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Embracing difference

A few private schools committed to classroom diversity find it helps learning and fosters tolerance. From 2011, others will have to become more inclusive when a clause in Right to Education Act kicks in.

mumbai Updated: Oct 04, 2010 03:05 IST
Bhavya Dore

Ibrahim Patkar, 10, and his classmate Afdar Khan, 11, are locked in battle, playing ‘stone paper scissors’. Elsewhere in the classroom Amanjot Singh, 11, and Manish Kadam, 12, are shifting in their seats waiting for class to begin.

While Patkar suffers from muscular dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound, Singh is visually challenged and Kadam is mildly autistic.

This isn’t a special school, but it certainly is a unique one. At Gurukrishan High School in Santacruz, this class 7 classroom fully epitomises diversity at school.

“It is a beautiful situation we have in our school,” said Rekha Vijayakar, the school’s director. “We first admitted a child with muscular dystrophy some years ago as an experiment. Now we have eight such differently-abled students at school. And all the children benefit from the mixing.”

Some other schools in the city follow other kinds of diversity policies. Father Agnel School in Vashi conducts its admissions based on a lottery system to ensure student representation from all kinds of backgrounds. Kamla High School in Khar, makes a particular effort to accommodate those from lower economic backgrounds, including the children of peons and rickshaw drivers.

“These children excel – they work harder, they have great aspirations and the opportunities they get drive them to do well,” said Rekha Jagasia, the principal.

For some years now, these and other schools in the city have been actively building composite classrooms. However, the Right To Education Act that came into force in April this year aims to replace such individual endeavours with a large-scale initiative.

A clause in the Act mandates that all schools will have to reserve at least 25 per cent of their seats at the entry level for neighbourhood students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This includes those with physical disabilities.

The state government has issued several orders operationalising different clauses in the Act, but it is yet to do so where the issue of reservations in private schools is concerned.

“Discussions are on between the state government and the centre as to budgetary provisions and so on,” said a state government official. “We are working on the process of implementing this clause. But since the clause is mentioned in the act, schools should be prepared to implement it.”

In the absence of clear directives, in the meantime, unaided schools have said they are waiting and watching. “There is no clarity yet on the issue as the state government is yet to bring out a resolution on the clause,” said Husein Burhani, academic director of D.Y. Patil International School in Worli. “As admissions season will begin now, we will need clarity or else schools will have to go ahead and conduct admissions based on the existing rules.”

Tremors of dissatisfaction have already rippled through the private school firmament in other parts of the country, suggesting that the way will not be easy. Before the Act kicked in on April 1, a Jaipur forum of unaided schools filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the 25 per cent clause, stating it impinged on the jurisdiction of unaided schools.

In July, a school in Bangalore issued a circular to parents of its students on the “dangers” of the Act, a circular it repealed after an outcry. (See box)

“Some parents might be worried about their children sharing a bench with a poorer student but I personally feel that the best learning takes place in a diverse environment,” said Seema Parekh, whose children study at Villa Theresa and St Mary’s.

Research has borne out the benefits of inclusive classrooms. “When children are exposed to difference in their formative years it makes them more tolerant, more accepting human beings,” said Reeta Sonawat, head of the human development department at SNDT Women’s University, who has studied the positive impacts of a heterogeneous classroom.

Some have, however, raised concerns about integration in terms of the language, class and social divides that children will have to bridge.

“With the new legislation hopefully the landscape will change, but of course, there will be issues,” said Varsha Hooja, a trustee of Adapt (formerly known as the Spastics Society of India), a city non-profit group working on different kinds of inclusion. “Will the class divide be bridged? Will there be discrimination in schools? There is so much that the curriculum takes for granted, so children will have to be sensitised.”

Opinion

Kamala Mukunda, teacher at Centre For Learning in Bangalore and author of What Did You Ask At School Today?

There will be various challenges when it comes to implementing this clause in the Right To Education act.

First, schools will have to bridge cultural differences. They will have to ensure that students who come in through the quota do not feel disadvantaged compared with their better-off classmates. Second, language will be an issue. Third, home support will also be an issue. Some groups have made suggestions about conducting bridge courses to enable children to get the extra help and additional classes that they might need.

In the short term, there will be difficulties. The implementation will depend on the school’s sensitivity and, equally importantly, on that of the other children’s parents. It will take time and effort, but in the end it should be implemented in a meaningful fashion for all students.