HERE’S LOOKING AT US
The Supreme Court’s April 12 judgment on the Right To Education (RTE) Act directing schools to implement the provisions regarding 25% admission to poor students, is like King Kong let loose. Panic and fear rule the hearts of parents, it appears from reading the English newspapers. Those feelings may well be an accurate reflection of the mood of upper middle class urban parents and their kids. Does this class represent the overall readership of the English press? Is this readership also upper caste? Should we write keeping only the specific interests of our readers in mind – assuming that we know who they are? Finally, does what we write speak more about our own attitudes than those of our readers?
These questions arise out of a few news reports and headlines of the past week, of only one paper, but it claims to be the market leader. On Thursday, May 17, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India carried a front-page report headlined “SC/ST, OBC quota likely in city schools.” Now any English journalist knows the popular reaction to the words “SC/ST, OBC quota”. Readers, already furious at reading the headline, would have then gone on to read these opening paras: “If you have enrolled your child in the pre-primary section or Class I of a private unaided school this year, you could be in for much anxiety. First, schools may have to reopen admissions to make space for candidates belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) and socially disadvantaged groups (SDG). Second, SC/ST and OBC reservation may be made at the school level. Caste-based quotas usually start from college.’’
The report further said that the Maharashtra Education Department had declared that no school (except minority unaided schools) could “get away” from the Supreme Court’s RTE verdict. “This means EWS and SDG kids will comprise 25 % of a class at the entry level. Much chaos might be in store as schools do not know how to accomplish this without increasing the class size or cancelling admissions of confirmed students. Also, though SDG has not been defined, it will in all likelihood include children from SC and STs, OBCs and nomadic tribes, minorities (as defined by the State), and those living in orphanages and children’s homes. SC/STs and minorities are likely to be part of SDG irrespective of their income.’’
This report is a direct address to parents whose wards have been admitted to private unaided schools.
What if in an orphanage which educates its inmates, a child – say 10 or 12 years old - was asked to read the day’s headlines and reports? What if a child in a private unaided English school was asked to read this report? (This is a hypothetical question since schools are now on vacation.) The way it has been written, leads to three conclusions:
1) The writer assumes that his readers are all from advantaged groups- i.e. not SC/ST/OBC/nomadic tribe/minority/ inmates of orphanages and children’s homes.
2) He assumes no SC/ST/OBC/ minority children study in private unaided schools, (orphans and those in children’s homes are beyond the pale).
If these two assumptions have not been made by him, then,
3) The writer is unconcerned about how readers from these “socially disadvantaged groups’’ may feel when they read, on Page One of the country’s leading English newspaper, how a policy, supposed to provide them opportunities to good education, is actually a recipe for chaos, spelt out as such in the report, and total disaster, implied in it.
A glimpse of the impending mayhem came in the next day’s TOI. In a report titled “Divisions in 25 % quota add to admission agony” (“agony” for which set of parents?, “Divisions” referred to the SC/ST categories in the SDG), Lata Nair, vice-president of PTA (Parent Teacher Associations) United Forum, was quoted as asking: “Once students from economically weaker sections get through to big schools, what is the guarantee that they won’t be harassed?’’
Right. Who can ensure that advantaged toddlers in primary schools won’t bully their poorer classmates who will obviously stand out in class? Not parents and teachers of course! Madam Nair also said, “Parents may be ambitious and want to seek admission in IB and ICSE schools, but we also need to see if students will be able to adapt to their surroundings.”
Quite. As the old Hindi saying goes: “Kawa chalaa hansi ki chaal”, or, better still, “Kahan Raja Bhoj, kahan Gangu Teli!” And with the threat of uncontrolled harassment looming large, Madam Nair is indeed correct in implying that Gangu Telis curb their ambitions and stick to State board schools. This quote was highlighted in a box.
The curious thing is that a report in the same newspaper on Wednesday, May 16, titled “Schools escape RTE quota norm” (note the word “escape”), had clearly said that though city schools were in a “tizzy” over the RTE clause setting aside 25 % seats for EWS students, “to their relief, the government had agreed that if schools can prove that their admission procedure was completed before April 12, they did not have to comply with the clause this academic year.”
