With a quota of 25% of seats in school admissions being set aside for students from economically weaker sections (EWS), the reservation debate is back.
Hindustan Times, along with knowledge partners C fore, conducted a survey of parents and teachers about their concerns regarding this aspect of the Right to Education (RTE) law. The results couldn't have been more stark. An overwhelming three-quarters of parents surveyed feel that the quality of education will go down as a result of reservation. Over half don't think that mixing of students of different backgrounds will help their children become less prejudiced. Almost all -98% - disagree with the human resource development minister Kapil Sibal when he suggests that private schools raise funds from philanthropic organisations or corporate houses to meet shortfall in funds.
In contrast, educators surveyed are more optimistic. 57% feel the quality of education won't go down, and almost the same number feel that mixed classrooms will help build a better society. De-bunking what naysayers might think, over 60% teachers surveyed don't think it will be more difficult to teach a mixed classroom.
But in funding requirements, they side with parents - an overwhelming majority feel that expecting schools to raise own funds is a tough ask. Perhaps the R1,190 per child the government has promised to pay private schools needs a re-think.
The results of our survey aren't surprising. The parents surveyed are predominantly from the urban middle-class. Many of them send their children to the very schools where a quarter of seats are now reserved for EWS children.
The law was challenged by various schools (supported by parents) and it took a verdict from the Supreme Court in April 2012, upholding the quota to lay the matter to rest.
RTE not equal to reservation
Concerns are either borne of personal biases or genuine worries for education quality. "There is a mindset among some parents that is somehow unable to accept that my child and that my domestic help's child will be sitting next to each other in the same classroom. There is a deep rooted sense of difference that is ingrained in our social consciousness," said Kiran Bhatty, education expert.
But schools have raised the issue of adequate funding for the EWS category students. "Schools like ours, where the fee structure is low, are facing difficulty," said RC Shekhar, director, Gyan Bharti School, Saket.
In the din created about this aspect of the law, one forgets that the main focus of the RTE law is to improve the quality of government schools, which is where more than 80% of children in India study. The 25% quota in the relatively few private schools is at best a drop in the ocean, but it is an important symbolic gesture. The very need for a law like this was borne out of the fact that government schools are failing to educate millions of children adequately. "We have eroded government schools in India. The unions are strong; security of jobs has led to negligence. We don't have enough schools, no amenities, some don't even have tap water," said Usha Ram, principal, Laxman Public School, Delhi, putting the whole debate in context.
Bhatty is hopeful. "As government schools comply with the norms of both quality and infrastructure, the tide of students preferring private schools might stem a bit and more children might stay back in or even seek government schools, which is the case in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, because there the quality of government schools has come up a lot," she said.
RTE or no RTE, some schools in Delhi have been giving EWS students opportunities. "We have been going to four slums around our school and admitting students for years. Currently, we have 174 students from the EWS category in our school," said Ram. "This is nothing new to us".
By and large, educators across the city we spoke to don't doubt the need for society to help underprivileged children from gaining quality education. The majority accepts the law and wants to make it work. They may not always agree with the 25% seats reservation. "It is all for a good cause. But other ways to achieve this, such as a system where each private school adopts public schools and is in charge of training, sharing know-how with that school, also need to be explored," said Minakshi Sharma, principal, The Shri Ram School, Vasant Vihar.
The RTE law promises to change the nature of every classroom for the better. One will just have to wait and watch to see how far it succeeds in doing so.