If the barrier of social prejudice is to be broken, private schools should take in poor students.

Radha (name changed) is one of the brightest children in her class. But it was a struggle to get her admitted to school. Her parents are of modest means — her mother a semi-literate domestic help and her father a daily-wage painter. They were keen to enrol her in a “good” school, but it took months to convince the principal of Radha’s legal right to free education.

Section 12(1)(c) of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 insists that every private school must reserve 25 per cent of classroom seats for children from poor or disadvantaged families in the neighbourhood. This masterstroke, on a highly conservative estimate, will single-handedly open the door for at least one million eligible children each year across the country to receive eight years of free education.

Despite strident opposition from school management committees and parents’ associations, even the Supreme Court upheld this visionary clause last year.

But in the past three years, private schools have continued to use every trick in the book to deny children their rightful admissions.

Last year, Maharashtra filled only 32 per cent of reserved seats. This year too has seen a slow start. In Pune, for example, by mid-May only 4,000 of the available 20,000 quota seats have been filled. John Kurrien of Action for Rights of the Child (ARC), an activist education network, complains that “schools unnecessarily send eligible parents literally in circles over admission paperwork.”

Why are schools resisting providing admission to marginalised children?

An underlying barrier is social prejudice. After all, for the first time in independent India, there is a genuine nationwide effort to ensure that children — rich and poor, upper and lower castes — are schooled together at an impressionable age to break the shackles of centuries of social prejudice that has stymied educational, occupational and social opportunities for generations.

Another bone of contention is who will foot the bill? The government will reimburse private schools only based on what it spends on each pupil in its schools, which is often much less. For-profit private schools are, therefore, keen to pass on the burden to the remainder of the class. Unfortunately, this has pitched wealthy parents and children against semi-literate ones.

But the main impediment is lack of information. Ambarish Rai, coordinator of the RTE Forum with 10,000 NGO members across India, is unequivocal, “Spreading information is the first step.” Often, eligible parents from marginalised families do not know that their children are entitled to eight years of free education in private schools.

Few are aware that the law also supports the entry of children with disabilities. In addition, some States have devised truly progressive rules. Tamil Nadu, for instance, recognises transgender children as eligible. Andhra Pradesh explicitly includes orphans, street and homeless children. Gujarat has even insisted that teachers are professionally trained and sensitised for the proper integration of children.

In this sphere, Sister Cyril’s award-winning elite Loreto School in Kolkata has over the last three decades set an inspiring precedent. Half the children in the school hail from poor families living in nearby urban slums and streets and receive a completely free education. The remainder of the class pays their full fees to attend this prestigious institution. Across caste and class barriers, these children embody the ideals of cohesive, inclusive education. The right to education 25 per cent clause hopes to further expand this dream nationwide.

The capital, New Delhi, of course, has the most experience. In 2004, the NGO Social Jurist brilliantly petitioned the High Court to ensure that all private schools which receive concessional land from the government provide free admission to children from economically weaker section (EWS) families. Now, the government website tracks each of these enrolled children. Further, civil society organisations like Pardarshita diligently conduct enrolment camps across schools to encourage eligible children to apply.

In commercial capital Mumbai, Shobha Murthy, founder of Aarambh, is equally pragmatic: “We are preparing the children beforehand with extra tutoring in English. We are also building a support network for their parents to help them to fill admission forms and ensure that their children make the most of this opportunity.”

Now, the key rests with the middle class — to support rather than oppose — this transformative law to carve inclusive classrooms as the foundation for a more integrated India.