Yet, the very next morning the paper front-paged the dire “If you are a parent” report! When there was no cause for panic, why spread it?
After causing unnecessarily anxiety to parents on May 17, on May 18, just above the “agony” report, was a longer one titled, “Schools have two weeks to implement new norms”. It quoted education officials as saying that a meeting of school principals had been convened five days after the Supreme Court judgment, on April 17. Principals had been told to get back to the department with queries – none of them had done so in the intervening month. The entire report quoted government officials; it could well have been titled: “Schools were informed a month ago”. Similarly, schools’ concerns about increasing class strength suddenly could have been compared with the standard school-management practice of doing precisely this just to earn more from fees, even if this meant going against stated policies of the school. Any parent would have told them this. But wait a minute – that means you support this reservation Act!
There’s no doubt that under the RTE Act, the State is abdicating its own responsibility towards the majority of children who are poor. It is also true that implementation of the Act needs a lot of preparation if it’s to achieve its stated goals. But the reports quoted above make it clear from their tenor and from the quotes they have selected, not only that the hurried implementation of the Act would be unfair to those who had already got a seat; but that the reservation of 25 % seats for EWS and SDG itself was wrong.
The principal of an ICSE school was quoted as saying: “Students anyway face several problems for junior-college admissions, now even school admissions will become chaotic.” The plaint referred to the Maharashtra government’s ad-hoc and clumsy attempts in the last few years to offset the advantage enjoyed by Std X ICSE (and CBSE) students in admission to junior colleges (Classes XI and XII) in Mumbai, since these boards were far more liberal with marks than the State board.
What does this have to do with the presumed “chaos” in admissions because of the RTE Act referred to by this principal? This “chaos” would be equally applicable to all private unaided schools in Mumbai, why only ICSE schools? But readers, specially parents, know by now that for Mumbai’s English journalists, ICSE schools symbolise the pinnacle of schooling. It would be worthwhile to find out how many English newspaper reporters on the school beat have attended state board schools.
Finally, on May 19, the TOI reported as page-one anchor: “School quota may not roll out this year”. The report, by a senior correspondent, blamed the government’s delay in prescribing norms for reservation, and issuing the necessary notification in this regard. The report detailed the long-winded process required for such a notification to be issued. So, all that anxiety and tizzy, those breathless and indignant quotes, were just so much hot air! The anchor was continued inside, but right next to it was another red alert on the same topic: “Private schools will have to bear intial edu act quota cost”. The report assumed that the quota would fall in place from June.
What can be concluded form this kind of reportage? Forget the reporters and their own biases, what about the news editors?
And now back to this columnist’s favourite gripe – the TOI’s coverage of the performance of reserved category candidates (SC/ST/OBC) in the annual IIT-JEE. The attempt by the paper to allegedly belittle their performance has been apparent from the time OBC reservations were put in place in 2008. Over the past four years, the performance of these students has been improving. Those who could not get admission despite the lower cut-offs for them (which the TOI unfailingly refers to as the “handicap of score relaxation”), were put through a year’s preparatory course. For the last three years, the number of SC candidates qualifying has been more than the seats reserved, so no SC candidate has had to undergo the course. This year, successful ST candidates too, have outnumbered the seats reserved for them, so no Scheduled Tribe student will need the course.
Since IITs put out all this information when the resuts are declared, all newspapers report it. But last year, the TOI got an unnamed former JEE chairman to belittle this improvement in performance by students generally regarded as “undeserving”. Would they do that this year too, I wondered. Yes! And believe it or not, they did so in exactly the same words. I had reproduced this para in my column last year. I am simply copying and pasting it from there. Check it out with the TOI Mumbai edition dated May 19.
“Sceptics, however, have an answer to why the preparatory programme is being done away with this year. The total number of seats across the IITs has gone up because of the OBC quota; the number of IITs too has risen. ‘It is possible that the IITs had to pull down the cut-off for filling up all the (general category) seats. And with the relaxation formula, a lot of SC students made it. This may have eventually resulted in abysmally low scores for quota candidates after the scores were relaxed by 50%,’ said a former JEE chairman.’’