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Is this a new dawn for kids?

Thursday, 23 May 2013 10:53 Written by 

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Is this a new dawn for kids?

As the first day of school approaches, thousands of underprivileged city children will occupy free seats at private schools for the first time, thanks to the Right to Education Act. How will they fare?


An Urdu medium school stands on the edge of a perfectly square garbage dump in the Devasandra ward of KR Puram. It’s a government school, scorned by parents in this low-income neighbourhood for neglecting the most basic needs of their children. Kindergarten kids must walk all the way home to relieve themselves because the school keeps the toilet locked. Drinking water is unavailable. Mid-day meals feature rice laden with pebbles, bottle shards or frisky worms. Teachers periodically disappear for “training,” and if they do come to work, appear detached and indifferent.

 

“Even if the children are fighting and the blood is dripping, the teacher will sit quietly and chit-chat,” says Zainab*, a 35-year-old mother who sends two daughters to this school. She also sent an elder son to a local Kannada medium government school, which she says wasn’t much better. But the choices were limited for this BPL cardholding Muslim family, which must pay Rs 5 daily for two plastic pots of water and can’t afford to fix a busted TV. As the wife of a scrap-metal collector who earns about Rs 250 a day—on the days he gets work—Zainab figured that private schools were beyond her reach.

 

Now, however, her fourth child is getting ready for his first day in the first standard in a different sort of place. He was granted a free seat at Little Bloom, a nearby private English medium school that offers computers, abacus lessons and karate classes for six-year olds. Not to mention drinking water, bathrooms, and teachers who actually show up.

 

For Zainab, the news was exhilarating. “All three of my older children have been suffering. At least the younger one should be happy and get a good education,” she says. Along with many parents, she is convinced that exposure to English will lead to a solid job.

 

Nothing illustrates the failure of Bangalore’s public schools more vividly than the radiant smile of a mother whose child has just gained entry to private school. Of course, there are a vast range of private schools in this city, and the obscure Little Bloom would rank way down on the list when compared to big shots like National Public School or Stonehill. Socially, too, Little Bloom may not be a daunting stretch for Zainab’s son. His cousin already attends the same school, born to a family more prosperous than his own. With Class One fees running to Rs 15,000 annually, the place tends to attract a variety of lower-middle class families. The new boy will not be vaulting into the ranks of an institution where children are given Nike sneakers in every color of the rainbow and spirited off to Singapore on holiday.

 

Will Little Bloom really offer Zainab’s son an admirable education? It’s too early to say. Plenty of private schools in Bangalore suffer from underpaid and mediocre teachers, dodgy English and inadequate infrastructure.

 

Still, the mere promise of a decent classroom environment and a modest measure of social mobility means the world to parents like Zainab. Such expectations lie at the heart of controversial Section 12 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, known as RTE. The crucial clause—which has almost come to represent the Act itself in the public’s mind—requires 25 per cent of an incoming class to be granted free seats, with limited reimbursement by the government. The Act was passed by Parliament in August, 2009, but its validity was questioned by a petition filed in the Supreme Court by a lobbying organisation for private schools. The Court upheld the Act in April, 2012, but since the verdict came too close to the beginning of the school year, not many applications were filed under it.

 

This will be the first year in which Section 12 will be seriously implemented in Bangalore, compelling 2,450 private institutions across the city to offer free entry-level seats in UKG or first standard to children who fulfil certain criteria as underprivileged. Kids whose parents earn less than Rs 3.5 lakh a year, or fall into the category of SC/ST and OBC, are eligible. Despite various obstacles, more than 36,000 applications have been filed in Bangalore. The final tally of seats remains uncertain. While the first round of the selection process was completed in most schools by March or April, the education department has permitted a second round up to May 30, prompting a fresh combination of hope, anxiety, and paperwork on the cusp of a new school year.

 

In fact, RTE covers a wide range of subjects related to improving schools: it bans corporal punishment, sets standards for the teacher-pupil ratio, and outlaws child labour, just to name a few provisions.

 

But the 25 per cent rule has caused the most tumult, mainly because it seems to propose a couple of radical ideas. The first is that society needs to make a concerted effort to reduce social stratification by encouraging kids to mix as early as primary school. The second is that the state has the right to intervene in the management of private schools, which previously had thrived without much regulation at all.

 

Jittery educators and parents want to know: are these ideas practical? Or will they lead to financial ruin for schools, greater vulnerability to state corruption and reduced academic standards? Will they produce a bunch of kids traumatised by their wealthier peers? Will officials abandon all interest in improving government schools? Such dramatic questions are being raised against the stark backdrop of state schools closing down, a rush for private education, and waning support for Kannada as a medium of instruction.

 

CHALLENGING HIERARCHY

 

The 25 per cent rule does have its fair share of supporters, who cite the need for more meaningful social integration in the city, and India as a whole. Clearly, Bangalore’s real estate industry—with full support of the civic authorities—has exacerbated class distinctions by financing a rash of high-rise apartments and gated communities, while largely ignoring the need for well-planned low-cost housing. In this context, the RTE clause could help buck the trend of increasing social segregation.

