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The View From Here - India - The poor children getting the chop

Allegations that teachers at a private school cut tufts of hair from disadvantaged pupils to mark them out from their more affluent classmates sparked protests in Bangalore last month, forcing the school to close for four days.

The incident, which generated widespread media coverage, highlights the fierce opposition by India's booming private school sector to a recent law that requires them to make primary places available to disadvantaged families.

The children who had their hair cut had been given free admission to the Oxford English School in the southern state of Karnataka under India's Right to Education Act. The law, introduced in 2010, says that all schools must reserve a quarter of their first-year places for children from less well-off homes and lower-caste social groups. It was designed to guarantee access to good quality education for children aged 6 to 14, regardless of their social background, in a country where caste discrimination is still rife and 8.5 million children are out of school, according to conservative estimates.

But private schools hostile to the Act raised concerns about the integration of marginalised groups and said the additional cost would force them to raise fees for other families or seek government subsidies.

Nationally, 25.6 per cent of children now attend private schools, up from 18.7 per cent in 2006. Even the poorest parents are turning away from government schools, where lessons are often taught in the local language rather than English, and teacher absenteeism runs at 25 per cent.

The Society for Private Unaided Schools, among other organisations, has called on the supreme court to quash the Act, but was told by judges in April that schools must conform to the law. A private schools association in Karnataka subsequently called for a week-long strike to coincide with the beginning of term last month, although only about 60 out of 1,800 schools took part after threats of high court action.

The hair-cutting allegations at the start of the new term moved the debate from the courtroom to the classroom and gave faces to those who claimed discrimination. As forlorn-looking children with snipped locks appeared in the press, parents said their offspring had been ostracised, made to sit at the back of the class and not given homework. One mother said her child's lunch box was examined by a teacher, who asked if it contained leftovers "because you're from a poor family".

After two days without comment, the school said it accepted "moral responsibility" for the incident, but insisted the children had cut their own hair in a craft lesson when the teacher wasn't watching. The lack of regular homework was put down to the children being behind in their English alphabet and needing to catch up.

Whatever the truth is, the episode has triggered an examination of how effective Right to Education can be when faced with intransigence from private schools and a government education system that is overcrowded, underfunded and poorly staffed.

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