but most schools avoided implementing the provision, saying admissions for this year’s academic session were already done. State governments are to reimburse the cost to the school on a per learner basis, or the fee of the school, whichever is less, for these children’s education. No wonder then that many schools see the RTE as a financial burden, the looming threat of an omnipresent government’s interference. “Where will we get the funds beyond the government reimbursement? By making the other 75 percent pay?” asks SL Jain, vice-president, Action Committee of Unaided Private Schools.

The Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry, the implementing body, dismisses these claims. “Most big private schools have surplus income,” says V Sahay, director in the ministry. Educationists add that often private schools get land, cheaper electricity and infrastructural support from the government. Add to this the tax exemptions they enjoy. “Some of us were quite clear that unless children from different castes, poor and rich sat in the same classroom, social and class differentiations in society would be amplified by the schools,” points out Vinod Raina, one of the authors of this Act.

Making the classrooms inclusive has not been easy. Even the RTE drafting committee stayed divided on the private schools issue, explains Raina. One section favoured the ideal common school, i.e. every child to have the choice to attend any school in his/her neighbourhood. But expecting private schools to admit all children would have been akin to asking them to forfeit their right to charge any fees. At the same time, there was no denying that the current schooling system is divisive. The Law Commission initially proposed that schools keep 50 percent seats in their incoming class for children from poorer families. This was diluted to 25 percent, but retained as a key measure of RTE so that children no longer grow up in “economically disparate universes”, notes educationist Krishna Kumar, in a 2006 report.

From being the first suspects of theft to being labelled as ‘vernac’ for their inability to speak in English, the kids are often at the receiving end

If the experience of children from poor families who have studied in integrated classrooms is anything to go by, this opportunity has brought struggle,but meaning too. Labelled “vernac” for not speaking English, being the first ones to be suspected of theft when something goes missing, keeping up with classmates’ conversations around FIFA and gizmos, it has not been a joyride for these kids. Vineet recounts going back to class in GD Goenka School after the crisis over his father’s salary hike passed. “One boy teased me that my father is a postman, another said they now knew my ‘reality’.” He adds, “But my other friends in class beat them up.” Eighteen-year-old Ashok, who joined another elite school, DPS RK Puram, on a merit freeship feels he had it tough. “The first few months were emotionalatyachaar!” he says, adding, “Their English, their lunches, parties, it was all so difficult. The attitudes of even those who were at first friendly would change when they learned where I did Class X from. But I loved my classes.” He is now preparing to apply for his bachelor’s in economics.

Illustrations: Samia Singh

The children say they negotiate stultifying stereotypes in their own way. “I stood third in the inter-DPS sprinting meet. All the ‘elite’ Dipsites came to congratulate me,” says Ashok. The children say they have it easier in classes where the teachers have been sensitive. “My mother worked as an aayah in my school and my class teacher kept in touch with her. They said I should speak in class in whichever medium I felt comfortable in,” says Kanika who studied in Sanskriti School on a freeship seat and is now a manager with the Shriram Group of Industries.

The parents see this as an opportunity to secure their child’s future. This is validated by empirical studies like the 1999 PROBE report, a study of over 1,000 poor households, that found over 89 percent saying they want their sons and daughters to get quality education.

The battle, however, remains tough. Savitri, a housewife whose husband holds a clerical post in a government hospital, couldn’t agree more. Even as her two-bedroom flat in Trilokpuri is adorned with art prizes, she says there are times when keeping up with her children’s “excessive” demands becomes difficult. Yet, she negotiates with her six and nine-year-olds, makes sacrifices and takes pride in what the children do. “Sometimes the classmates’ mothers call and ask about the homework. I tell them what I know in Hindi confidently,” laughs Savitri as her nine-year-old finishes rendering ‘God’s songs’ she has learned in Queen Mary’s Convent.

‘When schools charge lakhs as donations, it makes commercial sense to get the seats vacated, even at a cost,’ says a parent

“Such an interaction challenges our values, not just the values we say we have but the ones we practice,” says Sister Cyril, principal of Loretto Convent, who voluntarily integrated poorer children into regular classrooms in Kolkata in 1979. Beginning with 40 children, the school now has 700 — half of its students are from families that earn less than Rs. 5,000 a month, studying with children from well-off families. The school crafted a well-functioning system over the years — recycling uniforms and textbooks, giving no tests or homework till Class V, instituting work scholarships for older children to help the younger ones with their lessons. The school’s counsellor, Theresa Mendes, is all for classroom integration but admits to having “an incident or two of stealing, but so what? We told the children this is their school and will always be open for them”.

A senior HRD ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledges the transition cannot be expected to unfold by itself. “We have to involve state governments, local authorities, school management committees,” she says. The RTE right now talks only of primary education. Eight years later, where will these children be? “Hopefully, the schools will keep them,” she says.

anumeha@tehelka.com

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