 

“It’s a master stroke,” says Sudhir Krishnaswamy, a lawyer who works with both the Azim Premji Foundation and the Center for Law and Policy Research. “The immediate project is to get children into a safe space where they interact with each other and learn what it takes to make a society. We need to learn this in a new way. Our traditional way is hierarchical, feudal and violent.”

 

Krishnaswamy helped write a brief submitted to the Supreme Court on RTE. Although minority-run institutions would still be exempt, due to Constitutional protections (see box), the landmark Supreme Court decision made it clear that other schools must comply. That led to a flurry of meetings this year between Block Education Officers (BEOs), cluster resource persons, child rights activists, outreach workers, private school board members and confused parents. Each school was expected to process its own applications, submitting the pupils’ names to the BEO for a final check of documents. If the number of applicants exceeded the number of seats, the rules called for a lottery at the school.

 

Throughout the process, much criticism has been levelled at the taluk revenue officers, or Tahsildars. They have been widely accused of collecting bribes of Rs 1,000 or more for processing certificates that specify income and caste, which must be included in RTE applications. (BPL cards were not accepted as sufficient proof.) Which was worse—that such officials allegedly squeezed so many miserably poor parents, or provided fake certificates to some undeserving parents whose real income exceeded RTE limits? In south Bangalore, for example, the Yashasvi International School has refused to accept any RTE children because its management insists that parents are simply not as poor as the paperwork claims. Yet the local BEO fumes that schools don’t have power to judge the veracity of the certificates.

 

Meanwhile, both education officials and school managements express dismay over the rule that all SC/ST parents would be eligible to apply for seats, regardless of their income levels. Could it be fair to allow children of IBM executives or IAS officers to partake of free education under RTE? “I think the ‘creamy layer’ is working the 25 per cent rule to its advantage,” says Vikas Maniar, head of In School Programmes at the Akshara Foundation. Meanwhile, many low-income parents remained oblivious to the new opportunity. Notices were generally posted inside the private schools, past the forbidding security guards.

 

For some genuinely poor mothers, the problem came down to lack of a cell phone. A resident of a slum community off JC Road, 31-year old Sangeeta, recounted how she took a bus to Yelahanka twice and waited for hours at the Tahsildar’s office. But the day an official came to her home to verify the information and hand over the certificates, she was out working, separating waste. While other parents were alerted to the home visit by phone, Sangeeta was clueless. Finally she returned to Yelahanka and got the documents and rushed to file an application. But she was two days late, and the application was rejected. “I was so sad,” recalls Sangeeta. “I cried.”

 

Now she plans to borrow money to send her six-year-old son to an aided school. Her neighbour, Annapurna, avoided loans by securing an RTE seat at Chennamma Memorial School for her daughter Lavanya, all dressed up in a pretty pink dress and silver anklets. For help with filling out the application, Annapurna turned to a staffer from Radio Active, a community radio station with a 15-km radius. “It’s good the government has done something for us,” says the mother, married to a man who earns Rs 5,000 a month at a printing press.

 

This raises one aspect of RTE that is rarely discussed: its potential to liberate some low-income parents from the grip of moneylenders. These days, many Bangalore parents will do anything to avoid sending their children to government schools—even risk the wrath of debtcollectors.

 

SHOW THEM THE MONEY

 

KP Gopalkrishna has his own set of financial worries. As head of a network of 12 prestigious National Public Schools across the city, he has agreed to accept six RTE children in each. Yet the 72-year-old chairman derides the state’s maximum compensation of Rs 11,848 a student as “peanuts” and predicts economic doom for the private sector. Fees at NPS range from Rs 75,000 to 95,000 a year.

 

Education officials understand that this rate of compensation—which applies to all schools that admit RTE applicants — does not match what the top schools (and the regular fee-paying parents) are actually investing per pupil. Palakshaiah, a consultant for the education department’s RTE cell, concedes the cost per student for schools is much higher in Bangalore. He explains that an “average” cost had to be fixed throughout the state, for the sake of parity. “We can’t discriminate on the refund to rural and urban schools. We are not ready for that inequality. All children will flock to the city,” he argues.

 

Gopalkrishna’s forebodings extend to the social realm. “All these children don’t even have food at home. Do you think they will sit and study? They will not,” he insists. “The underprivileged children will come in without a bath. Then the other children will say, ‘there is a smell.’ That is called social incompatibility.”

 

He warms to his argument. “God has not created everybody equal. God has created people at different levels,” he says. Some children belong in government schools, he explains, and it is the state’s responsibility to improve those schools. Yes, some relatively disadvantaged children who obtained NPS scholarships in previous years did manage to go on to become doctors and engineers, Gopalkrishna acknowledges. But he believes this was achieved because the school could decide on its own who was worthy of a scholarship.

