Class Struggle: India’s Experiment in Schooling Tests Rich and Poor


NEW DELHI—Instead of playing cricket with the kids in the alleyway outside, four-year-old Sumit Jha sweats in his family’s one-room apartment. A power cut has stilled the overhead fan. In the stifling heat, he traces and retraces the image of a goat.

In April, he enrolled in the nursery class of Shri Ram School, the most coveted private educational institution in India’s capital. Its students include the grandchildren of India’s most powerful figures—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party President Sonia Gandhi.

Sumit, on the other hand, lives in a slum.

Grand Experiment at Shri Ram School

Manpreet Romana for The Wall Street JournalKids sit under a board filled with artwork in a corridor of Shri Ram School in New Delhi.

His admission to Shri Ram is part of a grand Indian experiment to narrow the gulf between rich and poor that is widening as India’s economy expands. The Right to Education Act, passed in 2009, mandates that private schools set aside 25% of admissions for low-income, underprivileged and disabled students. In Delhi, families earning less than 100,000 rupees (about $2,500 a year) qualify.

Shri Ram, a nontraditional school founded in 1988, would seem well-suited to the experiment. Rather than drill on rote learning, as many Indian schools do, Shri Ram encourages creativity by teaching through stories, songs and art. In a typical class, two teachers supervise 29 students; at public schools nearby, one teacher has more than 50. Three times a day, a gong sounds and teachers and students pause for a moment of contemplation. Above the entrance, a banner reads, “Peace.”

Yet the most notable results so far are frustration and disappointment as the separations that define Indian society—between rich and poor, employer and servant, English-speaker and Hindi-speaker—are upended. This has led even some supporters of the experiment to conclude that the chasm between the top and bottom of Indian society is too great to overcome.

Shri Ram itself is challenging the law in the Supreme Court, arguing in part that the government exceeded its authority in imposing the quotas.

“We have a social obligation to bridge the gap between rich and poor,” says Manju Bharat Ram, Shri Ram’s founder. “But sometimes the gap is just too wide.”

The government feels a “just and humane” society can be achieved only through inclusive education, says Anshu Vaish of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, and private schools must do their part. Teachers will adapt, and the rich and poor will enrich each other’s learning, she says, adding that education is “an act of faith and social engineering—but not quick-fix social engineering.”

Manpreet Romana for The Wall Street JournalManika Sharma says she was jolted when the floor-sweeper from her home enrolled a child in the school where she is the principal.



Sumit is struggling at Shri Ram. Teachers have called in his father, Mithalesh Kumar Jha, who earns $150 a month as a driver for an apparel executive, to complain that his son hits other kids and isn’t concentrating. Desperate for Sumit to get a good English-language education, Mr. Jha has responded by spanking his son and imposing an “all-work-and-no-play” routine.

Which is why Sumit sat on his bed recently, his mother hovering as he copied and recopied the day’s lesson: the Hindi letter “b,” and a picture of a bakri, or goat.

Sumit doesn’t complain. “Did you see the goat I drew?” he asks excitedly the next day at school. “I drew five pictures of the goat. My dad wanted me to draw more goats but I was too tired.”

Sumit’s father and many of the poorer parents are troubled by the fact that their own limited literacy prevents them from helping. Some wealthy parents, meanwhile, chafe at the slowed pace of learning. They have suggested segregating the poor kids.

And Shri Ram’s teachers complain that the poor, even at age four, are far behind in the fundamentals of learning and social skills. “The teachers have come into my office and broken down” in tears, says Manika Sharma, Shri Ram’s principal. “They say, ‘Help us. There is no learning happening for the other children. What we achieved in one week with kids before is taking three weeks.’ ”

Some parents, having encouraged their household staff to enroll their children, are also grappling with a profound change in the nature of their relationship with their servants.

Ms. Sharma, the 51-year-old principal, felt this jolt herself two years ago when Chan Kumari, a floor-mopper in her home, enrolled her son, Vipin, at Shri Ram. That’s when the school first adopted a similar quota for underprivileged kids under a local Delhi law, increasing it to 25% this year, when the federal Right to Education Act took effect.

“I was horrified. A parent in my school, mopping my floors—I just couldn’t handle it,” says Ms. Sharma. “I can’t sit across the table from someone who sweeps my floors.”

Ms. Kumari recalls apologizing: “I’m so sorry. I’ve made you angry. I shouldn’t have told you.”

Ms. Sharma says she reassured Ms. Kumari that she had done nothing wrong. She resolved the matter by giving Ms. Kumari a year’s salary to stay home with Vipin and her newborn girl.

Manpreet Romana for The Wall Street JournalVipin Kumar, right, the son of a sweeper, is a top student and one of the most popular kids in his class.



India is not a country overflowing with Horatio Alger stories. More typical are jarring juxtapositions of wealth and poverty far beyond anything found in the West.

With hired help so cheap, even middle-class households can have a staff of four or five—cooks, babysitters, drivers, maids. As the economy has grown, the lives of servants has improved. Many can afford relative luxuries like cellphones, for instance, something inconceivable a few years ago. Still, poor families typically live in slum apartments or shacks.

