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Inclusive Education a Myth

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
13 May 2024
The Right to Education Act gives not only the right to dream but also the right to admission and access to such schools.

Picture this: Dhani Ram (name changed), a rickshaw puller in a metro city, wishes to enrol his two children in a school. "Mein nhi padh paya to kya hua… mere bache padh likh ke ache insaan banenge (I was not able to study, but I want my children to be educated and become better human beings)," he says. With this thought in mind, Dhani Ram enters a renowned private school to find out the fee he has to pay if he enrols his children there. "Rs. 2.5 lakh per annum," says the school coordinator, without looking at him.

Dhani Ram is in a state of shock! Yes, this private school, technically registered as a charitable institution and possibly getting exemptions under Sections 80G and 12A of the Income Tax Act, charges a fee of Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh annually, depending on the student's class.

Many would ask why Dhani Ram should even consider enrolling his children in such an expensive school when government schools offer free admission. In fact, children are also provided with mid-day meals and financial assistance for school uniforms and books!

The Right to Education Act gives not only the right to dream but also the right to admission and access to such schools. Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education Act, 2009, mandates all private unaided schools to reserve 25 per cent of seats for children from economically weaker sections of society. However, how many actually get access to such high-profile schools?

Well, the percentage varies from one state to another. There is a considerable variation, from 65 per cent of admissions in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir to 95 per cent in states like Kerala and Maharashtra in 2022-23. In fact, in a few places, a peculiar trend has been noticed. Instead of an increase in admissions under the EWS category back in 2019, there has been a dip in admissions year on year. Research shows that getting admission under the EWS quota is a cumbersome process.

Under the RTE Act, state governments are free to create their own rules and regulations. Some accept online applications, some have given schools the freedom to devise mechanisms, and some process them centrally at the Department of Education (DoE) level.

In many places, systems are not transparent at all. In fact, this provision has been exploited several times by privileged people who can produce fake income proofs, blocking places that could have gone to deserving students. Not only this but money is said to have exchanged hands for access to seats.

For example, in Dhani Ram's case, he might be forced to pay a premium for his children questionably just to ensure that they are enrolled in school for free, at least until Class VIII. As free education is only provided until 14 years of age, the moment his children get promoted to Class IX, Dhani Ram may be asked to pay a hefty fee for his children.

The provisions have been devised so that either parent must pay a hefty fee or leave the school. In fact, this happens when a child reaches one of the most crucial stages of their school life, where they need maximum support and guidance for choosing a career option.

However, even if parents can enrol their children under the EWS category, they struggle to make themselves comfortable in the school. In most cases, they are not treated on par with those from privileged backgrounds. Their learning outcomes do not match with the class. Language becomes a barrier. Their parents cannot support them academically or help them keep pace with other students in the class. In fact, data suggests a high probability of children dropping out of school! In other words, even if children from the EWS category manage to get admission to a private school, there is no guarantee that they will be able to fulfil the aim with which they sought admission.

Schools also face a problem getting the tuition fee reimbursed by state governments for admitting children under the EWS category. This provision was created to support schools and promote inclusion in the education system. Unfortunately, this clause's operation and practical implementation have not been smooth. A few state governments even issued notifications to scrap this provision. It was recently done in Maharashtra. Earlier, similar rules were brought in by Karnataka and Kerala.

A two-member Bench of the Bombay High Court stayed the February 9 notification, which exempted private unaided schools from admitting students under the Right to Education (RTE) quota if there is a government-run school within a one-kilometre radius. The division bench of Chief Justice D K Upadhyaya and Justice Arif Doctor said the issue concerned "overwhelming public interest" and that the impugned notification contravened the provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, also known as RTE.

The government also managed the application process. If a government school existed within one kilometre of the child's residence, the child would be enrolled only in that school.

This was undoubtedly a big blow to people like Dhani Ram, who would have easily enrolled his children in any government school without applying through the centralised system if he wanted his children to be enrolled in a government school. The court also observed that there has been a drastic fall in the number of children applying for admissions through this system. In other words, the notification certainly greatly affected families from economically weaker sections. Indeed, the ordinance was promulgated in the interest of private schools. The principle of the child's best interest was forgotten, much like the purpose for which the Right to Education Act was passed.

Governments should instead actively strengthen their systems, keeping the children at the centre. In fact, strategies should have been made to reduce the dropout rate, smoothen the admission process, and ease the financial burden of the schools with financial support. It would have certainly done justice to the entire ecosystem. A lot has to be done to achieve this end. However, it requires a strong political will to step into the shoes of the most vulnerable and tweak systems to support them so they can be brought to par with the privileged. This is a far cry given most state governments' mindset.

Returning to Dhani Ram and whether he can enrol his children in the private school of his dreams, the answer is only if Lady Luck is on his side.

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