With the enactment of the Right to Education Act (specifically Clause 12 i.e. the reservation of 25% of the entry-level seats in all private unaided schools for government-sponsored Economically Weaker Section (EWS) students and students from disadvantaged communities) the Indian Government has finally acknowledged the role of the private sector in providing Education for All. Though the Act itself has been severely criticized on its lack of clarity and design; this clause in particular has brought about severe reactions from Indian society at large, especially from an ideological context.
At one end of the spectrum there are several people who have reacted positively to the idea behind this clause and are supportive of the fact that through the Act, the government has finally recognized and acknowledged the private sector’s role in the provision of quality education. What is most telling of this is the fact that the poorest in India choose these private schools over free government schools and are willing to spend substantial money on educating their children in these schools. Of all the enrolled children living below the poverty line, 14.8% of 5-10 year olds, 13.8% of 11-14 year olds and 7% of 15-17 year olds attended private school (Gandhi, G. 2007) and their parents spend between 6-11% of their income on education in these private schools (ASER, 2010). These numbers are a powerful testament to those policy makers who continue to believe that the private sector has no role in education.
However several segments of society strongly oppose the idea behind this clause, as they believe that by including a provision for government sponsored school places in private schools the government is shirking its constitutional obligation towards providing education and is instead transferring its responsibility to the private sector.
To understand the grievances and difficulties faced by the various stakeholders and; the social, economic and educational impact of the clause, the Centre for Civil Society conducted a perception study to understand its implementation and impact in four districts of Delhi. The study used in-depth interviews with parents, schools and government officials and focus group discussions with community groups to understand whether the clause is in fact achieving its objective of social justice.
The study reveals that in all of the 4 districts, awareness levels among EWS parents were generally low. Of the 162 EWS parents that were eligible to apply under Clause 12, over 56% did not apply as they were either unaware of this provision or were aware but did not know what the application procedure involved despite the presence of a number of private schools within a 2-5 km radius. However, those that were unaware but eligible were keen to learn more about the RTE and the admission process so that they could enroll their children in private schools. Of the parents that were aware, both fee-paying parents and EWS parents were fairly concerned about integration issues between their children. The perception of fee-paying parents was that the government-sponsored children would feel out of place and that they would not be able to cope with the studies. However, no child reported exclusion issues during the course of this study.
The biggest concern for schools was the lack of clarity about the reimbursement amount and schedule. While slightly higher budget schools (minimum monthly fee is Rs. 1000) were concerned that the reimbursement amount was too low, low budget schools (minimum monthly fee is less than Rs. 500) were satisfied with the reimbursement amount but were more anxious about the regularity of the reimbursement.
Most government officials were fairly satisfied with the implementation of this clause since it was the first year of implementation. However; they did feel that the targeting and sourcing of beneficiaries needed to be more streamlined. Moreover they felt that some amount of publicity was needed so that the beneficiaries were aware of the scheme and that none of the seats reserved under this provision remained vacant.
While the Act is a step in the right direction; there is an absence of clear policy guidelines and support structure from the government. However in its current form, this clause is facing opposition from schools because of the lack of clarity about the reimbursement procedure and from fee-paying parents because of the perceived integration issues. Several changes need to be made in terms of increasing awareness levels, streamlining the selection and admission process and clearly defining reimbursement amounts, calculation methods and timelines. If implemented correctly, Clause 12 of the RTE Act can help create access to quality education and more importantly, provide marginalized children with the ability to choose their own schools.