RTE: Right to Education, Elitism or Exclusion?

Maha delay in notifying RTE Rules: State’s Slowness Has Ensured That Destitute Kids Won’t Get Admission In Pvt Schools This Year.

This was the headline of an article in the Times of India of June 13, 2011, the day all the State Board schools in Maharashtra re-opened. According to the article, along with  15 other states and union territories of India, Maharashtra had yet to notify the norms of the Right of children to free and compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009. The RTE Act, which came into operation on April 1, 2010, has the same legal status as other rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Two of the defining rules of the Act say that (i) every child from 6 to 14 years of age has the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school, and that (ii) private schools must take in 25% of their class strength from “weaker sections and disadvantaged groups”, who will be sponsored by the government.

The RTE is a much discussed Act with its share of supporters and critics; one can find many critiques of the Act—you can read an excellent one by Parth Shah here and this blog that is entirely devoted to the RTE. Most of the critiques that I have come across discuss the lack of clarity (particularly with regard to the economics involved) in the rules of the Act as well as its implementation. In an article in Mint Lounge on how an English-medium education is a way out of life in the slums for many, Aakar Patel weaves in how the RTE Act could be used to achieve this goal. He also discusses as well as the possible hurdles in achieving it—hurdles that are not just economic, but social, i.e. those related to caste, class, etc.

In my opinion, the RTE Act is noble and idealistic in intent, but completely un-implementable in letter and spirit. Like Aakar Patel, I too believe that the reasons are not economic, but social due to the class-ridden and casteist nature of our society—a society that very clearly propagates differentiation of an “us” and “them” at every level. I draw from my experience to support this opinion. Let me elaborate.

I studied in one of Mumbai’s élite schools for one year. The school was a minority educational institution, well-known for its academics and extra-curricular activities. We had moved in with my maternal grandparents that year and this school was closest to my grandparents’ house. That and the fact that I was a good student got me admission there, making everyone in my family almost delirious with joy. I was too young to realise what the fuss was all about and was only interested in all the new stuff I got for the new school year. Little did I realise that this was to be the annus horriblis of all my school, college and university years put together.

I was 8 years old then, in my 4th standard and about to learn one of life’s harsh realities —how your skin colour, your accent, the clothes you wear, the way you eat, etc, help others perceive you. I had my skin colour commented on, my long plaited hair pulled at and called unfashionable, my lack of an appropriate accent laughed at, my inability to eat with a knife and fork ridiculed, the clothes that my mother had lovingly stitched for me jeered at… Yes, I learnt that I was different in a negative sense.

I was bewildered by all this happening around me as till then, I had never perceived anything strange about me or in others for that matter. I was a happy child and the world around me was a happy place too. It took me a long while to understand the ragging/bullying and then be able to communicate it to my mother. By the time, I understood what was happening, I had internalised this ragging/bullying so much that behavioural problems had crept in—I had become pretty aggressive at home and started using foul language. I would get a stomach-ache or a headache on Monday mornings or if forced to go to school would promptly fall sick there. I even played truant a few times.

That year was a difficult year for our family. My maternal grandmother’s health was failing and my mother had her hands full as her primary caregiver. Besides, my brother was appearing for his board exams that year. My own inability to communicate what was happening in school to my mother only added to the general stress. By the time, I was able to articulate it was almost the end of the school year. Though I changed schools afterwards, it took me 3-4 years to recover from that one school year.

The idea of narrating something very personal here was a little painful, but I had to share it here with you to reiterate why the RTE will not be a success, particularly with regard to the 25% “quota” for the weaker and disadvantaged sections in private schools. I was bullied or ragged for “being” different in spite of coming from a highly educated and an upper middle class family, all because I looked different. What chance does a child from the weaker or disadvantaged section have? Along with being “different”, that child would also be a first generation learner or a first generation learner in the English medium with severe deprivations at multiple levels. He/She will not only be bullied/ragged by fellow classmates/students, but also possibly by the teachers themselves.

