Education, social mobility, and the RTE policy

By Tarun Cherukuri:

On 31st May, 2019, the draft National Education Policy (NEP) developed by a committee chaired by K. Kasturirangan, was shared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The policy is open for public comments and review till 30th June, 2019. Amongst other things, it has suggested a comprehensive review of the RTE policy, including Section 12.1.c, which promotes diversity in private unaided schools, by allocating 25 percent of seats in entry classes (Nursery, Pre-K and Grade 1) to disadvantaged children.

“The large amounts of money and effort spent on implementing this clause may be more effectively spent,” the NEP authors suggest, “by investing the money on the public schooling system–particularly in disadvantaged areas–which would directly support many more students from underprivileged backgrounds in a sustainable manner.”

The authors are arguing for monies to be effectively reallocated to disadvantaged areas, instead of targeting disadvantaged children across India. I think there is no evidence to suggest that such an allocation mechanism is more effective for social mobility of disadvantaged children. In fact, there is evidence that RTE Section 12.1.c might be more effective in realising this spirit. (Full disclosure: I lead Indus Action, which is focused on effective implementation of RTE Section 12.1.c)

‘Social capital’ is an academic term used to capture the value that humans generate through their social interactions. It is the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively and build a cohesive society. Robert Putnam, Public Policy Professor at Harvard, in his book ‘Bowling Alone’, surveys the decline of social capital in the United States since the 1950s. In this seminal book, he makes a distinction between ‘bonding social capital’ and ‘bridging social capital’. The former refers to social networks among homogenous groups (people whom we believe are like us) and the latter refers to social networks among heterogeneous groups (people whom we believe are unlike us).

Though Putnam highlights the merits of building social capital in providing individuals with support, he emphasises that though bonding social capital is crucial for ‘getting by’, it is bridging social capital that is crucial for ‘getting ahead.’ Having bridging social capital provides us better linkage to external assets and critical information in society. Segregated housing and schools in the US, among other factors, led to this decline of social capital in the US since the 1950s.

In the context of disadvantaged children in India, this is a useful framework to think about creating support structures of social mobility. While investment in disadvantaged areas might create bonding social capital for the targeted children, there are significantly more cost-effective ways to create bridging social capital, to break poverty cycles and foster inclusion.

The private sector has a mandatory role to play in promoting constitutional values like justice and fraternity in an unequal society. Bridging India’s societal fault lines of caste, class, gender, sexuality, and religion is hard work and cannot be done overnight. It will not happen in five years of implementation of a progressive policy, which is ambitious in its spirit to create inclusive classrooms. The government must persist with RTE Section 12.1.c through its teething issues, just like it did for the 2 percent CSR clause and the GST roll out.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

This article was originally published on India Development Review and can be viewed here.

About the author

Tarun Cherukuri: Tarun is co-founder and CEO at Indus Action. Indus Action works with students, parents, educators, schools, and governments in 18 states to implement Section 12.1.c of the Right to Education (RTE) law which mandates 25% reservation for disadvantaged kids in private classrooms. Tarun is also part of the 2019 cohort of the Obama Foundation Fellowship.

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