An arsenal of ideals may get in the way of simple perceptions. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was certainly long due, and very welcome when it was formulated in 2009. As a broad ideal, it is flawless. The ideals hidden in its details, however, may be less accessible, especially as the relevance of some of these seems doubtful. The recent protests of parents aspiring to admit their children in two schools in Malda and Barasat respectively have brought out the difficulties of imposing new ideals on an already functioning system that has developed its own features and values. The problem is with the provision that children should be admitted into schools within a kilometre of their homes in cities and towns and within 2 km in rural areas. At one level, this is welcome, especially in the villages — all states are supposed to have enough schools for each locality ready within three years of legislation — but it can only be meaningful if it increases options. An imposition cannot be an option. The protesting parents brought their children from beyond the mandated radius so that their wards could be considered for a school they believed to be superior in quality to the ones in their neighbourhood. There may be an adequate number of schools, but guardians should not be compelled to accept what they perceive to be a lower standard for their wards just because it is in the neighbourhood.
The underlying ideal of the neighbourhood school, common enough in the West, is linked essentially to the idea of community development. Drawing its students from a given ‘hinterland’, the school, sometimes even linked to a community centre, helps deepen links within the community while helping the students to reach out beyond. It is not a perfect system, given the natural difference in standards, but the value of community building allows these schools a different dimension. But there is no such suggestion in the creation of a rigid radius for schools in the new legislation. Convenience, fairness, inclusiveness are important aims, but they are all sabotaged if such a provision is imposed. And withdrawal of Central aid at its violation does mean imposition. Education is a concurrent subject; compulsion by the Centre goes against the federal principle. The law should certainly be followed, but the states should be allowed the flexibility and wisdom to deal with each set of circumstances as best they can.