Even the most hard-bitten school administrator will have no quarrel with the principles behind the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. Education is, at the end of the day, as much an act of idealism as it is a business proposition. Educators may pore over curriculum; combat staff attrition; mull over real estate and infrastructure; but they dream of catalysing change, inspiring young minds and changing the future. For people deep in the trenches of teaching and learning, this fundamental right of every child to a decent education ought to seem self-evident. Knowledge—to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore—should be free. Yet, most educators I know are against the Right to Education (RTE) Act—for reasons philosophical and practical.

Logic in funding: It might be a better idea to support NGOs such as the Bharti Foundation that work in the field of education. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The human face of the RTE Act and one that stares parents in the face is the 25% quota. Affluent urban Indians—and certainly the readership of this newspaper—send their children to elite private schools. The new reality is that these schools will have to mandatorily admit a 25% quota of underprivileged children—whether it is a Sanskriti, Bombay Scottish or Vidyashilp. This mingling of social classes is certain to cause discomfort even if few parents will vocalize it. “In principle, I have no problem with this," we will say, and may even believe it. We will call forth our childhood hardships and tell each other, “I believe that my children ought to socialize with, and learn from, all types of children." We will feel the halo shining around our heads.

Of course, class has nothing to do with character. Intelligence is marginally correlated with wealth, if that. In many cases, the plumbers, drivers and dairy farmers who work for the urban elite are just as honest, if not more, than their employers. Children do learn from their less-privileged peers. But usually, such learning happens in an organic, semi-structured way—over summer holidays at grandparents’ homes when the driver’s son teaches your son how to play pithoo.

The RTE Act takes this notion and wraps a structure around it. The lady who helps clean my home, Rosie, is an erstwhile government schoolteacher, who discovered that she makes more money cleaning homes than teaching. She lives in Yelahanka, in the vicinity of a number of Bangalore’s top private schools. In theory, Rosie’s daughter, Jenny, could and should be my daughter’s classmate. Jenny is a tall, bright girl with limpid eyes and a quick wit. She smiles often and asks questions. She is polite and curious. She is of the same age as my younger daughter; and they could learn from each other. In theory.

Children are cliquish. I don’t like this fact, but cannot escape it. I can invite any number of outsiders—from hovels or gated communities—to my daughter’s birthday party, command her to “be nice", and after the initial “hello", she will return to giggling with her school friends. Lectures about egalitarianism carry as much weight as all those lectures about “starving children while you waste food" and “I studied under the street lights while you forget to switch off the lights". In that sense, the RTE Act is noble in its aspirations. It is designed for parents who want to break free from the shackles of class and caste. If properly implemented, it may even work. But implementation is key.

As a layperson, a better approach would be to tax the schools—as Rajan and Banerjee have said in The Indian Express. The financial aspect would be easy to accomplish, particularly from the richer private schools. I would be willing to pay an RTE fee in addition to what my children’s schools charge me, particularly if I know that it will help a child get an education. Educating underprivileged children is a pet cause among affluent parents—and I say this without rancour. But what of parents who send their children to the poorer private schools that author James Tooley writes about? Taxing them when they are already stretched is unfeasible.

Funnelling this money towards private schools that are already performing well seems to be one solution. Building the capacity of a middle layer of schools would be a way to transition bright students from those schools into top-tier schools. Schools are as much about socialization as they are about curriculum. Assimilating children of different backgrounds into elite schools will not be easy to do. This isn’t a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces will fit in.

The RTE Act, as it stands now, seems to me to be a massive government cop-out. What the government seems to be saying is that they have failed the 90% of children who go to government schools and, therefore, want the private schools to step in and do their work. It is a punitive solution to what is essentially a noble intent. As a parent, I laud the intent. I am willing to help make it work. But as a student of psychology, I don’t think plonking underprivileged children in elite schools is the solution.

Shoba Narayan is the product of a convent-school education, but learned just as much on the street. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also read | Shoba Narayan’s previous columns

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