I'm all for RTE. Yes, there are not enough seats in schools and yes, some of our elite babies might have to suffer culture shock (more the parents than the children it seems sometimes) but in such a segregated country, it is needed. However, I'd like to add my 2 bits to the subject. Years ago, my dhobi's son finished high school (a government school) and got into Delhi University. I think it was Dyal Singh college. Everyone was proud and it seemed like this amazing moment where barriers were being broken. However, it soon became apparent that because of the fact that he couldn't invite friends home and at times felt horribly aware that his social and financial situation was not the same as the friends he was making. His parents came to my parents to ask them for help, he was suffering severe depression. He was taken to a therapist and long story short, is totally okay now, and has a government job.
Cut to a few years later when my mom put my cooks kids in an English medium school here in Delhi. The difference is that now she sits with them practically every single day and does homework. She buys them new clothes and uniforms, and cycles and skateboards, and what have you. I get them all kinds of science gizmos and chocolates and DVDs of cartoons etc. I know a lot of parents and families offer the same support. This is not to make a hero out of anyone, but its to shine a light on a simple fact: when kids come home -- they need help with homework and with some amount of confidence building. If the parents cannot speak English, how the hell will they help with homework? Therefore, when we talk about RTE, I hope schools or the government has though about putting in place mechanisms to help these kids absorb education in a language which is definitely not spoken at home, and also, to emotionally deal with the fact that they might live in a servants quarter which is the size of somebody else's bathroom. These are not things that can't be dealt with - don't get me wrong - I just mean I hope we are sensitive to some human emotions while we go about these massive changes.
I'm saying this very specifically because some of the arguments I've read pro-RTE seem to be saying -- "the middle class is so full of itself, throw these poor children into the mix and let them suffer". Yes, we are insufferable. But please don't use these poor little kids as a weapon to punish us. Make the same argument, put do it with some heart.
On the other hand, there are those who say government schools need to be fixed, they are absolutely right. Obviously, as a journalist, I've visited lots of government schools around the country and their quality ranges from good to bad. The other day I went to meet some kids as part of an after-school activity in Madanpur Khadar J&J Colony (around Kalindi Kunj, New Delhi). My foundation and Bring Home Stories (which is Sapna's as many of you might know) are getting together to get these kids to produce a film and we were there to figure them out. Sapna had met them the week before and asked them to prepare a 3 min speech on what story they would cover if they were a journalist. The sheer confidence with which they spoke, and the fact that all of them had done their research, blew me away. Very, very impressive. I took videos, so you can see what I mean. But if you ask me, why do you think it was that these kids from a government school living in just another city slum were so impressive? Its because they have not only a good school but great after school activities organized by some local NGOs which have given them the confidence and the training to be better. Sapna and I have it easy, because we're working with such sharp kids to begin with.
My point is this: there needs to be sufficient arrangements to make sure that kids - in this case (RTE) if they are shifting over to private schools have the back up they need to survive this huge, huge tectonic shift they will experience. I just feel like too many people are focusing on the top down effect (suck it, middle class) and that doesn't help. Be productive. How will you help these kids adapt? Start learning so many subjects in English? Keep up with some amount of cultural references the other kids are talking about? Deal with the inferiority complex that might arise from such a huge change. Lets do it. But as I said earlier, lets do it with heart.