Despite a lot of fuss and noise, the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandate of private schools reserving 25 per cent of their seats at the entry level for students belonging to disadvantaged sections, is yet to take off meaningfully in Chennai.

Some schools say they already admit “poor children”. Others claim no one came enquiring. Despite a lot of fuss and noise, the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandate of private schools reserving 25 per cent of their seats at the entry level for students belonging to disadvantaged sections, is yet to take off meaningfully in Chennai.

First, those parents who need to know about the clause have not been told very much about it. Many, including a section of highly respected educationists, spent a lot of time and effort emphasising that this clause ought to be implemented, with their rationale often assuming a tone that sought to cajole the middle class. Their arguments told middle class parents that this RTE Act clause brought with it certain pedagogic benefits for their children. Children from disadvantaged sections were even made out to be an exotic addition to posh classrooms, as they brought with them unique ‘cultural riches’ that were likely to add value to the educational experience of their counterparts from privileged backgrounds.

But, the government did little to create awareness of this clause among those sections that need to know. Many from disadvantaged and economically weaker sections, who might qualify for admission to private schools now, still do not know of such a provision. A few parents, who got to know from their employers or through NGOs, and made an attempt, are not motivated to pursue it after some schools told them that there were no vacancies. Sounding pessimistic, a parent told me: “These schools will not let people like us in.”

Second, the State government’s rules drafted to implement the Act effectively allow for a certain dilution of this clause. As per Tamil Nadu’s rules for implementation of the Act, a child whose parent or guardian’s annual income is less than Rs. 2 lakh can be admitted under the category ‘weaker section’. The ‘disadvantaged group’ comprises students belonging to SC, ST, BC, MBC categories, children living with HIV/AIDS, children with disabilities, children of scavengers and those of belonging to the transgender community.

The RTE Act speaks of ‘children belonging to weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood’, Tamil Nadu’s rules seem to have interpreted it as ‘weaker section or disadvantaged group’, signalling that private schools could admit students from either of the categories. And some schools are doing exactly that – simply admitting students from ‘disadvantaged groups’. These children, unlike those who qualify under the ‘economically weaker section’ category, do not get a fee reimbursement from the government and have to pay the fee like all other children. In effect, education will still be out of reach for those children whom this clause sought to include.

Third, the ambiguity around the concept of a neighbourhood school continues. The head of a CBSE school observed that her school was not obliged to admit children from economically weaker or disadvantaged sections if there was a government or a local body school in the neighbourhood. But, she did not have an answer to the question “Who checks if there is a school?” A recent Madras High Court Order also points to this, in which Justice K. Chandru observed that the RTE Act was not clear as to what constitutes a neighbourhood school. Another school head has a few vacant seats reserved, but does not know how long she should keep them, in the absence of any application.

The school education department has to clarify these points, if it is committed to taking the Act beyond the stage of issuing GOs and drafting rules.