The implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) in India was never going to be straight forward. Following the Indian media from the time when this well intentioned, though somewhat flawed legislation was introduced, has provided plenty of evidence that there are many within the Indian education system, from teachers through principals to state administrators, who are fundamentally opposed to the law. Some private schools appear to have vested interests in maintaining the status quo and have openly declared their reluctance to admit pupils who they see as having a potential for lowering their attainment. Others fear that middle class parents who are prepared to invest financially in the education of their children will not wish to have them sharing classes with those from lower castes or with disabilities.
By contrast, others see the RTE as a bold assertion of the right of all children, including those who have for too long been marginalised, to gain access to schooling alongside their peers. I would certainly see myself as part of this camp and believe that it took courage on the part of the Indian Government to introduce this policy, but will take even greater fortitude to see it to fruition. The introduction of quotas which place a clear expectation on all schools that they should enrol children who have previously been denied access to education, is possibly the most controversial aspect of the RTE, and many of us had anticipated that this would result in a degree of protest and resistance.
One of the greatest challenges to the potential success of the RTE is almost inevitably associated with money. The Indian Government agreed to ensure that the fees of children enrolled under this Act would be paid directly to schools in order to assist with resourcing. In my experience, once money becomes a prime mover in education there is a high likelihood of systems beginning to fail. Sadly this is being regularly confirmed in reports from around India in relation to the RTE.
Typical of these reports is an account on the DNA news site http://www.dnaindia.com/pune/report-40-children-denied-admission-by-vikhe-patil-memorial-school-their-parents-protest-against-authorities-2000474 for 8th July with the headline 40 Children Denied Admission by Vikhe Patil Memorial School, their Parents Protest against Authorities. According to this report parents protested at the school gates after their children, who had been allocated places under the quota system, were denied enrolment into the school. The school principal is arguing that the fees for these children have not been paid and therefore she will not admit the children into classes. A local benefactor, Datta Bahirat has offered to pay the fees until such time as the government reimburses the money, but apparently has been refused. This prompted him to state that:-
“Now the school is turning students away. Where will these students go? The school is worried about the money and I offered to pay the reimbursement. But the school has denied my help, showing its adamant unwillingness to admit RTE students.”
It should never be denied that schools cannot operate unless they have sufficient funds to cover all the expenses of resourcing classes and paying staff. However, I would argue that above all concerns in a situation such as this should be the welfare of the children at the heart of this dispute. If the fees have not been paid to the school then surely the government should be held to account, not the children and their parents. We appear to have a classical stand-off situation in which the school will not accept the children without fees and I suspect that the fees will not be released to the school until such time as the children are in class.
On reading this report I reflected on how I might have acted when I was head teacher of a school here in England, admittedly under very different circumstances. I like to think that I would have put the children first by enrolling them into the school and fighting for the fees once they were settled into class. However, I am aware that the principal of Vikhe Patil memorial school will be under considerable pressure from her board of managers and a faction of the parent body, and that decision making is not straight forward. But having said that, why did the principal join the teaching profession in the first place? Was it to serve the children in her community based upon an ethos of social justice and equity, or to run a business employing the principles of the market place.
A perusal of the school’s excellent website http://www.vpmspune.org/ makes clear the highly principled approach that it attempts to instil in its students through the statement:-
“We aim to not just impart knowledge to the students, but also to inculcate in them – wisdom, compassion and a humanitarian spirit. We have a multi-cultural student population; hence we teach children the importance of tolerance and respecting each other’s culture. Discipline, values and integrity are the very foundation of this school.”
It may be unfair to single out this particular school as a means of highlighting the current challenges facing the RTE and moves towards inclusive education in India. I could just as easily have identified a similar situation from across the country where such disputes have become a daily feature of schooling in India. For those of us working in this field, we need to look beyond the headlines to try and understand why there is continued resistance to legislation that almost everyone agrees has honourable intentions and is seen as an important step towards the achievement of universal education in India. I suspect that the principal and staff of Vikhe Patil school need support in understanding what they can achieve with children who they perceive as challenging their previously comfortable existence. Change can be worrying and this is clearly a school living with fear. It is surely beholding upon those of us who are critical of these situations to find the means of offering the support to educate such professional colleagues in the advantages to be gained through developing a more inclusive school. Whilst we are critical of situations such as these, simply shouting about injustice will not move matters forward.