EVER since the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act), 2009, came into effect a little over a year ago, there has been a perceptible sense of insecurity among sections of managements of private, unaided schools, parents of children going to these institutions and, in some cases, the children themselves.
On the one hand, the Act, by implication, emphasises the responsibility of the state in strengthening government schools, which cater to the largest section of India's school-going population. On the other, it mandates reservation of 25 per cent of the seats in every private school for children from underprivileged backgrounds living in the neighbourhood.
It is the clause on reserving 25 per cent of the seats that is worrying many. The school authorities' anxieties range from whether the fees for this group of children that the government promises to reimburse will match that charged by them to whether teachers can handle “two groups” of children in the same classroom.
Parents have been voicing their concern about their children “mixing” with “other children”, saying that they do not want “any bad influence on their children”. Sections that feel pressured by the clause are using different strategies to cope with it. There have been systematic attempts to convince students sufficiently of the possible “bad influence” by tutoring them to think on the lines of “What if such a classmate steals my notebook?” Some schools actually have had teachers raising such questions in the classroom.
Private school managements have, in some cases, gone to court challenging this clause. When one such case was heard in the Supreme Court in February, the Chief Justice of India said that private educational institutions could not complain about the law asking them to allot 25 per cent of the seats to the economically weaker sections as it was a policy decision aimed at investment for the country's prosperity.
There have been other instances of private schools voicing their concern, sometimes in rather disturbing ways. In Chennai, for instance, a few schools circulated a letter among parents explaining how such reservation might come in the way of their pursuit of quality
Arguments about teaching also tend to surface every now and then. Some schools wonder how a teacher will be able to handle efficiently students with different academic credentials (a Class I child in a private school is most likely to have attended kindergarten, while most children from modest backgrounds in India begin their schooling in Class I), different home environments and different “cultural capital”.
This is where teachers have the additional responsibility of considering options such as bilingual or multilingual classroom transactions, additional training for students coming from a different medium of instruction, or supplementary classes after school hours.
Unless private schools create space and resources for such inputs, teachers may not be sufficiently equipped or motivated to adopt such practices, given the burden of administrative work and the none-too-attractive pay of an average teacher in India.
The fact that many schools and parents are not inclined to engage with such possibilities is evident from the various manifestations of reluctance and lack of will, the latter certainly stemming from a class position. The signs of a fundamental resistance to the Act and reluctance to implement the clause clearly point to a class bias.
The sociologist and anthropologist Amman Madan, formerly with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, says that in India, perhaps because of its caste-ridden society, the idea of there being a fundamental difference between different kinds of people exists even today. This explains the sense of horror at “other kinds of children” mixing with “my child”. This is rooted in caste ideologies, he notes.
There is also a “suspicion” of the lower classes, and that is accentuated by trends in contemporary societies across the world where jobs are becoming more marketised and commercialised. “There is greater insecurity among parents about what would happen to their children,” explains Prof. Madan. ‘My child has to be different from the rest' becomes a very strong idea in a situation where there is a high degree of competition. This compulsion of having to maintain a distinction from the lower classes is typically a class position, stemming from class dynamics. Prof. Madan elaborates: “The perception that people's future ranks are determined by their educational experiences and the cultural perception that ‘I do not want my child's educational experience to be contaminated by lower groups' is a severe problem in India.”
S.S. Rajagopalan, a senior education activist in Chennai, says the class that so readily suspects the lower classes should ask itself questions such as, “Are there no brats in my child's class now? Do his belongings never get stolen in school? Is my child never up to any mischief?”
Enough stories of students who shine in examinations despite adverse home environments get told every year. There is no place for a question on students' intrinsic ability per se. It is a given that every student is equally capable. That said, the issue which then needs focus is how class privileges enable certain sections to corner more advantages consistently, and how certain sections, because of their disadvantaged class position, are denied resources that will help them gain access to these advantages. And, importantly, how such sections can be assured of better access to resources that matter.
Also, a section of private schools in the country have caste or religious affiliations, expressed in explicit or not-so-clear ways. Schools and parents of students studying in them are, therefore, apprehensive that this affiliation, which often manifests in schools' admission policies, is now threatened by the Act. Whether it is about such insecurities or about the intense levels of competition in job markets the world over which, to an extent, explain the middle-class bias, the position of the Indian middle class in general has, perhaps, to be viewed in the historical context.
According to Madan, also a professor of Sociology of Education, in societies in 19th century North America and 20th century Western Europe, for instance, countries such as England and France, a lowered sense of inequality between people emerged. In the United States, this was expressed through the common school system. “Of course, they did not consider blacks or women to be relevant, but amongst different families, there was an idea that all children can go to a common school. This was the U.S. of the 19th century where there was not a great degree of social inequality among the whites,” he says.
