This is the third of a five part series that aims to understand the process of nursery admissions in Delhi and annual struggles associated with it.
Here’s a fact – Delhi has about 5043 schools. It almost makes one believe that the city has a very well functional educational system, if the number is viewed in isolation. But with a handful of legislations, that too within just a few years, drastically changing the admission process in the city and transforming the meaning of schooling in people’s lives, Delhi’s schools have begun to appear more chaotic than its roads.
In 2010, when the Right to Education Act was implemented, reserving 25% of seats in all schools to children from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), a fundamental shift took place in the meaning of the word ‘education’. The ‘best’ public schools opened their gates to students who couldn’t have otherwise financed their studies in such a school, and were de facto assumed to be a misfit even if they managed to secure it. For once education and privilege began to be mutually disassociated. Now, in 2016, with schools further standing to lose their power to hand pick their students, the questions of equality of education, ‘deserving students’ and ‘holistic’ classrooms have returned to public discourse.
EWS Inclusion: A Turning Point?
Even a not-so-deep dive into the subject is sure to make anyone question the practicality of these changes. EWS is defined as families with less than an annual income of one lakh rupees. Any class in an elite school is supposed to have 25% of its students from EWS – is this an easy transition? From the vantage point of schools, parents and teachers, it doesn’t look like a smooth ride. For each EWS student, the government reimburses schools with a maximum Rs. 1290 per month. But for schools that have thrived on the economics of education, this doesn’t seem to be very good news. According to a 2010 investigation conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, most elite schools in Delhi are functioning on excess surplus. Yet, they have been increasing their fees every year. They explain this through numerous reasons, including the 6th Pay Commission and Smart classrooms; only now, some schools have also started attributing the reason as having to support the students from EWS (the Act requires schools to provide students with educational aides, stationary and uniforms as well). With AAP’s efforts furthering the ban on quotas, such as management and alumni ones, schools stand to lose another major source of income i.e., capitation fees. This is a major cause of worry to the schools, where capitation fees range from 9 to 15 lakh rupees, as reported by the Indian Express and confirmed by a teacher from a prominent city school.
Public schools in the city also thrive on their reputation, ‘good crowd’ and ‘quality’, which according to them, can be generated through admission criteria like ‘vegetarianism’, ‘non-smoking parents’ and economic and educational qualifications of parents. So what happens when these criteria are cut down and the student community in these schools ceases to be an elitist homogeneous one? According to Sumit Vohra, an activist-cum-expert in this field and the founder of a famous online portal which aims to inform parents regarding nursery admissions, there are schools in the city that have separate classes, even separate water areas, for the EWS students. “The diversity in the classroom has come tragically, at the price of equality.” This is not to leave a few schools and teachers who have gone the extra mile in facilitating this integration unacknowledged; a middle school teacher at a prominent city school spoke with Edunuts at the request of anonymity. “Luckily, the management at my school has been very receptive and positive towards the new changes”, she says. As far as legislation goes, the new bill, if implemented, will actually unlock about 25% of the existing seats to the general public as quotas will be discarded. Additionally, with discriminatory criteria deemed unlawful, the classrooms are sure to get more diverse than ever. Ironically, only a very few families from EWS are aware of the opportunities that have become available to them through RTE – 4% of families, to be precise, according to a report released by the NGO Indus Action, post a Delhi state wide conference in 2014. This acute lack of information, coupled with incidences of forged income certificates, rigged lotteries, technical glitches in the newly instituted digital application, and their doubtful pragmatism also adds to the ailment of RTE implementation.
Diversity in Classrooms: The Changes and Challenges
While the system and its institutions struggle to keep up with the vision of inclusive education, there emerges the question of the real-time effect of countering elitism in schools on the lives and education of students. How is it like to educate a socially and economically diverse classroom? “One can hardly make out differences between students of different backgrounds, in their capacity and willingness to learn”, says Geeta Kakkar* , a Montessori school teacher with three decades of experience behind her. “Parents, on the other hand, are the bigger challenge. Initially, teachers have to put in special efforts to communicate with them, in terms of time as well as information.” Issues like irregular attendance, lack of interest and support still exist, and are testing the skills of teachers, with them needing to constantly innovate and evolve their teaching methods according to their students. Along with this has come the realisation that intelligence and willingness to learn are not relative to economic or social prosperity. “We often need to take out extra time to personally interact with them and address their concerns elaborately. As schools, it must be well understood that giving admission is only the beginning, but it’s not nearly enough. It is imperative to work with the children and parents, through constant guidance and counselling, to make their schooling mean something”, she continues.
Diversity in Classrooms: The Effect
Do economic differences actually pan out amongst students? A middle school teacher at a popular school in the city and a parent of two, Priyanka, whose daughter’s was among the first batches post RTE says, “I’ve only seen my daughter becoming a better person. Economic and social background is not a determining factor for children decide to whom fraternise with, and shouldn’t be so. It’s usually upon the hands of the parents as to how they bring their children up.” Narrating a little incident involving his daughter, Sumit Vohra explains, “Children are always learning from each other. It is important to know that children have as much to bring to the table as they have to take away”. Educators and parents seem to be in unison about the need for inclusive education – but its effective implementation for expected outcomes remains to be a challenge, but it’s a move in the right direction nonetheless. Inclusive education is a challenging path to traverse, to parents, teachers and the system alike, but as many opine, the holistic development of children can’t happen under isolation; and what is the purpose of true education, if it begins on unequal grounds?
To most parents, the visual of this educative experience for their children is blurred due to the flaws interlaced in the admission system. Some families remain clearly advantaged over the others due the different criteria that schools have prescribed within the 100 point system. Children/grandchildren of alumni and with sizeable income of parents strengthen the elitism and nepotism within schools. “My second daughter has the advantage of having a sibling at the school and of me being a staff; hence I am a little relaxed this time around. But, with my first daughter, it was a tedious gamble. Notwithstanding, I have applied to a bunch of schools. But the rapid changes in rules have kept me on my toes, constantly fearing if tables turn and my daughter loses a seat due to a frivolous point”, says Priyanka. The point system is the successor of the very controversial method of interviewing barely-a-few-years-old children and their parents. A simple Google search is enough to estimate to what scale this anxiety had advanced – from pre-interview training and anxious families; not to mention the arbitrariness of the entire system. “A five minute interview can hardly tell anything about children and their families. It really isn’t right to judge children on “capabilities” at such young an age. It’s the schools’ to job to help hone their talents and educate them, after they’re under the school’s tutelage” comments Mrs. Kakkar.
As the questions of equality, privilege and education continue to be intertwined with the tussle between schools, government and the masses (privileged and otherwise), the prospect of a solution seems to appear only from the direction of more and improved schools and teachers. Of the nearly 3000 government schools in Delhi, very few actually offer pre-school education, thus disabling the government from answering its own questions. Elevating the standard of existing government schools and opening new schools still stand as the strongest long term solution, as they did during the formulation of the Ganguly committee report about a decade ago.
*Name changed on request