Drop, don't extend it

Let me begin with two incidents in two premium schools in Gurugram to illustrate my point. In one case, an expensive phone carried by one of the students — against school rules — went missing in a classroom of students in the 11-12-year age group. The parents asked the school principal to intervene and a search was conducted. The phone could not be traced but the needle of suspicion fell on two boys from the economically weaker section (EWS) quota who happened to be in the same class. The principal who narrated the story to me said that while the culprit could not be nailed (and neither was the phone ever found), the two boys were guilty in almost everyone’s eyes. “It is just assumed that they must be the ones,” she added. Classmates shunned the two boys and parents sought their expulsion. 

In another school in Gurugram, a regular student happened to befriend a classmate who was admitted under the EWS quota. A fast friendship developed between the two boys but soon the mother of the former started blaming all the problems she saw developing in her child on this relationship. After a few months, she landed up at the principal’s office, asking her to expel the child who was admitted under the quota. The principal refused, following which she withdrew her son. The EWS quota boy remained but lost his only friend.

I can cite many such instances but both the incidents highlight one of the reasons why I am of the view that the EWS quota under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education (RTE) Act is not working well for anyone concerned. In a society that is fundamentally unequal, expecting the classroom to bridge the gap and deliver is plain silly. Happy, well-adjusted, high performers from one stable, regardless of their background, may be ideal but it sounds unrealistic in the current scenario. The kind of social engineering the Act envisages can only take place when the gap is less stark and not in isolation.

Over the last four years that I have been meeting teachers, principals, educationists and academicians, I am yet to come across one who managed to convince me of the benefits of this reservation — one that the government now is intending to expand.

Other than the social and psychological damage — which is largely anecdotal — teachers in the more elite schools openly say that the variance among students from under the EWS quota and the regular students is often so sharp that they as teachers are unable to cope. As a result, EWS students often spend most of their time in remedial classes, defeating the very purpose and placing an additional strain on the school’s resources.

The EWS scheme doesn’t work for the well-intentioned private schools either. For one, the eligibility criteria are so narrowly defined that many schools hardly get any applicants. This becomes a stick for the authorities and the media to beat the school management with, arguing that they are not keen to admit children under the quota. Allegations of misuse and corruption abound and commonly happen too. The compensation offered by government often has little bearing on the cost of educating the student by the school. In high-fee schools, the compensation is far too less and in low-fee schools, far too much.

As and when schools do manage to admit students under the quota, the teachers are unhappy as they view it as an extra effort for no return. They also grapple with complaints from parents who often argue that their children are being taught wrong values, language and habit by the quota students.

Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, an educationist who runs the City Montessori schools in Lucknow and is one of the sanest voices in the country’s education space, says these problems have arisen due to the failure of the government to discuss the proposal with the private schools. As she points out, for any partnership to work, there has to be a discussion on how best to make it work. That didn’t happen. The EWS quota section in the RTE was thrust upon private schools as a fait accompli. The ambiguity in the law is expectedly leading to litigation and bad blood.

Perhaps the greatest negative of the EWS quota scheme for me is its tacit acceptance of the failure of the government school system. If I was the government, I’d be trying to stem the outflow from the state schools to the private system instead of taking this defeatist approach of “I can’t do it; let someone else take on this headache”. A mighty government that is actually doing its job should be in a position to obviate the need for such a quota instead of looking at ways of shedding more and more of its responsibility.