Vinod Raina : Fri May 25 2012, 03:12 hrs
The public response to the Supreme Court verdict on the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009, particularly around the retention of the 25 per cent neighbourhood quota for children of disadvantaged groups in private schools, underlines the continued hostility to processes of inclusion in socially and economically fractured contemporary India.
Such hostility is, however, masked under misleading interpretations of the 25 per cent clause, which are at considerable variance with the intentions for bringing it in. The group that drafted the Act was beset with two extreme views. One contended that a universal "right" could not be applied in a differentiated manner by having both fee and non-fee paying children, implying a totally inclusive common school system (CSS) whereby a child would have a right to seek admission to any school in its neighbourhood, government or private, for free education. This would prevent private schools from charging fees. The counterpoint contended that as per Article 21(a), it is the state that has to provide free and compulsory education to children, and the obligation was thus on the government and not the "private" schools, which ought to be kept completely outside the Act. This would constitute the exclusion viewpoint. The challenge for the drafting group was to find a consensus from these extreme viewpoints, which could withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Based on the principles that: a) schools must be sites for social integration, b) private schools do not exist independent of the state that provides them land and other amenities, c) their social obligation can not be waived by contending that only children whose parents pay their fees have a right to be in these schools, and d) since the disadvantaged groups in the country constitute around 25 per cent of the total population. It was finally resolved, after difficult debate, that a 25 per cent neighbourhood quota was justified and could withstand judicial challenge. That was how clause 12 of the RTE Act was finally crafted. As it turns out, the 25 per cent limit has withstood the judicial challenge. It ought to be clear that the sole intention for bringing in this clause was inclusion and social integration, and not to sneak in poor children into "quality"private schools.
The dominant interpretations, however, greatly deviate from such intentions and also lack factual corroboration. Here is why:
One, that government is abdicating its financial responsibility and transferring it to private schools. If the 25 per cent children were not in private schools, under clause 3 of the Act the government would have had to provide a school to all such children at its per learner cost, which is what it will reimburse to the private schools. So how is the government's financial burden reduced? Perhaps around 65 per cent of private schools in the country have fees that are less or equal to the per learner cost of the government. These schools will get exactly what they charge from the other 75 per cent children. The problem may be that of the rest 35 per cent elite schools whose fees may be higher than the government's per learner cost. These schools are hardly poor.
Second, that government is providing an avenue to poor children for quality education in private schools without improving the quality of its own schools. This is based on the incorrect assumption that the quality of all private schools is good, and that of all government schools is bad. It could be argued that based on the quality criterion of preparing a creative person imbued with values enshrined in our Constitution, even the best private schools do not measure up. Maybe in around 35 per cent of private schools, children perform well in the usual rote-learning based competitive examinations, which in educational terms constitutes a very low criterion of quality. On the contrary, the government-run Kendriya Vidyalayas represent perhaps the best in terms of social inclusion and educational quality. The intention of the Act is that all schools ought to be socially inclusive, irrespective of their quality, which must improve at the same time. For quality improvement, the Act has many other clauses: to improve teacher quality, classroom transactions and assessment. The intention is also that the presence of these 25 per cent kids should alter the pedagogical nature of the classroom so that the knowledge base from where these children come from — farming, weaving, services, carpentry and construction, practical vocations like repair of vehicles, electricity, plumbing and so on becomes a part of the classroom, that can greatly benefit the other 75 per cent who are now cut off from the informal sector knowledge base that still dominates the Indian economy.
Third, that these children just can not integrate with elite children and will feel stigmatised. The Act prescribes that admission for the 25 per cent shall be in Class I or pre-primary, whichever is the induction class, and not in all classes at the same time. This implies that these children will be admitted at ages four, five or six. By no stretch of the imagination do children at these ages feel peer-level class or caste difference. In an inclusive environment, these children shall grow up together to become 12-14-year olds, and in the process have values different from those who reach such ages in an exclusive environment. That is the basic intention of the provision.
The inclusion versus quality argument continues to haunt our country. While we bemoan the fact that our children are nearly at the bottom of tests like PISA, even though such tests are and shall remain controversial, we should also pay attention to the fact that children from countries that are at the top of these tests, like Finland, Sweden, Denmark and even Singapore, have been practicing inclusive classrooms for years now. They have demonstrated that rather than fettering quality, inclusion helps improve it. It is time we gave up our colonial biases that poor and disadvantaged children will "pollute" our smartly dressed children in classrooms and as parents and teachers, learn the lessons of inclusion.
This judgment has the potential to aid such learning. It establishes two major criteria for future policies and litigations. One, that the RTE should not be seen in the narrow terms of providing schooling, but as a means of preserving and strengthening the social fabric of the country, to which inclusion is central; and second, the Act must be seen as child centric rather than school centric.
The writer played a key role in drafting and advocacy of the Right to Education Act