RTE empowers the poor, but a lot more needs to be done

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Kouser Fathima

Manju (name changed to protect identity) a domestic help is exited to attend her son’s sports day event. Her preparations for this event have been going on for days and her excitement is infectious. This is not the first time her son is participating in a sports event; he always won races in the neighbourhood and in his old school, but what is different this year is her son is now studying in one of the renowned private schools of the neighbourhood.

Thanks to the social worker who informed her about RTE (Right To Education) she, a domestic help despite her meagre income is able to provide education to her son in one of the best schools.

Manju was, however, initially apprehensive about sending her son to a private school. She feared if her son would fit into the sphere of well-groomed kids. Or if he would feel left out? What would he tell if someone asked about his father? Most kids in the school had parents working for MNCs, the white collared professionals, whereas she was a domestic help and her husband worked as an electrician. Nothing was common with the kids and their lifestyle, but still she went ahead and availed the RTE benefit.

Having seen the state of education in government schools and how her elder son faired, Manju wanted a better future for her younger one. The RTE entailed free admission and schooling but she had to bear the cost of school books & bus charges , She worked harder, longer hours, saved every penny to help her son in every possible way. As his foundation was weak, she enrolled him to coaching classes so that he wouldn’t lag behind in the new school.

Manju herself made efforts to learn a few words in English as she wanted to communicate with the teachers. She didn’t want her son to feel embarrassed by her lack of English proficiency. And today she would be sitting in the stadium along with other parents watching her son participate in the sports day. Ladies in whose houses she worked would also be present, but today she would be sharing space with them as a proud parent. Nothing mattered today; she was one among them. And this was possible only because of the RTE Act.

The RTE Act was passed on August 2009 and came into force on 1 April 2010, making India the 135th country to make education a fundamental right of every child between 6 and 14 years of age. It requires all private schools (except the minority institutions) in the neighbourhood to reserve 25% of seats for the poor children, prohibits donation or capitation fees and no interview of both parent and child at the time of admission.

The Act also provides no child should be held back, expelled or required to pass a board exam till the completion of elementary education. With more than eight million children in the age group of 6-14 years remaining out of school, shortage of around five lakh teachers country wide and the sorry state of government schools, the RTE is seen as boon to the lower strata. Children who cannot afford the fees of private schools now have access to the best schools, thanks to the RTE.

But the RTE Act does have its share of problems. The private school management claim it to be “unconstitutional” and feels that the government has partly transferred its obligation on private institutions to provide free basic education. In April 2012, Supreme Court delivered its judgement and declared that such reservations are NOT unconstitutional. But the court exempted private minority schools from the act, resulting in protests by majority managed schools. They complained it is unfair that only their schools are forced to admit students under the act and many a time have refused admissions under the RTE.

The court has interfered at times forcing private schools to admit students under the RTE. The minorities on the other hand argue that their institutions are already catering to the economically weaker children from their communities hence can’t be further forced to admit more students. The issue of minority school exemption needs to be addressed but this should not stop others in helping the economically weak students.

We can’t deny that the government needs to do more especially with regard to the state of public schools. Emphasis should be on opening more public schools with better infrastructure, better accessibility to schools and increase the number of trained teachers. The public school model of countries like USA and Japan needs to be followed. There all students in the neighbourhood attend the public school, irrespective of their economic backgrounds.

That is possible only because the standard of public schools is very good, providing free quality education to all. Private schools are luxury afforded by only few rich but sadly due to the standards of our public schools, private education in our nation is more of a necessity. So until we improve the condition of public schools RTE can be a tool to provide equality in education and empower the downtrodden. Also, the government should work to improve the existing public education system.

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