Poor children are yet to breach the ivory tower of quality education.

For millennia, communities consigned to manual work by India's caste system were relentlessly barred from education. Free India's great experiment with republican democracy was expected to end this age-old educational blockade, by opening the doors of schools for the first time to children from oppressed communities. And yet, educational apartheid endures in stubborn new forms in independent India.

Every child has a legal right to schooling, but a child's birth determines what kind of school she can enter. The richest families send their children overseas, to the world's best schools and universities. Next come children who are raised in elite, exclusive private schools. Lower middle class and poorer urban children can at best aspire to municipal schools, which typically have far inferior outcomes. This bars them from admission to better colleges, and they cannot afford the fees of private universities. Rural children may be crammed into unequipped classrooms, with one or two teachers — often absent, poorly trained and monitored. And, of course, the homeless, migrant, working and disabled child may never see the inside of a school, and will remain trapped in the hopeless poverty of her parents.

Education, therefore, has failed profoundly to open avenues of social mobility. Instead, it mirrors the vast inequalities of our society, and reinforces these further. Where a child is born continues to determine a child's destiny in democratic India.

Significant law

India's Parliament passed in 2009 a historic law guaranteeing quality education to all children within their neighbourhood, and placed primary responsibility for this with the public education system. But it also legislated for modest duties for private schools, by reserving 25 per cent of their seats at entry level for disadvantaged children (reducing the earlier proposal of 50 per cent). Only 17 per cent schools today are private, and even among these only around two per cent are elite; therefore the numbers of deprived children who would enter privileged schools is very small. But the momentous significance of this measure is that it could create spaces for the first time in India's long history of structured inequality, where children of the rich and poor would study, eat, play and grow together.

However, elite schools strenuously battled this public duty in the Supreme Court, claiming that the government had no right to interfere in enterprises in which it did not invest, as though there is no difference between selling soap and selling education. Although the government reimburses costs of each child, they complained that the entry of poor children would force them to raise fees. Their claim that these children would lower standards suggests that underprivileged children are intrinsically less meritorious. But how do they compare the merit of a well-nourished, protected child of wealthy, highly educated parents, employing expensive tutors; and a girl who grows up in an unsanitary and cramped slum, both her parents non-literate daily wage workers, with nowhere to study and no one to help her in her homework, and with additional burdens to cook, fetch water and take care of her younger siblings?

The most problematic argument offered by elite schools is that admitting poor children into privileged schools would harm the disadvantaged child. In The Hindu Magazine many months back, the Principal of Rishi Valley School, A. Kumaraswamy, made the case that “children who lack academic support from their families are likely to remain low performing, and may suffer by comparison. Apart from this they would be faced with difficulties that stem from the contrast in social markers such as dress, possessions, parental profiles etc. All this could seriously affect the self-esteem of underprivileged students.” Therefore, the article suggests, instead of integrating them in elite schools, these “well-endowed” schools should establish separate schools for poor children.

Workaround

A similar stratagem was adopted by elite schools in Delhi to deal with the Delhi government reservation of 15 per cent seats for poor children. They established afternoon schools with much poorer educational standards for under-privileged students. These are run within their campus, but after the regular fee-paying students have safely left. It took 60 years of democracy to enable poor children to walk through the gates of glittering private schools, but their segregation from children of privilege is still secured. I have knocked on the doors of many respected schools to admit the former street children we take care of under this quota, but have mostly been refused, or offered a few seats in these segregated afternoon schools.

The untruth — and injustice — of the claim that disadvantaged children will not be able to adjust in schools which include children of privilege is disproved by the ease with which our former street children have adjusted in the few Delhi schools that humanely offered them admission — St. Mary's, Jamia and Balwantrai Mehta Schools. Our children have been found to quickly grow academically, often leading their classes; they display a range of other talents, and make friends easily with their more privileged class-mates.

But most of all, we can learn from the work of Sister Cyril, an Irish nun who, for nearly two decades, has admitted street girls to study in the elite Loretto Sealdah School, fee-paying parents subsidising those without parents. She has carefully nurtured an environment in which girls from diametrically opposed opportunities and backgrounds study together with mutual respect and understanding.

I have met many former street girls who study in Loretto, and found them poised, confident and hopeful. I have also met many former and current students of the same school from privileged homes, who are proud that their school uniquely offered equal spaces for the poorest children to study and grow. Sister Cyril says: “It is fashionable to teach ‘hands-on computers', ‘hands-on problem solving', then why not ‘hands-on compassion'?”

If we wish to see an India which is humane, pluralist and democratic, this is possible only when we build humane, pluralist and democratic classrooms. The siege of centuries of privilege over quality education must be breached, finally and forever.