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Social Inclusion: Delhi Schools Show the Way

Although in most states of the Indian Union, implementation of s. 12 (1) (c) of the RTE Act is at best nominal, in the national capital territory of Delhi compliance is an astonishing 92 percent — the highest countrywide  Gagandeep Kaur

Five years after the historic Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act) became law in 2010, its hotly contested s.12 (1) (c), which requires private independent and aided schools countrywide to admit underprivileged children from poor households in their neighbourhood to the extent of 25 percent of capacity in class I and retain them until completion of elementary education (class VIII), continues to be mired in chaos and controversy and has substantially failed to achieve its objective.

For a start, in Society for Unaided Schools of Rajasthan vs. Union of India (Writ Petition (c) No. 95 of 2010), the majority judgement of a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court exempted minority (and boarding) schools from the purview of s.12 (1) (c), taking a substantial number of much-prized ‘convent’ or missionary primary schools out of the reach of socio-economically disadvantaged households. Since then there’s been considerable confusion about which schools qualify for minority status with a large number of school managements claiming exemption on the basis of language and/or religious affiliations of promoters.

Controversy has also arisen over the ambit of ‘neighbourhood’ and the word ‘weaker section and disadvantaged group’. Given this definitional and other uncertainty about eligibility for s.12 (1) (c) admissions, it’s unsurprising that compliance is abysmal.

According to State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (c), a nationwide study conducted jointly by IIM-Ahmedabad, the Delhi-based Central Square Foundation, Accountability Initiative and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, of the estimated 2.1 million seats in private schools available to children of EWS (economically weaker sections) households countrywide, only 610,000 (29 percent) have been filled. The 150-page report says that the RTE Rules and notifications framed by state governments to give effect to s.12 (1) (c) are ambiguous and discretionary with wide disparity in compliance across states. Compliance varies between a dismal 0.1 percent in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha (1 percent) and Uttar Pradesh (2 percent) and a modest 11.25 percent in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra (19.35 percent), and 25.5 percent in Karnataka (see box p.90).

But although in most states implementation of s.12 (1) (c) is at best nominal, in Delhi state described as the ‘national capital territory of Delhi’, compliance with the mandate of s.12 (1) (c) is an astonishing 92 percent — the highest countrywide. In the academic year 2013-14, of the 38,297 seats available in the national capital’s non-minority 2,272 private schools, 35,264 were allotted to EWS children. Moreover, Delhi state is awarded the maximum (14) ‘green reviews’ on 21 criteria listed by the study as preconditions of successful implementation of s.12 (1) (c) (see box p.95).

“The Directorate of Education (Delhi) is of the view that the RTE Act is being ‘successfully implemented’. They feel that the EWS policy has been accepted in its proper spirit by the private school managements and there is no discrimination amongst the pupils and the goal of social assimilation is in fact being met,” writes Shailaja Chandra, former chief secretary of the Delhi state government, in an essay in State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (c).

After the RTE Act, 2009 became operational on April 1, 2010, the Delhi state government was the first to enact the Delhi RTE Rules 2011. Subsequently, the state’s directorate of education issued detailed guidelines for admission of EWS children under s.12 (1) (c) including thorough definitions of eligibility, selection and admission criteria. With the demand for admission into Delhi’s non-minority private schools by far exceeding supply, all s.12 (1) (c) admissions are determined by lottery supervised by a representative of the directorate with the proceedings videographed and monitored by a District Admission Monitoring Committee. The tuition fee of poor neighbourhood children admitted under s. 12 (1) (c) is paid by the State (government) which has a limited obligation to reimburse private schools fees equivalent to the per student expenditure incurred in its own schools.

“Delhi has done well in transparently defining s.12 (1) (c) admissions criteria. In our State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (c) study, it has got ‘green’ reviews for clarity in defining eligibility and documentation required, information outreach/awareness, selection process, and grievance mechanism. The one area where it has received a ‘red’ review is in transparency of reimbursement provision where proper guidelines haven’t been issued. Clear definition of the admissions process by the state government and relatively high public awareness has contributed to 92 percent of s.12 (1) (c) seats being filled in Delhi.

Moreover, Delhi has a history of social integration and EWS quotas in private schools. Some private schools were admitting EWS students even before the RTE Act came into force, so s.12 (1) (c) didn’t come as a shock. But admitting RTE quota children is only the first step. Delhi’s private schools are struggling to teach a heterogeneous group of students,” says Praveen Khanghta, an alumnus of National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra and Ashoka University and programme manager of the Delhi-based Central Square Foundation (estb.2012 by former venture capitalist Ashish Dhawan; corpus: Rs.50 crore).

