Lawyer and education activist Ashok Aggarwal has spent over a decade challenging private schools that violate laws, cheat parents and deny students – especially the poor -- an opportunity to study. But two years after the Right to Education Act came into effect requiring private schools to set aside 25% free seats for students from economically weaker sections (EWS), Aggarwal isn’t worrying about the law’s implementation.
“Most top schools are following this aspect of the law,” Aggarwal says.
The challenge schools and educationists are facing is deeper, rooted in the social prejudices and divisions that have till now kept children from elite gated communities and others from slums in separate worlds that rarely – if at all -- meet.
Even before the RTE Act, many private schools in Delhi were required to reserve 10% free seats for EWS students in exchange for subsidized land they received from the government. But several schools did not implement the provision and others effectively segregated the EWS students from others, teaching the poorer students in special classes held after school. But the RTE Act makes it clear that separating the EWS children from others is illegal.
“We need to prepare students and parents for acceptance,” says Rita Kaul, principal of Millennium School, Noida. EWS students can develop an inferiority complex and other kids can start looking down on them, she says. The solution is to educate parents, Kaul says. “Has any nation progressed by segregating any communities?”
Scottish High in Gurgaon pays for the fee, food and uniform of EWS students it admits, and offers courses to bridge learning gaps between these students and others. Parents of some students donate birthday gifts and stationary for EWS students. But it isn’t easy for the poorer students or their parents.
“It will be difficult in the beginning since many kids celebrate birthdays in malls,” Sudha Goyal, principal of Scottish High says. “If the students come to Scottish with its air conditioned rooms and go back to non-air conditioned environments, it poses a challenge.”
Loreto Sealdah School in Calcutta – where about half the students are from EWS backgrounds – and the DAV schools across north India have shown even before the RTE Act that this challenge can be met.
“We have been giving education to the downtrodden for many years,” Surinder Singh Chaudhary, principal, DAV School, sector 14, Faridabad says. “Throughout, we have mixed classes doing well.”
But some private schools are facing problems sustaining the EWS plan.
At Venkateswara School in Dwarka, Principal Mrinalini Kaura says she receives several fake requests for admission under the EWS category, at times even with recommendations from Delhi’s department of education or district magistrates. Some applications come with fake income certificates. “Real students from the EWS category are not able to enjoy the advantage,” Kaura says.
Funding from the government to compensate for the EWS students who receive free schooling is another sore area for several private schools.
“Most schools have not raised their fee, but the government should reimburse them so that the burden is not shifted to [other] parents,” says Ashok Pandey, principal, Ahlcon International School, Mayur Vihar.
Some students fear that the financial burden of supporting EWS students has or will fall on their parents. “I feel it is not our social responsibility,” Ketan Khanna, a class 10 student at Noida’s Millennium School said. “It is the government’s decision to foist it upon us.”
One principal spoke about how the EWS students were bringing “abusive language” and “street words” into the classroom and were seated next to the more “cultured” children to help them improve.
It is in getting over the “us” and “them” divide that the RTE Act’s true test may lie.