Indifference towards RTE quota: Private school principals say “integration” of weaker section children is not possible

rte1By Counterview Desk

In a “critical discursive analysis”, two Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A) scholars, Ankur Sarin and Swati Gupta, have found that strong biases exist among school principals of private schools against the weaker section (WS) of society. Based on a sample survey of private school principals of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka and Uttarakhand, the study, titled “Quotas under RTE: Leading towards an egalitarian education system?”, says, “Equality of opportunity appears to be outside the rationalities that well-meaning private school principals inhabit.”

Pointing towards how 25 per cent quota for weaker sections in private schools – mandated by the Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009 – has “led to a resistance, which is justified in several ways”, the study says, this is happening at a time when “access to schooling for those coming of school age is close to becoming universal”. Calling RTE as “prima facie most progressive step … that mandates the provision of free and compulsory education to children between the ages of six and 14”, it adds, “The quotas for weaker sections under RTE seeks to set contours of this landscape”.

Suggesting why it is important to see how RTE is performing among private schools, the study quotes Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2013 study to say, “Most recent estimates of enrollment suggest that in 2012 over 35 per cent of all children are in private schools and that the annual growth rates in recent years has been around 10 percent. The numbers further suggest that their increased share is not simply because of faster growth of private schools but also a withdrawal from public schools.”

The scholars chose unaided recognized private schools for their survey, 17 per cent of whom charged an annual fee less than Rs 10,000 in the 10th standard, while 43 per cent charged more than Rs 30,000. The highest fee charged was Rs.1,84,000. Out of the total 36 schools, eight have been implementing quotas for weaker section children since more than a year and another eight have just begun to do it in the last year. Three schools plan to start it in the next academic year and 11 said that that they have not received any notification, while one said it was “exempted”.

Out of the 16 schools that claimed to have implemented RTE, three schools had allocated less than 15 per cent seats for weaker section children and two said that percentage of seats varied with the rest having allocated the required 25 per cent. Twelve schools said they did not receive any kind of reimbursement/ subsidy/ grant from either government or any private source, though under RTE the school is entitled to reimbursement of the fee and the child is entitled to reimbursements for books and uniform as per the mandate of the state.

The scholars of the study quoted school principals as saying that the quotas were being implemented with “no proper planning”, and were being forced upon then, “almost overnight, without any consultation or notification and leaving us struggling for proper information”. Comment the scholars, “Discontent on being reduced to passive participants was often accompanied by expressions of distrust and lack of confidence in state’s intentions and motives behind the policy.”

Interviews threw up interesting comments from principals, ranging from quotas being imposed “for their vote bank politics”, as an experimental policy “without understanding the reality”, to failure to understand the “damage it can cause to the child”.  One principal asked, “Why is the government implementing weaker section quota, when government schools are empty despite their teachers being paid the highest salaries?” Another saw quotas as “government’s attempt to dilute the standard of private schools as they have failed to improve the standard of their own schools.”

The bias against the weaker sections was particularly visible among principals when they said that “these children sap all the energy and resources of the school.” This despite the fact that, to quote the scholars, “the Act (clause 12 (2)) mandates the government to reimburse private schools an amount equal to either the per-child expenditure incurred by the state or the actual amount charged by the school, whichever is less.”

Pointing towards how principals think “this is clearly not enough”, the study quotes one principal as saying: “They (government) haven’t really thought through it. The government has left everything on the school. Who will pay for these 25 per cent children? Ultimately the parents of the fee-paying children and as the number of these 25 per cent children keeps increasing, there will be so much pressure on the parents of the paying children that it will be impossible to sustain 25 per cent non-fee-paying children.”

When the scholars asked principals to describe problems that they anticipated or were currently facing in integrating weaker sections of children, 46 per cent (16/35) said ‘financial constraints’ was a ‘major’ problem. “A similar proportion (14/34) likewise said that infrastructural constraints are also a ‘major’ problem. 82 per cent (28/34) principals said that government should bear the financial burden from imposition of quotas for weaker section students, with quite a few principals calculating the ‘loss’ that the school incurred due to admission of non-fee paying children”.

The bias was particularly evident when the scholars tried to find out the principals’ view of the academic competency of the weaker section children. “Although exceptions were often mentioned, during interviews principals often referred to weaker section children as ‘slow learners’.” Thus, “37 per cent (13/35) principals said that weaker section children are very often or always weak in studies and 43 per cent (15/35) believed that they lacked interest in studies”, the scholars say.

Since almost all schools used English as the medium of instruction, the scholars said, competence in language was considered a significant area of concern, with 77 per cent (27/35) principals believing that weaker section children have “difficulty in learning English, always or very often.” The scholars comment, “These and other reasons often served as explanations for the increased burden on teachers”. A principal is quoted as saying that “teachers are very troubled because of the weaker section children as they are slow learners as well as the most mischievous in the class.”

This increased “burden” was also attributed to lack of support at home. The scholars say, “77 per cent (27/35) principals said that weaker section children lack parental involvement and a similar number also believed that their family atmosphere is very often or always not conducive to studies.” Some principals asked, “How will the child cope (with the academic requirements)? We cannot take care of this child when he is at home”.

The scholars quote another principal as saying, “At present, our good children are suffering because weaker section children are slow and as a result teacher has to slow down the pace which means she is unable to finish the syllabus on time.” They comment, “This was a feeling echoed in our survey, where 61 per cent of principals felt that slowing down of the pace of the class as a result of inclusion of children would be a ‘major’ problem”.

Then, there was the view that the social distance that separates children belonging to weaker sections from their privileged counterparts is “unbridgeable”. The scholars say, “While some attributed this largely to social backgrounds of children being integrated, others more reflectively characterized the issue as ‘neither can they connect with us nor can we’. Some spoke about problems it creates for the class as whole, asking, ‘What if other children don’t want to sit with them? It brings disharmony to the class’.”

During the survey, 43 per cent (15/35) principals said that weaker section children “very often or always” have problem in relating to their classmates and a similar proportion felt the same about discipline related issues being a ‘major’ problem they anticipate from inclusion of weaker section children; and 31 per cent (11/35) felt that weaker section children use abusive language very often or always. A principal is quoted as saying, “They behave like hooligans and often engage in stealing and using abusive language. Our children don’t want to sit with them and our teachers come and cry in front of us because of them.”

The scholars quote one principal describing the type of “temptations created by integration would make thieves of the children being integrated.“ The principal said, “I will tell you – child from ‘low’ (poor) class steal things from their classmates, like notebook or pencil. The child feels that why can’t s/he buy such expensive stationary like others in the class. Then these children start stealing from classmates. This is how these children learn to steal which leads to big thefts when they grow up.” In fact, 25 per cent of the principals felt that weaker section children stole from classmates very often or always.

Among the “solutions” to the problems they listen, principals wanted a separate school should be created for the weaker section children “where teachers belonging to their background will be appointed and then they will flourish”, or alternatively “a separate afternoon/ parallel shift only for disadvantaged children as an alternate”. One of the principals said that his school was considering making a separate section for weaker section children for better classroom management. Another described having separate parents-teacher meetings, as “it is difficult to talk to them and it is better for other (fee-paying) parents.”

The scholars conclude that the study suggests it is “unrealistic” to hope that private actors would perform the task of implementing 25 per cent quote under RTE “on their own accord”.  The scholars insist, “To argue that disadvantaged children be kept in separate schools is an argument that can only be constructed on the grounds of protecting privileges that hitherto have remained unchallenged. Although limited, we do find some evidence that some educators perhaps are seeing quotas as an opportunity to enact their roles as social change makers.”

— Rajiv Shah

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