The pre-RTE Act history of EWS quotas can be traced back to the 1970s-80s when 266 private schools in Delhi were allotted land sites at below market price by the government-promoted Delhi Development Authority (DDA), on condition they provide free of charge education to children of weaker sections by reserving 15-25 percent of seats for them. However, the pre-RTE Act history of EWS quotas also records that after taking possession of DDA plots at concessional prices, for almost two decades most of them failed to honour their commitment towards EWS children.

In 2002, education activist Ashok Aggarwal, promoter-trustee of Social Jurist, a Delhi-based NGO, filed a public interest litigation writ (Social Jurist vs. Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi & Ors (CW No.3156 of 2002)) in the Delhi high court praying for an order directing private schools to comply with the terms of their contract. In January 2004, the Delhi high court upheld the PIL and ordered the state government to compile a list of errant private schools and submit it to DDA, which was directed to take action against them for breach of contract. With the court, government and media turning the heat on them, private schools, which had availed concessional land grants, had to fall in line and admit EWS children. Consequent to the enactment of the RTE Act, 2009, which superseded the Delhi high court order, these private schools increased their EWS quotas to 25 percent as mandated by s.12 (1) (c).

“The landmark 2004 high court judgement forced private schools in Delhi to fulfil their contractual obligation. It also began the country’s first social inclusion initiative in school education. So when the RTE Act came into force in 2010, most private schools in Delhi accepted it as an extension of the previous arrangement. This is one of the main reasons for the implementation success of s.12 (1) (c) in Delhi. Moreover, the number of minority schools — exempted from the ambit of s.12 (1) (c) by the Supreme Court — is a mere 40 in the national capital,” says Aggarwal.

Consequently when the RTE Act was unanimously passed by Parliament in August 2009, an estimated 394 private schools in Delhi including the top-ranked Vasant Valley, Mother’s International, Mirambika, Bloom Public School among others, which had availed the DDA/state government’s land price concession and were already admitting EWS children, found it easy to accept the mandate of s.12 (1) (c).

According to Ashutosh Batta, director-principal of the CBSE-affiliated Bloom Public School, Vasant Kunj (estb.1996), the DDA-mandated EWS quota had to a large extent prepared the ground for successful implementation of s.12 (1) (c). “Following the high court’s order of 2004, we were already admitting EWS students before the RTE Act came into force. The school management and teachers were trained and equipped to teach underprivileged children — most of them first generation learners — and integrate them into the school’s ecosystem. Therefore it’s easier for us to comply with the requirements of s.12 (1) (c).

Our teachers, students and parents had already accepted classroom diversity and adapted to the change,” says Batta. Currently the co-ed Bloom Public School has an enrolment of 1,317 students including 197 from economically weaker sections.

With their six years of pre-RTE Act experience of admitting and managing EWS students, Delhi’s private schools have been more accepting than their peers elsewhere of underprivileged children, as they have had a headstart in innovating pedagogies and practices to academically and socially integrate them into their classrooms. In the city-state’s 2,272 CBSE/CISCE-affiliated English-medium private schools, the greatest challenge for managements and teachers was — and remains — making EWS students English proficient.

"inadequate English language skills is a major problem because unlike general category students, EWS children don’t have home learning support as their parents tend to be unfamiliar with English. In Tagore International, we have fallen back on the ancient Indian tradition of peer-to-peer learning and appointed class X students as mentors to teach classes I-VI EWS children. As part of the National Social Service programme, student mentors stay back after school three days a week and help quota children with English communication and homework,” says Madhulika Sen, principal of Tagore International School, Vasant Vihar, which has admitted 34 EWS children in kindergarten this April.

Under-developed English language skills and inadequate parental support are not the only hurdles impeding the progress of EWS students admitted into private schools. Another major challenge is integrating them emotionally and socially with children from middle and upper middle class households. Several school principals interviewed for this story report they are tackling this challenge through counselling sessions, etiquette classes, sensitisation of general category students, among other initiatives.