This goes alongside a particular agenda of the state, of a certain kind of cultural nation-building in the U.S. It was not an agenda run by a small group within the state; there was a large number of individuals acting outside the state pushing for this.
In countries such as England, there was an unequal system of education. It was clearly understood that different classes went to different kinds of schools. The reaction was, like right now, one of horror to think that different classes could be in the same kind of school. Until the Second World War, there was a strong sense of streaming in these countries, which got transformed in the 1950s and 1960s when the notion of the comprehensive school emerged.
In spite of this, class positions persisted. “People did worry about what would happen to their child if the child mixed with children from different backgrounds. In the U.S., this gets expressed in the emergence of Catholic schools. In England, it can be seen in the continuation of private schools.”
In India, this class position is much stronger. The various political and social movements of western Europe and North America make it somewhat embarrassing there to talk too much about inequality and one's superiority. In a country like India, on the contrary, the situation is not tempered by the kind of egalitarianism seen in other countries or in small pockets within itself. “The Indian middle class, which is fast growing and emerging, is extremely insecure. Perhaps, we have not had enough social movements, political movements or cultural efforts to persuade people to think it is morally wrong to talk of superiority,” says Madan.
A sharp sense of difference comes to the fore when one compares the situation in India with how government schooling or schooling for the poor expanded in other countries. Why is it that there is so little broad support for actually doing something about good government school education or about good schooling for everybody? The absence of the middle class' engagement with actual, constructive social change explains the situation to a certain extent. Maybe if large social movements had taken place in India and the issue was talked about in much greater detail, then there would have been greater acceptance of the idea.
“In other countries, people did accept the idea. It requires a certain kind of social and cultural change and orientation, which is not impossible to achieve. If transformation can happen in other societies, it can happen here as well. Our peculiar case has been that because of the small size of the active and sensitive group, it has operated through this mechanism that has not been backed adequately by broad discussions and sharing on what can be done, how it is to be done. Therefore, it seems like a strange regulation that has come out of the blue,” he says.
All the same, he notes that it is not completely true to say that people do not care about the poor. “They do... but the way our imagination has been shaped by the problems of the state sector, people are unable to imagine how this can be done.
In such a situation, there is a very small group still pushing for converting that anxiety into actually doing something. That is the group which has been instrumental in getting this particular clause on 25 per cent reservation into the RTE Act. It is grounded in the belief that whether or not something happens to government schools, let us at least create this space.”
Loss of faith
The lack of faith in the public school system tends to compound the situation in the Indian context. In societies where a common school system has worked to a considerable degree, such as North America or Western Europe, most people go to government schools even today irrespective of their class background. “There is an idea that the government schools are reasonably well-run, well-funded, and there are sufficient number of teacher training institutions to provide reasonably well-trained teachers and that the system functions,” he adds.
Rajagopalan, who has served both government and private schools in Tamil Nadu for over three decades as teacher and principal, says it is the absence of such faith that poses the biggest challenge in India.
“Government schools are being crushed to death. There is a strong belief that private schools are better,” he says. That would explain the trend of private schools mushrooming in semi-urban and rural areas too. It must be remembered that not all private schools may be justified in flaunting the quality tag. “In the government school system, one can be assured of having trained teachers, but there are so many private schools today that have employed teachers who have no training or appropriate qualification,” Rajagopalan says.
V. Vasanthi Devi, former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, says the majority of private schools in the country will not meet the basic requirements in terms of teacher-pupil ratio, qualification of teachers, or infrastructure, including playgrounds.
Strengthening the public school system is crucial, not only to restore the lost faith in the system but also to the implementation of the Act. “At the moment, we are confronted with two grave disasters – commercialisation of private education and bureaucratisation of public education,” she observes.
It is crucial to strengthen the government school system with adequate number of teachers, infrastructure upgrades, and a strengthened inspectorate that will not just collect questionnaires but initiate prompt follow-up action. Simultaneously, private schools and the parents of children studying in these schools have to reflect on how inclusive they want their child's educational experience to be.
Aruna Rathnam, education specialist with UNICEF, says such a bias prevalent among private school managements and parents may result in a kind of “alienation” of their children. “The idea of school as a community gets lost,” she said.
Students are trained to think in a self-centred manner – of my notebook, my pencils or my belongings. “In a government school, when a child in a class falls sick, it is very common, even today, for the teacher to ask another child to fetch the medicine or help the unwell child in some other way. Private schools are increasingly failing in enabling such an environment,” she notes.
In trying to ensure a systematic exclusion, private schools might actually deny the children studying in them a sense of belonging or the community spirit that schools are positioned to provide.