The RTE Act coming into force is an important landmark in the evolution of this country. From long years of neglect of primary education to providing access to superior schooling to the underprivileged is indeed an astonishing transformation. As an unabashed champion of inclusiveness, I cannot help feeling a wave of exultation.
Alas, as a hard-nosed observer of the Indian system and a cold-blooded student of management, I cannot help having reservations. The idea is laudable. The poor should be able to walk into any school in their neighbourhood, not just into a municipal school. But will reserving 25% of seats in private schools (leaving aside exceptions) work? First, the central and state governments will bear some of the cost, not all of it. The rest of the cost will presumably be passed on to the 75% well-off children through higher fees. (The government will pay as per the fee in the central Kendriya Vidyalaya schools).One can expect private schools to face the usual hassles in settlement of dues on account of the reserved category.
Alright, suppose the financial part is taken care of. What then? We will have children from the disadvantaged category sitting next to well-heeled children. The differences in status will be glaring and is bound to tell on morale and confidence in the reserved category. One can expect discrimination from the teaching staff. The reserved category may face a high failure rate, which could itself prompt drop-outs.
Most importantly, the reserved category will find the going difficult beyond a certain class- say, seven or eight- for the simple reason that, even in so-called good quality private schools, the overwhelming burden of teaching- or preparing for the exam- rests with private tutors and coaching classes. In many schools, in the tenth grade, even the pretence of teaching disappears. There is mass absenteeism for much of the year as the children are busy preparing on their own by attending classes outside. You could argue that poor children suffer from this disadvantage - of not being able to afford coaching classes- even when they attend public schools. True, but now they will find themselves in the CBSE and other schools where the handicap could prove more crippling than in the state boards.
In a municipal or public school, the poor child is less likely to feel socially handicapped, whatever the other problems. Can poor children do well in schools where they face enormous hostility and serious handicaps in coping? These are the issues one has to reckon with. I would imagine that the government will have to step in with cash vouchers that enable the children to attend coaching classes as well.
This is a bold experiment that deserves a try. The results should be closely monitored and correctives introduced from time to time. I doubt, however, whether it can be an alternative to adding to and improving the quality of public schools.