For instance the CBSE-affiliated Laxman Public School, Hauz Khas, has disallowed birthday celebrations on campus to “equalise the school environment”. “It’s easier to improve the academic performance of EWS students than to integrate them socially. We have EWS children who are in the Top 5 in their classes in maths and science. But helping them fit in with their classmates is the bigger challenge. That’s why we have introduced special etiquette and manners classes, and conduct orientation workshops for their parents while simultaneously sensitising our teachers and students to disadvantaged children,” says Dr. Usha Ram, principal of Laxman Public School (estb.1978), ranked among Delhi’s Top 20 co-ed day schools in the latest EW India School Rankings 2015.

But even as Delhi’s private schools offer a good example of RTE implementation to primaries countrywide, slapdash and often contradictory provisions of the hastily-drafted RTE Act are impeding efforts to implement it in letter and spirit. Under s.12 (1) (2) of the iniquitous RTE Act, the “appropriate government” is obliged to reimburse private schools the tuition fees of EWS children limited to the per child expenditure incurred by it in its own schools. In Delhi state, the reimbursement averages Rs.14,280 per student per year whereas the tuition fees of private unaided schools range from Rs.50,000-2 lakh per annum. Moreover, for reasons of fairness and equity, most private schools also incur additional expense for providing uniforms, books, excursions, extra-curricular activities, etc to EWS children.

“We stage numerous events and activities every year, the expense of which is not covered by tuition fees. EWS students would be left out of these activities because their parents can’t afford the expense, and therefore it has to be borne by us. In Ahlcon International, we include EWS children in all activities to the extent we can. Full credit for implementing s.12 (1) (c) in Delhi should go to private schools and not the government,” says Ashok Pandey, principal of the CBSE-affiliated Ahlcon International School which currently hosts a cohort of 300 EWS children in classes I-VIII.

Though Delhi schools provide a model of s.12 (1) (c) compliance, the state government’s partial fees reimbursement record is just the opposite. Unlike the Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan state governments which promptly reimburse the partial tuition fees payable by them for s.12 (1) (c) students, the Delhi state government has failed to pay private school managements even one year’s tuition fee determined by it as Rs.14,280 per student per annum. “Thus far, our member schools haven’t been reimbursed the tuition fee of even the first batches of EWS children admitted. With our tuition fees already regulated by the state government and costs of development and maintenance constantly rising, many private unaided schools are struggling to accommodate and fully integrate EWS children,” admits R.C. Jain, president of the Delhi State Public Schools Management Association (estb.1992) which has a membership of 800 private schools in Delhi.

It’s not just private school managements which are confronted with academic, financial and integration challenges. Parents of children admitted into private schools under s.12 (1) (c) are equally at sea with the Act having pushed their children, accustomed to dysfunctional government schools, into classrooms of elite private schools. “My son Veer was admitted into the nursery of DPS, Vasant Vihar under the RTE quota last year. Every day when I see him in his uniform, my heart swells with pride, but I am uncomfortable that when we meet his teacher she talks with everybody else in English, but to us in Hindi. But overall, it has been a good experience and I have learnt to ignore small slights for the good of our son,” says Ashok Bhadoniya, a gardener with a monthly income of Rs.8,000.

It’s still early days in DPS for Veer. However some EWS parents whose children have completed three-four years of primary schooling complain that private school teachers don’t make the extra effort to help their children cope with the curriculum. Therefore they have to often hire private tutors to enable their wards to understand and figure out what’s taught in class. “My son Shubh is in class IV and can’t understand the teacher who speaks in English. That’s why we are sending him for private tuition from 2-7 p.m daily, for which we pay Rs.1,500 monthly. We also struggle to meet his holiday homework expenses. We cannot really afford a tutor but he is our only child and we are working overtime to ensure he gets a good English-medium school education,” says Madhavi Das, a 27-year-old house-helper who earns Rs.7,000 per month and has admitted her son under s.12 (1) (c) in a prominent private school in South Delhi — the name of which she prefers not to disclose.

On the obverse side, the ill-conceptualised RTE Act, which offloads the State’s constitutional obligation to provide all children below 14 years of age free and compulsory education (Article 45) on to private schools, has generated ill-concealed exasperation within India’s upwardly mobile middle class which avoids the dysfunctional government K-12 system like the plague. Suddenly s.12 (1) (c) has forced ill-educated government school students into their children’s classrooms, threatening to level down teaching-learning standards.

