New Delhi, April 15 (IANS) The beginning of a revolution in education or a cloud on the autonomy of private institutions and a financial burden on the middle class?
The Supreme Court judgment asking private schools to provide 25 percent seats to economically weaker sections (EWS) as per the Right To Education (RTE) act that guarantees education to every school going child in the country has split opinion right down the middle.
While private schools are frankly unhappy, education activists say the April 12 ruling is a great step towards equal opportunities for all. Parents are apprehensive about how it will work out and many wonder if this will lead to social friction in the classrooms and school buses.
"There is nothing wrong in giving education to the underprivileged, but then the government should reimburse the entire tuition fee or else it will become a financial burden on us," Madhulika Singh, principal of Delhi's Tagore International School, told IANS.
Some schools in Kolkata believe it would be better if they are not included in the list of government 'aided' institutions and are ready to bear the extra financial burden rather than take government aid to subsidise poor students that they will have to take under the Right to Education act.
Damodar Prasad Goyal, president of the Society for Unaided Private Schools, says it is more about the autonomy of schools than reservation.
"We are not opposed to 25 percent reservation for EWS students, but it is our fundamental right to have the autonomy to admit students... the government cannot nationalise 25 percent seats," Goyal told IANS.
While Goyal was unclear about whether they would seek a review of the ruling by the two-judge bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justice Swatanter Kumar, the Federation of Indian Public Schools, which comprises nearly 300 schools from New Delhi, said it would seek a rethink by a larger bench.
"We will comply with the Supreme Court orders, but we want a review of the decision by the full court," the Federation's R.P. Malik said.
Activists are equally certain that this is the best thing to have happened.
"It is a great victory for underprivileged children of our country and will ensure their right to education. The verdict has validated the stand that education is a basic constitutional right of every child whether it is in private or government institutions," RTE forum convenor Ambarish Rai told IANS.
Anjela Taneja, education coordinator with Oxfam India, cited the example of the 1956 US Supreme Court judgment that ended the system of separate schools for African Americans and the whites.
"Barack Obama is one of the first generation that benefited from this... We often look west for examples, and this is a suitable example," Taneja told IANS. "Perhaps this will give an opportunity for 'Bharat' and 'India' to meet."
Some schools and parents are concerned about how seamless this integration will be and what impact it could have on children.
"I think it's about acceptance of a society that simultaneously exists around you. Whether children from economically weaker sections and kids from well-to-do families sit together in the same class or not, there has to be a sense of mutual respect and acceptance for each other," Vishakha Tyagi, parent of an eight-year-old in south Delhi's Laxman Public school, told IANS.
At the other end of the income spectrum, autorickshaw driver Mahesh Kumar is equally worried.
"To get admission in a private school is not the only thing. I am worried about how my child will cope up with the way of life of children at these schools," said Mahesh, whose child studies in a government school.
Advocate Ashok Agarwal countered by saying: "It is a question of mentality and intention." He also rubbished arguments of financial burden given by private schools.
"It's a bogus argument... it will not be any great economic burden on the schools and in addition to that, the government will also be giving them money for it. Where is the burden?" he asked.
"This is the beginning of a revolution..." Agarwal told IANS.
Some schools have begun the process of sensitising parents.
Ritika Ganguly, whose family has children studying in Delhi's Springdales School, Dhaula Kuan, said: "Even before the judgement came, the junior school principal at the parent-teacher meet strongly told parents not to complain and sensitise their children on the importance of interacting with those from diverse backgrounds."
Fortunately, children seem to be taking the move in the right spirit.
"We are happy with what has come out. Why should someone face bias on grounds of class when education is a right for all," said Swati Kaul, a student of Apeejay School in Sheikh Sarai.
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