Till last year, six-year-old Ajay Avate did not know what to do with a notebook. Instead of writing in it, he would often play with it, balancing it on his head. His neighbour Devika Yadav, 5, from Kolke village - five kilometer east of Panvel -used to struggle to hold a pencil.
But after attending classes at the Bethany Convent School, Panvel for more than a year, there's a marked difference in the behaviour of the two Class 1 students. Ajay and Devika are among the 40 children from the Katkari tribe enrolled at the school. "Every morning we go to school in a bus," says an excited Avate, whose father is a truck driver. For Devika, the daughter of a construction site worker, meeting her "very nice" class teacher is a major motivation to attend school.
Learning alongside 500 children from urban middle-class families, children from tribes like the Katkaris are no longer restless in a structured class and have even picked up a smattering of English.
"It is a challenge to teach tribal children since they do not know English and classroom learning seems alien to them," says Sister Helen, principal of the school. Initially, these children were irregular to class. In addition to providing free books and a mid-day meal, the school had to actively coax parents to send them to school. But the efforts bore fruit. "They are picking up fast and are good at sports," adds Sister Helen.
From next academic year, primary sections of several schools will replicate the Panvel school's inclusive classroom concept. In September, the state cabinet approved the rules to implement a clause in the Right to Education (RTE) Act that requires schools to reserve 25% of their seats at the entry level for children from economically weaker sections and the differently-abled. The RTE Act came into effect last April.
Those enrolled under the 25 % quota will get free education. The government will pay Rs1,000 per month to schools for every student enrolled under the quota adding up to a estimated annual expenditure of Rs760 crore. For schools, the cost of enrolling students from economically weaker sections is a major concern. Father Agnel's Multipurpose School, Vashi already provides free education to children from a nearby orphanage. But it has an annual deficit of Rs9 lakh. To overcome it, the school encourages parents to sponsor an underprivileged child's fee.
For the past six years, Campion School, Cooperage, has been providing free education to poor students from the neighbourhood. "As a policy, the 25% quota is good, and we emphasise inclusive education," said Paul Machado, principal.
Holy Family School, Andheri also has a mix of students from different backgrounds. Some of its students sell newspapers or work at tea stalls to supplement family income. "Some parents object to their children mixing with those from less privileged families. Their attitudes need to change," said Father Francis Swamy, principal of the school's junior college.
To address concerns over classroom dynamics, Pawar Public School in Bhandup has come up with an inclusive classroom policy, where a therapist and a teacher will work with students.
Several parents whose children study at schools that practice inclusive education termed apprehensions about assimilation as exaggerated. "Our children mix well with everyone. So far, none of us have had a problem with underprivileged children sharing the same bench with our children. Kids learn best when there is diversity," said Noshir Bhiwandiwala, whose son studies in Class 9 at Campion School.