It's back to square one on RTE quota

Private schools cannot shirk their responsibility in working for greater common good.

My maid Susheela takes high cost loans from loan sharks during the school academic year to pay the annual fees of her children in a private school. This is true of many of Susheela’s neighbours, who spend an entire year paying back these loans, before the vicious cycle kicks in again.

If you wonder why Susheela or her neighbours don’t send their children to the local government schools, it’s obvious. Most government schools have appalling or lack basic infrastructure — leaky roofs; absence of toilets and playgrounds; broken furniture, late arrival of school books, absence of computer labs etc.

Many are single-teacher schools leading to an estimated shortage of five lakh teachers nationwide. So much so, most government school students’ reading abilities are not only below par, they can’t even do basic math calculations.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2016, released last month by the NGO Pratham, found that children in Class V who could read a class II text book, had declined to 47.8% in 2016 from 48.1% in 2014, while those of Class VIII who could do simple divisions had dipped to 43.2% in 2016 from 44.2% in 2014. The ASER collected data from 589 rural districts to measure overall learning level among school students.

All parents, irrespective of their social and economic status, want the best for their children. And, they know that only quality education is going to open doors for their children.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is making a valiant effort to ensure education for all children in the country, but as former education minister M C Chagla had said, “fathers of our constitution did not intend that we just set up hovels, put students there, give untrained teachers, give them bad textbooks, no playgrounds, and say, we have complied with Article 45 and primary education is expanding... They meant that real education should be given to our children between the ages of 6 and 14.”

And, this is the reason that parents like Susheela take high cost loans to put their children in private schools to provide them quality education. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 has several path-breaking clauses to make quality education accessible to disadvantaged children in the country. One of the RTE clauses states that private aided schools should offer 25% of their classroom seats free to children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups from their neighbourhood in Class 1 or pre-primary.
This technically threw up one million seats every year in private schools in the country. However, this RTE clause remains in theory as many private schools have been reluctant to comply with it.

There have been many media reports that some schools had applied for minority status for their schools to escape adhering to the RTE Act, as minority institutions are exempt from complying with the quota.

In a temporary relief to some of the state’s private schools which had claimed ‘minority status,’ a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court on February 13, 2017 stayed a June 2014 Government Order that required private schools not having ‘minority status certificate’ from competent authorities to fill up 25% seats under the RTE quota up to Class 8.

So, we are back to square one to relying on government schools to provide inclusive education. While on the one hand, the government must work on improving the conditions in these government schools, private schools, however, cannot shirk their responsibility in working for the greater common good.

Adopt govt school

In fact, as members of a conscientious society, private schools should not only willingly fulfil the RTE 25% quota, they can do more. They can also look at adopting a government school in their neighbourhood. Many international schools are already doing some social work in the community, so why not re-direct their efforts to the neighbourhood government school?

Imagine the benefits privileged private schools can pass on to underprivileged students in government schools: skilled teachers; physical and sport training; computer skills; and student mentors – just to mention a few.

Private school intervention could also help in stemming student dropouts and bringing them back to school. It is estimated that there are eight million student dropouts in the 6-14 age group and one of the clauses of the RTE Act provides for special training of school dropouts to bring them on a par with students of the same age.

This is one area the neighbourhood international/private schools could concentrate on. Upskilling dropouts could even be an after-school project for senior students to take up under the supervision of their teachers.

While the RTE Act throws the onus of enrolment, attendance and completion of schooling on the government, an Act is only as good as its implementation. So, just imagine the boost the ambitious goal of ‘education for all’ would get when private schools join hands with the government to achieve it.

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