Uniquely for the past 68 years, post-independence India has made do with a three-tier school system. Children of the rich and upper middle class attend English-medium schools affiliated with the upscale CISCE, CBSE and international (IBO/CIE) examination boards which offer globally benchmarked syllabuses and curriculums. Next in the pecking order are English-medium government-aided schools affiliated with state examination boards in which the children of the country’s lower middle-class families are schooled. And at the bottom are the run down and poorly managed state and local government schools which force questionable quality education in under-developed vernacular languages down the unprotesting throats of the poorest of the poor.

Unsurprisingly, mid-dle-class parents are rattled by the re-engineering of the three-tier school system and express doubts about the workability of s.12 (1) (c). “Though I really do not have any major objection to EWS students studying in private schools, the fact remains that they do find it extremely difficult to cope with what’s going on in class. My daughter tells me they use abusive words, which I had to report to the class teacher… I am not sure if it is workable,” says Manisha Singh, a media professional whose daughter Diya is a general category student of Springdales School, Delhi.

According to RTE activists, pressure from full-fees paying parents has prompted private school managements to neglect EWS children in their classrooms. There have been several media reports of EWS students being made to sit separately in class and denied participation in extra-curricular activities. “Neither private school managements nor fees-paying parents are happy to admit children under s.12 (1) (c), and therefore are doing the bare minimum. The problem is private schools know there won’t be any repercussions if they don’t admit EWS students and/or discriminate against them,” says Ambarish Rai, the Delhi-based convenor of RTE Forum, a national coalition of over 10,000 NGOs, educationists and social activists.

And as post-independence India’s licence-permit-quota regime for industry has proven, subsidies, quotas and discretionary laws breed corruption. In May, Delhi police unearthed a major racket under which s.12 (1) (c) seats in private schools were being marketed by crooked middlemen to non-poor parents anxious to get their children admitted into top-ranked schools which prescribe demanding entrance exams for non-quota children. According to police sources, a gang of six members was allegedly providing forged income certificates to ineligible parents and had a network of accomplices working in private schools as well as in 33 citywide offices of sub-divisional magistrates who issue income certificates.

Comments S.K. Bhattacharya, managing committee secretary of Bal Bharati School, Delhi and president of the Action Committee for Unaided Recognised Private Schools (estb.1997), an umbrella organisation of six associations of private schools in Delhi: “Fraudulent admissions have been going on for the past three-four years without any government action. The state government has been very casual about implementing the RTE Act rigorously.”

Yet perhaps the biggest grouse of non-minority school managements in Delhi, indeed countrywide, is that instead of driving up standards and raising learning outcomes in public schools to bridge the quality gap which separates government from private schools, Union and state education ministry officials seem to be focused on implementing s.12 (1) (c) in privately promoted independent schools. “While we are doing the best we can to educate and integrate s.12 (1) (c) children, there’s a greater obligation on state and municipal governments to raise government schools to the level of private schools instead of shifting the burden on to us. As things stand today, there seems to be no accountability of government to fulfil its obligation and improve the pathetic condition of public schools, while private schools are held strictly to account for implementing s.12 (1) (c),” says Madhulika Sen, principal of Tagore International School.

Indeed three years after the apex court by a split 2-1 verdict upheld the constitutional validity of s. 12 (1) (c) in Unaided Schools of Rajasthan vs. Union of India while exempting minority schools from its ambit, there’s widespread resentment within middle class India about the State passing on its obligation of providing all children free and compulsory education to private schools, even if partially. But there’s a national consensus that the Delhi state and municipal governments have done a better job of implementing s. 12 (1) (c) than any other state or local government, and that its private schools have done well to innovate systems and practices to integrate EWS children socially and academically into their classrooms.

“Delhi’s private schools which have recorded the highest s.12 (1) (c) compliance rates in the country have a unique opportunity to emerge as social inclusion role models. Social inclusion requires sensitisation and training of the teachers and middle class parents’ communities. State governments also need to stop being confrontational and draw up transparent rules to create diversified classrooms and provide timely reimbursement of tuition fees. Delhi’s private schools have shown that socially inclusive classrooms which result in better citizens are possible,” says Praveen Khanghta of the Central Square Foundation.

Now as the constitutional propriety of s. 12 (1) (c) has been validated by the Supreme Court, it would be advisable for the country’s private non-minority primary/elementary schools to follow the inclusion model of Delhi’s private schools. Eight years of learning and playing with a small number of underprivileged children from disadvantaged households might arouse the qualities of empathy, compassion and equity for the poor majority, which India’s acquisitive middle class so conspicuously lacks.

With Summiya Yasmeen

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