A Times of India article titled “Not so Right? Elite Schools find Fault with RTE” quotes Jyotsna Brar, Principal of Welham Girls’ School and Chairperson of the Indian Public School Conference (a body representing 78 élite schools of India) as saying that:

…parents of “disadvantaged” students would not be able to interact with other parents and teachers and even with their children… disadvantaged children would also have “discomfort” while dealing with adolescence issues… Comfortable in their vernacular, they would suddenly need to speak in English…they would also have to deal with alienation of the world they come from.

It saddened me tremendously to read this article and the views of Brar, an influential person and definitely an opinion maker among the school teaching community. If teachers, who are the harbingers of change in schools, have attitudes like this, what hope does the RTE have? It can be argued that not all teachers are like Brar, nor are all schools élite. Perhaps. But I suspect that a large majority of teachers and schools would share Brar’s opinion. And why wouldn’t they? They are only mirroring the opinion of the society that they belong to—a society that excludes anybody who is different in terms of class, caste, or ability.

It remains to be seen whether the Right to Education Act, which promises social inclusion delivers that promise, or whether it ends up as the Right to Elitism or Right to Exclusion Act and maintains social exclusion.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “RTE: Right to Education, Elitism or Exclusion?

  1. u have no idea how much I love this article. And you are sooo brave to share ur personal experiences here…
    Even though I know that it all makes sense (Why the RTA cant work I mean), I still believe that it will someday. Look, children learn what we teach them right? So, if every pivate institution takes this step not only to school is underprivileged but also have counselling sessions for the elite groups, then it might work rite?

    Once again.. I don’t usually comment on everyone’s blog bcos trust me.. most of the time I dont even people write what they mean. I am gonna follow yours.. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Shalini. I really appreciate it.

      The RTE Act will work and will be implemented but not in the form that it has been visualised and drafted in. It will see many dilutions and many omissions before it is actually implemented. I just wish schools and education experts stop obsessing about subsidies and other economics of implementing the Act and focus o the social aspect.

      Mine is not the only story like this. There were some other girls in my class in that school like me. But since I was the newcomer that year, I got “special treatment”. You can find many such stories in every social space. But in schools this assumes special significance as patterns, attitudes and behavious are set here and such things can make or mar a person for life.

      I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued in that school. Maybe toughened up? Maybe become like my oppressors themselves? Maybe …

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  2. I have to agree with you on this. I remember similar behavioural streaks among the students in my school when we learnt of soon-to-come sub-standard company. I wonder why some schools teach their kids to be snobs. There’s a huge difference between being a elite and being one who just has a pulled up nose.

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    1. Snobbery is often a criteria for belonging to a particular school !

      But having said that, divisions exist in every school and they are of varying types. In the school that I have mentioned in this post, it was based on community, and therefore a particular culture. In another school, the division was between students of officers and students of non-officers and the twain did not meet.

      For changes to happen in school, changes have to happen in basic societal level first. There are alternative schools which are very good and egalitarian and inclusive in their education. But the students who have been brought up such an education are in for a shock when they rejoin mainstream society and most are unable to adjust. Some turn bitter, many go abroad and the remaining just plod on.

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  3. You have given me a great idea for a post. Can i Link your post to my blog in my next post?
    To explain- I must say I am not surprised. When we were in school, there was an entire percentage of students who were children of workers- our school has a ‘underpriveleged’ quota for the children of student working in a nearby factory. Yet it was a reputed school- so we did have a mix of rich and poor students. I was on the ‘rich’ side and i am ashamed to say that even though i never directly bullied or teased these kids, somehow they were always apart. One good thing was that our teachers were very vigilant so direct bullying like the way you experienced wasn’t around. yet by speech, manners and even studies these kids were far behind- and socially the sets never mixed up. Having said that, some of these kids have very good white collar jobs which wouldnt be possible if not for the english-school education they received so there are flipsides to it all.

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    1. Thank you, Sandy. I’d be honoured if you link my post to yours. At least the teachers were vigilant in your school. In my school the teachers, especially those who belonged to the same minority group would join in the bullying, though their version was very covert. You have also made a very valid point, when you say that an English medium education does secure a better future.

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