The 25 per cent quota in all schools envisaged by the RTE has created a big debate

Do upper middle class people in a city believe that the quality of their child's education is compromised when they share classroom space with the children of construction labourers or domestic workers?

This fundamental question is at the heart of the heated debate on a clause in the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2010, which decrees that schools across the board, including those who carry the exclusive and elite tag, will have to reserve 25 per cent of their seats for children from less-privileged sections of their locality.

The circular sent to parents by Bethany High School last week — warning that “once this Act is enforced, a child could beat up your child, smoke on the campus, misbehave with a girl or a teacher and the school will have to watch helplessly” — articulated the “us” and “them” divide using a language that brazenly assumes that the poor intrinsically have low intelligence and a criminal bent of mind.

But a sense of discomfort, if not outrage, about mingling of classes within the classroom is pervasive even among those who say that the “spirit of the Bill is noble”. The principal of a school in Banashankari, who did not wish to be named, said: “We do not have a problem per se though it will hit us financially. But parents fear that their children might pick up bad language and habits from the other children.”

However, there is also a section of parents willing to turn the argument on its head. Amresh Das, a businessman whose son goes to a school in Cantonment area, asks: “Just as my son learns from his classmates, don't his classmates learn from him?” In fact, a classroom that reflects the diversity in society is a healthier learning atmosphere, he adds. “It is ridiculous to say that children from rich families have the best of habits and speak clean language!”

On the other hand, what will this situation, where 75 per cent of children in a class pay for their seats, mean for the child who is in school under reservation? For instance, the government is supposed to provide books, stationary, transport and uniform to these children, which will not be on par with what the richer children have access to. Children under quota are also eligible for other benefits like noon-meal scheme. Whether this will only perpetuate the divide or a mechanism can be worked out to counter it remains to be seen.

Some academics also feel that it is absurd to assume that the children will receive “quality” education simply by being put in an elite school. In fact, it could work to the contrary, argues A.R. Vasavi from the National Institute of Advanced Studies, who has worked extensively on primary education. “Not only will the marginal child feel doubly out of place, but there are chances that the average ‘forcefully included' child in a relatively better off environment may not perform well,” she says. She emphasises the need to usher in a system that facilitates the right of every child to attend a quality school, the Kendriya Vidyala schools being a feasible model.

Theoretical arguments apart, how this intermingling as envisaged under RTE will actually work out in practical terms, is as yet not clear. As R.G. Nadadur, Principal Secretary, Primary and Secondary Education, says that the State Government is in the process of finalising rules under this Act.

The draft rules are up on the website and opinions invited. This will be followed by consultations with stakeholders. “Hopefully everything will be finalised by the end of this month,” said Mr. Nadadur.

Draft rules of the Act can be accessed on at www.schooleducation.kar.nic.in.

What they say

I have always advocated common schools up to a certain age. The Act paves the way for that. In a broad sense of learning, children from upper class homes have a lot to learn from children from lower classes. Today, we follow a caste-driven system of a different kind. We cannot do away with the distinction immediately. But this is the first step.”

U.R. Ananthamurthy, writer

A major reason for concern is the common curriculum. This clause of the Act does not consider the difference in facilities and infrastructure in schools. Students come from different set ups — rural, semi-urban and urban. Can students from rural areas manage to cope up with their urban counterparts? Disciplining is also an issue as it is difficult to tell what corporal punishment and mental harassment means.

Mohan Manghnani, president, Management Association of ICSE Schools, Karnataka

Since we never got to study in schools that gave us a strong foundation for further studies, we always hope that our children are not deprived of the same. Private schools provide that kind of a platform as they have the infrastructure. The Act provides an opportunity for students who are not very well off to study in good schools.

S.R. Prasad, autorickshaw driver

I do not know much about the intricacies of the Act, but its intention sounds noble.

If poorer children get to study in good schools, why should anyone object?

But it should not compromise on the standard of the school or burden other parents.”

Suma Krishna, parent

“I would not mind it if someone with lesser money is studying with me. Even otherwise, there are students from all kinds of backgrounds studying in any school, including poor students. If they get help from the Government in paying fees, I will only feel happy.”

Sanjana Kamat,student