The widening class divide

Children from the RTE quota are often left feeling small as equality seems to be lost in monetary disparity

November 23, 2016 12:02 am | Updated 08:09 am IST

If the RTE Act is not embraced in spirit by parents, teachers and schools, its legacy will be overshadowed by prejudice, discrimination and a reaffirmation of the class divide.

If the RTE Act is not embraced in spirit by parents, teachers and schools, its legacy will be overshadowed by prejudice, discrimination and a reaffirmation of the class divide.

Thirty-two-year-old Uma Devi (name changed) is conspicuous in a crowd of parents who have come to pick their children up in swanky cars. She works as a Group D employee at a government hospital, but thanks to the 25 per cent reservation quota mandated by the Right to Education (RTE) Act, her seven-year-old son goes to a “big” CBSE-affiliated private school in in Bengaluru.

Waiting for her child outside the school, she says she is thrilled that he can speak English. “My husband who is a driver studied only till Class X and I studied till Class XII as the circumstances at home forced both of us to discontinue our studies,” she says.

But “big” schooling has come with a deeper and disturbing reality. “Aunty, English ma’am says he doesn’t read properly!” shouts one of her son’s classmates as the children run towards their parents.

Keeping up with the Joneses

The innocent comment of her son’s classmate wipes the smile away from Uma Devi’s face. “I work overtime and pay Rs.900 for his tuition classes. What more can I do?” she asks helplessly. Her child has to “compete” with children from well-to-do families and she simply cannot afford expensive birthday parties, picnics or even tuitions.

“While the government reimburses tuition fees, schools still ask us to pay for miscellaneous fees such as smart class fees, picnic fees and transport fees and we cannot afford to pay,” says another parent whose child studies in a school in south Bengaluru.

The discrimination begins thus: children from the RTE quota and their parents are often left feeling small because the spirit of equality seems to be lost in monetary disparity, and this is not just the story of Uma Devi.

Every family has a humiliating experience to tell. Ten-year-old Raghavendra (named changed) spent all night studying for his Kannada test, but he was in for a rude shock when his teacher told him that he could not sit for it as his parents had not paid their fees. They simply had no money to spare, and the school was not willing to make an exception.

In July, a private school in the city charged all students Rs.35,000 as food fees. Parents of students admitted under the quota along with RTE activists complained to the education department. Under pressure from the government, the school offered to refund the fees but said that parents would have to send lunch and snacks from home.

“Very often when we question school managements for some of the decisions they make, schools feel they are doing charity by admitting kids under the quota,” says B.N. Yogananda, general secretary of RTE Students and Parents Association, a support group of 400 members formed for and by parents of children enrolled in schools under the provisions of the RTE Act.

A teacher at an ICSE school said that she had asked the school management why the “burden of adjustment” always falls on the child. “Doing simple things like ensuring that nursery rhymes in Kannada are taught until all students pick up English or putting a cap of Rs.10 for project work can go a long way in ensuring that students do not develop an inferiority complex,” she says.

But inclusivity goes beyond the classroom walls.

Discrimination in and outside school

Nagasimha G. Rao, convener of the RTE task force formed by NGOs in 2012 to address cases of discrimination against students admitted under the quota, says that parents of other children too need to question their actions. “It is not just during school hours; parents need to ask themselves if they have invited a child under the quota to their homes for a birthday party or a play date.”

The RTE Act does not address the issue of social inclusion. “My child asks me why he is not chosen to perform in the annual day celebration or why I do not come to his classmate’s birthday celebration. It is going to be hard to explain all this to a seven-year-old,” says a parent helplessly.

Private school managements, however, argue that the State government’s annual reimbursement ceiling — Rs.11,848 a year for a child admitted to Class I and Rs.5,924 a year for a child in preschool — is not adequate to meet all the facilities that they provide. But discrimination cannot be the answer.

While some schools deny RTE students access to certain facilities, others have blatantly discriminated by introducing separate teaching sections with clear lines of demarcation between the haves and the have-nots. Unable to bear the price tag that comes with “free education”, many parents have pulled their children out of these schools.

If the RTE Act is not embraced in spirit by parents, teachers and schools, its legacy will be overshadowed by prejudice, discrimination and a reaffirmation of the class divide.

tanu.kulkarni@thehindu.co.in

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