Towards inclusion in school education

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act) which was unanimously passed by Parliament in August last year and became operational on April 1, has aroused strong passions within Indian academia and especially within India’s estimated 100,000 private schools.

In particular, s.12 of the RTE Act which makes it obligatory for private schools to admit poor neighbourhood children into class I to the extent of 25 percent of capacity (and retain them upto class VIII), has generated considerable controversy. The rationale of s.12 is that classroom diversity will generate sentiments of empathy and caring for socially disadvantaged children among relatively privileged middle and upper class students who tend to be indifferent, even insensitive, to the poor.

The plain truth is that private school managements seldom promote empathy. They prefer to promote sympathy. Caring and concern for the socio-economically disadvantaged is restricted to a few hours of ‘community service’ annually, and sporadic fund raisers for the ‘deserving poor’ suffering disability, AIDS, or other challenges.

In this context, the RTE Act is revolutionary inasmuch as it insists that private schools stop excluding the poor. India’s traditional public schools made no bones about their purpose of creating classes that would help the British Raj rule the country. Even now schools for the wealthy continue to advertise themselves as institutions where national ‘leaders’ are moulded and shaped.  The unspoken impli-cation being that government schools are where the ‘led’ are shaped.

Unfortunately, most private school managements wish to continue to exclude the poor and are organising campaigns against the 25 percent reservation mandate of the RTE Act. Some of them contend that their schools won’t be able to afford to subsidise their tuition, and children of the poor will be picked on by their wealthy classmates. Yet others say that poor children will have to struggle to keep up and therefore are better off where they are. For most private school managements and parents, having their children visit a village or slum to dispense charity is acceptable, but having their children sit next to unwashed poor children in class all day, is not.

The argument about unbearable financial burden on private schools is untenable. At best, the cost of subsidising poor children as per the provision of the RTE Act will be 2 percent of their annual income for eight years. Well-run private schools generate considerable surplu-ses which are invested in massive corpuses, or canalised into creating chains of schools which produce even greater incomes. Only a few schools won’t be able to absorb 2 percent of their revenue for poor neighbourhood children.

It’s also true that in many private schools, poor children will be victimised. But in good schools children are already being sensitised to be supportive of the less privileged. In well-run schools which insist on good behaviour, bullying is not tolerated, and is relatively easy to stamp out. The remedy is not to exclude potential victims but to deal firmly with bullies!

So how can private school managements begin integrating poor neighbourhood children as mandated by the RTE Act? First, parents, children, staff and management need to accept inclusion as a national mission, as an affirmation of the right of every child to equitable education. This requires school managements and teachers to uphold the values of simplicity, sharing, kindness and support. They need to level the playing field by not allowing branded goods, not permitting expensive canteens that serve junk food, and eliminating the need for children to bring money to school. Schools could also insist that all students use the school bus. Peer tutoring and support in academic programmes would also help to bridge the learning gaps that poor students with inadequate pre-school education will need to overcome. It’s my belief that children seldom see social class as a barrier when learning and playing together. Adults build these walls and barriers.

If India’s privileged private unaided schools manage to level the playing field for poor children, it will be a monumental piece of social engineering. There’s sufficient case study evidence indicating that whenever the poor and the privileged classes meet for common purposes, the effect is the breakdown of class barriers and meltdown of perceptions of social superiority. We have seen this in the cricket playing world: the number of ‘gentlemen’ declined, as working class ‘players’ were let into the game.

In the end, with enactment of the RTE Act, the onus is on school managements to make this new quota system work. Like all managers, they also have the power to make the legislation unworkable. If they opt for the latter strategy their victims will be poor children in their own neighbour-hoods. Generating empathy and caring within the students community is the easy part. The harder task is to generate these inclusive sentiments within the managements and teachers of India’s too-exclusive private schools.

(Abha Adams is a well-known Delhi-based education consultant and columnist)