Public policies, almost as a rule, are about negotiating paradoxes. In doing so, they also generate new ones. Section 12(1)c of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which mandates that all private unaided schools (with the exception of minority-run and boarding) admit at least 25% of their students in their entry-level class from socially disadvantaged and economically weaker groups, is no exception.
While the need for greater attention to the improved functioning of govenment schools can hardly be disputed, the attention and controversy that the mandate has attracted is emblematic of several aspects of the Indian schooling system, the policy implementing capacity of the state and the larger society in which these policies are placed.
A primary reason for the attention the mandate has attracted is that it threatens private enclaves of middle-class India in a manner that no other recent social policy has done. What should have been reserved for us as a matter of privilege because of our ability to pay for it seems to be being distributed as a matter of right to the “undeserving”. How will they cope with the high quality of education in these schools and the social and psychological pressures? There is surprisingly little questioning of the capability of the school itself. How good is a school that is not capable of including children without the privileged economic and social backgrounds that they usually serve and have built their reputations on?
In the midst of a debate that rages between supporters and critics of the mandate, we have a state that continues to “flail”. Having enacted a significant piece of legislation, it either chooses to implement it on a “pilot” basis (as was done in Gujarat till last year) or in fits and starts, like is currently being done in Maharashtra, where the govenment has gone back on its earlier stand that it would reimburse pre-primary education as well.
In a systematic review of rules and notifications issued by the state govenments to implement the mandate, we found that not even one state had provided complete and clear information on 21 processes we had identified as necessary for the mandate’s implementation. States such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan, which had creditably developed strong management information systems (MIS) to facilitate the implementation, had very limited awareness and outreach efforts to complement the technology investments, while many states remained silent on crucial aspects around reimbursements of pre-primary education and uniforms. The data available to assess the implementation was found to vary from sources within the govenment itself, leaving question marks on the state’s ability to monitor its own functioning.
Even if the state were to implement the mandate as desired, it cannot overcome the inequities that are a direct consequence of India’s failure to have a common schooling system. The private school response can at best address private needs. Nevertheless, it is important to get the state to act to fulfil its promise and begin to confront the inequities that define the Indian schooling system. It is for this purpose that some of us have been working as part of a Right to Education Resource Centre.
Over the two years we have worked, we have focused primarily in helping implement this particular RTE mandate. Prior to the year we started our work, only around 30 students had benefited from this mandate in Ahmedabad. Last year, this number had risen to approximately 1,800 applications and around 600 admissions. With more than 5,000 applications this year, we hope the numbers will further increase. The centre has been a platform that has brought together more than a hundred staff members and students from several academic institutions across the country to volunteer their time for this purpose and is starting to be replicated in other cities as well.
Our work exposes us to many stories of outright discrimination and deception, of parents being denied entry into the school premises even with all necessary documents and being rudely chided for believing that their children can study in such “good” schools. We have met parents deceived into signing papers withdrawing their child’s admission. Children admitted under the mandate have been made to sit separately on the ground, while others sat on the benches on the pretext that it kept them awake since they are not used to attending school.
However, we have also seen schools being proactive in implementing the mandate, engaging not only the children but also the parents. For instance, Riverside School in Ahmedabad has started helping the parents of children appear for examinations through the National Institute of Open Schooling, in addition to conducting home visits and English classes for the parents. While there is much that the govenment can do better, the success of the mandate will critically depend on how school leadership in private schools responds to it. The numbers are still few, but there are encouraging signs of school leaders beginning to see in the mandate an opportunity to fulfil their true roles as educationists and not just managers catering to paying customers.
Prejudices about the kind of schooling appropriate for the disadvantaged is sadly prevalent in many quarters of the govenment as well. But facilitating the implementation of the policy has also given us the opportunity to work with local govenment officials committed to helping these parents. Among other things, this has also enabled us to design ways of testing the effectiveness of various outreach strategies and understand the challenges in implementing public policy with a close lens.
Accessing constitutional rights for social upliftment still remains a challenge for groups with limited access to formal institutions but organizations such as the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat in Pune serve as examples for the role civil society mobilization can play. Finally, we have witnessed communities come together in getting their children ready for the first day in school and collectively seeing them off at the gates they might have otherwise never entered. There is little to guarantee that the children will be better off for having entered those gates, but there is no denying that they are at the forefront of a battle for making Indian society a more inclusive one.
Ankur Sarin is a faculty member of IIMA’s Public Systems Group. His work focuses on the consequences of social inequalities and the evaluation of efforts to counter them. Recently, he has been working on making the Right to Education an instrument not only for increased access to education, but also one that promotes a more inclusive education system.
This article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.