“We need more clarity” — this has been the prevalent refrain among many private schools in Chennai for the last couple of months in regard to implementing the Right to Education (RTE) Act. With the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Act and the Tamil Nadu State Government taking steps for its implementation, private schools cannot use lack of clarity as an excuse anymore.

While the Act envisages a series of reforms in school education, the clause on reserving 25 per cent of seats at the entry level for children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups has remained in focus.

Private schools have been using different strategies to escape from this clause. Some school heads said they were not sure how the government would reimburse the costs. A few private schools in Chennai sent out letters to parents, seeking to mobilise them against its implementation.

In fact, some schools went to the extent of telling parents: “Your child's quality of education will suffer seriously as the teachers will have a very difficult time managing and educating a few children who are not qualified for the particular class, or who are very difficult to manage.” Certain other schools claimed they were already enrolling children from economically weaker sections. However, such attempts have been rendered futile by the Supreme Court's verdict on Thursday. Now, what next?

The School Education Department has chalked out a detailed plan of action. A total of 12 Government Orders have been issued and the Directorate of Teacher Education Research and Training (DTERT) is the nodal agency for its implementation. Training programmes are being held to educate school heads. After quite a delay, the government has moved the files to constitute the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR).

It is now mandatory for all private unaided schools to admit 25 per cent of children at entry level from weaker/disadvantaged sections residing within one-km radius. If a school does not receive any application, it has to put up details of the number of vacant seats available for such students on its notice board. While some processes for the Act's implementation have been outlined (see graphic), the state government rules vis-à-vis the same clause in the parent Act point to certain areas of concern.

As per Tamil Nadu's rules for implementing the Act, any child whose parent or guardian's annual income is less than Rs. 2 lakh can be admitted under ‘weaker section'. The ‘disadvantaged group' comprises students belonging to SC, ST, BC, MBC categories, in addition to children with HIV, children with disability, children of scavengers or transgender community. While the RTE Act talks of ‘children belonging to weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood', Tamil Nadu's rules say ‘weaker section/disadvantaged group'. It would suffice if private schools admitted students from either of the categories, implying that students who may need it the most may not actually benefit, unless schools take it up as a social responsibility.

According to the Act, every school will have a School Management Committee (SMC), with a PTA representative chairing it and parents, teachers, head, local body member, educationist/philanthropist/activist and an SHG representative as other members. The SMC will monitor several aspects, including teachers' attendance, students' learning abilities and prepare a comprehensive school development plan.

Additionally, the DTERT help desk and the SCPCR will also monitor the implementation, receive complaints and, perhaps, address them.

With the Act having been rolled out, rules framed and roles defined, it is now in the hands of schools and parents to do their part, not just in terms of adhering to this clause alone, but also in ensuring that institutions make significant advancement in infrastructure and quality. However, given the current inadequacies in many government and private schools, only a larger commitment from all sections, including the state government, private schools and parents, can help translate what the Act envisages into reality.