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Free, compulsory schooling in for staggered testing

April 20, 2010 03:02 IST

Based on visits by its correspondents to schools in six states of the country, Business Standard brings you a six-part series on how ready or otherwise the system is to implement the new legal guarantee of free and compulsory schooling for all in the 6-14 age group.

The most contested, and the most publicised, part of the new Right to Education Act will, it turns out, be a dormant provision this year.

This is Section 12, which compels every private school, even if it takes no aid from the state, to reserve 25 per cent of the entry-grade intake for  poor students in the neighbourhood, who are also to be charged no fee. The government is supposed to decide how these are to be allotted to each school.

Those who pushed the Bill were especially thrilled at this section, as helping to fulfil a vision where rich and poor children in each neighbourhood would study together. However, the law came into force on April 1 and, a survey by Business Standard of private schools in six states showed most of them had already concluded their year's admissions by then. So, the provision effectively gets held back by a year.

BS spoke to private schools in Bengal, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, asking them how they intended to implement Section 12 and the other sections of the far-reaching law, which promises free and compulsory education to all in the 6-14 years gae group as a right. On this contentious section, many private schools were unprepared; many were still unwilling. Others were confused as to what they were supposed to do. And, some were hoping to be able to raise their fees to cover the extra costs, as no one was sure what the respective governments were likley to pay as reimbursement for the one-in-four freeships.

Others have gone or plan to go to court. Minority-owned institutions, for one; they contend this section infringes their Constitutional right to manage their affairs by themselves.

The six states are not ready with the rules. The two issues that came up in all six were the manner in which the schools would accommodate the costs and the issue of poor students adjusting/coping in the new environment, alongside children who come from more advantaged backgrounds.

In Delhi, the government proposes to discuss with each school their issues regarding fee hikes. In Uttar Pradesh, such a stage of decision is yet to happen. The Bengal government is not sure if it can impose the law on private schools. In Madhya Pradesh, there is already talk of penalising schools which don't follow the law.

According to Ashok Agarwal, a Delhi-based lawyer and education activist, the provisions in the law for poor students are not as onerous as made out by critics in the private sector. He says the Law Commission in 2000, as well as the Kothari Commission in the 1960s had recommended not 25 per cent but 50 per cent reservation for poor children in the neighbourhood.

As for fee hikes, Agarwal says schools cannot do so at will, as the government has to, by the law, pay the schools for the free seats. In Delhi, when schools hiked fees, the parents went to court and schools had to reverse the decision. So, schools cant act unilaterally in these days when people are armed with the Right to Information Act, says Agarwal .

Says the principal of the Ahmedabad-based Udgam School on the matter: "I would expect that the government give at least 50 per cent of my existing fees so that I am not at a huge loss. If the government does not reimburse me that amount, then the government has to find out a method as to how we can afford the hefty sixth pay commission guidelines. In case the government is not in a position to reimburse my costs, then it should allow me to increase the fees for the remaining 75 per cent students.''

Missionary schools are all for taking poor students but they want to have the right to choose the beneficiaries, something the law does not allow. For them, the  law is unacceptable unless it does away with the requirement for all schools to have a school management committee with representatives from outside the school. This, they say, goes against their Constitutional rights.

There are, of course, also elite schools which seem to be eager to enforce the law and in the true spirit, with additional support for the poor students. Scindia School, Gwalior, is one example.

 

With inputs from Shashikant Trivedi  in Bhopal, Pradipta Mukherjee in Kolkota), Chitra Unnithan in Ahmedabad and Praveen Bose in Bangalore
Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi
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