 

GETTING ALONG

 

Not everyone buys this “social incompatibility” argument. Shashikala Arun speaks from experience. As principal of the CBSE section of Mahila Seva Samaja, a school founded in Basavangudi in 1913 to enhance the education of women (it has since gone co-ed), she was delighted to see her institution join the band of early-bird schools that began implementing the 25 per cent rule in 2012-2013. Sixteen RTE children got seats last year; this year the number will rise to 28. Parents of these children typically work as street vendors, construction workers, or identify as SC/ST, she says. But the school mainly attracts middle-class parents, including IPS officers and engineers. The airy campus features tennis courts and computer labs, and also offers instruction in yoga and anger management.

 

“We like the RTE,” says Shashikala. “When we talk about abolishing poverty, why can’t we do something that’s in our hands?”

 

She views private school operators who have resisted the 25 per cent rule as “creating unnecessary drama”. Last year, she reports, socialising among the fiveyear- olds was not a problem. A few kids were initially prone to crying jags, but a little counselling soothed them. For the first few months, they did not come to school as well-scrubbed as the other children, but then the parents started taking more care with their appearance.

 

In terms of learning, some of the RTE children needed extra help with the alphabet and English vocabulary. So the kindergarten teachers worked with them for two periods in the afternoons, even though they received no extra pay. Soon, their efforts paid off. “They are smart, actually,” notes Arun. “In the second half of the year, they managed very well.”

 

She is also optimistic about the RTE’s role in promoting social integration. For now, the kids are too small to understand that they are flag-bearers for inclusive education. “First, they should develop a good rapport,” says the principal. “By class three or class four, they should know that all are equal and live in a democratic nation.”

 

Within the sanctum of the city’s most elite private schools—where basketball courts and swimming pools augment academics— there are also some goodwill efforts underway. At Mallya Aditi International School in Yelahanka, 46- year-old kindergarten teacher Rekha Chari volunteered to spend summer afternoons helping the five-year-old daughter of a widowed anganwadi teacher get comfortable before school starts in June. They played Snakes and Ladders, and practiced colours, vegetables and numbers in English. Chari also helped the little girl learn how to use the Western toilet at school, since she was only familiar with the Indian-style loo at home.

 

“I’m sure that the kids will accept her. In UKG, she’ll be fine,” Chari predicts. The school principal, Sathish Jayarajan, is also looking for ways to make the transition smoother. He has convinced several wealthy parents to sponsor the fees of a few RTE children until graduation, so that he won’t need to raise fees more than 10 per cent across the board. (Kindergarten now costs a cool Rs 2.1 lakh at Mallya Aditi.) He also plans to ask parents to tone down the lavish birthday parties hosted outside. And instead of elaborate cakes brought to school to mark a special day, a simple piece of candy should suffice.

 

“For five-year-olds, you need more sensitisation of parents, rather than children,” he observes.

 

Jayarajan adds that he is also willing to work with an NGO next year to canvas the neighbourhood and spread awareness so that more parents apply.

 

Across town in Devasandra, for example, outreach workers from a group called APSA helped Zainab and other mothers secure a total of 22 seats in their locality. While Mallya Aditi offered eight RTE seats this year, six seats will go empty due to lack of applications. Education officials say the remaining seats may not be given to feepaying parents.

teachers

OPEN DOORS Shashikala Arun (second from left), Principal of the CBSE section of Mahila Seva Samaja
school in Basavangudi, is among those welcoming RTE

 

LESSONS FOR TEACHERS 

 

It doesn’t take repeated readings of Lord of the Flies to know that children can be cruel to each other. The Supreme Court can’t wipe out a poor child’s feelings of disappointment of not being able to host sleepover parties like another classmate, or not having a trendy tiffin box. Yet it is also unrealistic to think that children in modern India expect economic parity. Every day, they see TV ads for foods and products they can’t afford, or serials featuring families living in fancy houses. That doesn’t mean that they can’t bond with a child from a different background. There could be some social frostiness, and even dropouts. Yet it is also possible to envision a host of friendships that will flourish, over time.

 

In kindergarten at the Indus International School, for example, several blonde expat kids became visibly close buddies with Indian children admitted last year under RTE. Apoorva Saini, head of the primary school, describes the integration process as "really smooth." This top-end institution happily accepted eight RTE pupils last year and will welcome 11 more this year. Within India, Saini expects that broad support for the initiative will gather momentum. “I think it will be a rolling stone,” she says. “When people see there is such a thing as equalising the playing field and providing opportunities, the mindset will undergo a change.”

 

For now, much of the success or failure of the 25 per cent initiative would seem to rest on the shoulders of kindergarten and Class One teachers across the city. Will they show the dedication displayed by Chari or the squad at Mahila Seva Samaja? Or will they allow impatience to seep out, with a dismissive tone or a volley of harsh words?

 

What many people don’t realise about RTE is that it strives to teach teachers, not just students. A gradual influx of disadvantaged children, starting at the entry level, “can allow the school to develop the professional capacity to respond to the intellectual and emotional needs of children from diverse backgrounds,” says a report issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in Delhi.

 

Bangalore will be waiting for its own RTE report card. Welcome to the first day of school.

 school

*RTE parents/children’s names have been changed to protect their anonymity

Read 663 times Last modified on Monday, 27 May 2013 11:08

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