India has tried to create opportunities for its poorest, who are often among the lowest castes. Quota systems reserve government jobs for the poor, and at some colleges almost half the seats are set aside for minorities. Affirmative-action policies like these have fueled resentment among some who feel quotas make it unfairly difficult for their own children to get ahead.

Nationwide, about 237 million children attend elementary or high school, according to government figures. It’s tough to get a precise breakdown of public- versus private-school attendance, but in first through eighth grades 130 million are enrolled in government schools and 57 million in private ones, according to India’s District Information System for Education.

India’s government-run school system is a shambles, undermined by teacher absences and a lack of investment. That drives families who can afford it to private schools.

This year, Shri Ram accepted 84 out of the 2,288 applications from its traditional, non-poor students—a 3.7% acceptance rate, even lower than Harvard College’s.

Shri Ram charges fee-paying students about $1,500 a year. For each poor child, the government pays $300 a year, the cost of educating a child in a public school.

Many of the world’s top private schools offer scholarships to smart poor kids. But India’s plan is more sweeping: It reserves a quarter of admissions for underprivileged kids. Rules prohibit admission-testing of students, rich or poor, although private schools can set some parameters, such as nearness to the school or gender.

On March 4, Mr. Jha, Sumit’s dad, showed up at Shri Ram for the lottery to see if his son would be picked. Sumit had already failed to win a spot at six other private schools.

“I was saying, ‘God has forgotten me,’ ” Mr. Jha says.

But this time, Sumit’s name was pulled from a hat. His tearful father applauded.

A few weeks later, parents of the 112 children admitted to the nursery class arrived for orientation at the four-story school, set among the gated homes of the wealthy Vasant Vihar neighborhood. Affluent parents stepped out of chauffeur-driven sedans and SUVs. Low-income parents arrived on foot or bicycles. Poor women covered their heads with their paloos, the free ends of their saris, in the conservative fashion of parts of rural north India.

The parents were ushered into classrooms and seated on a red carpet. Sitting in a circle with fellow parents from such vastly different backgrounds left Bhavna Singh, one of the well-to-do mothers, uncomfortable. “Everyone knew this was happening, but seeing them is a different kind of thing,” she says.

Soon after, Ms. Singh visited the principal, Ms. Sharma. “If they want to do it to improve the country, fine,” Ms. Singh recalls saying. “But they should segregate the poor kids until they get up to par.”

Many parents have similar complaints. “I don’t blame them,” Ms. Sharma says. “There’s no denying the reality that their kids’ learning will be slowed.”

One recent morning, teachers Sujata Gupta and Shilki Sawhney asked their class of four-year-olds to name examples of purple things. The rich kids shouted out “blackberries,” “blackcurrant ice cream” and “potassium permanganate,” a chemical used to clean fruits and vegetables.

None of the seven low-income kids raised their hands. Unlike the wealthier children, they hadn’t learned their colors at home, spoke no English, and were further confused by examples of things they had never heard of.

The teachers, repeating everything in Hindi for the poor kids, then asked anyone wearing a purple T-shirt to stand. Nitin Raj, saucer-eyed and wearing green, rose.

“He’s not understanding at all,” Ms. Gupta said.

After nine days of studying the letter “a,” drawing objects beginning with the sound and writing the letter on work sheets, Nitin still doesn’t connect the sound with the letter, according to Ms. Gupta.

Ms. Sawhney pulled aside Nitin and seven other kids (five poor, two rich) having trouble with their vowels for a remedial session. Afterward, the teachers called in their parents.

“Nitin needs extra help,” Ms. Gupta recalls telling his mother, Manju Raj. The school would be giving him additional homework, she said, and urged Ms. Raj to sit down with her boy every day to help him. If she couldn’t, the teachers said, Ms. Raj should hire a tutor.

Meanwhile, the teachers said they had no choice but to move forward teaching the rest of the alphabet or risk missing their goal for the class: reading simple words, like “cat,” by year’s end.

Nitin, whose father earns about $150 a month driving for a shoe-factory owner, lives in a slum along an alley thick with files. He shares a tidy one-room apartment with his parents and 12-year-old brother, Rohit.

Shri Ram is a world apart from his brother’s public school. Fifty-seven kids cram into Rohit’s eighth-grade classroom. Teachers are frequently absent. One recent morning, broken glass filled one side of the playground and pupils, lacking desks, sat on the classroom floor.

“All I want is for my boy to get an education so he doesn’t have to become a driver like his dad,” Ms. Raj says of Nitin. She’s been looking for a tutor, but can’t find one in her slum. She is worried because neither she nor her husband speak or write English well enough to help him.

Sumit’s dad, Mr. Jha, deals with similar constraints. He has a 10th-grade education, and he finds himself learning new things from his four-year-old.

Sitting cross-legged on the family bed that occupies half of their one-room home recently, Mr. Jha pointed to the letter “a” his son had written, and then at a picture below of a man wearing a uniform.

“This is an aadmi,” Hindi for man, Mr. Jha says.

“No, daddy,” the boy replies. “That is an astronaut.”

“What is an astronaut?” asks Mr. Jha in Hindi.

“They fly high in the sky,” the boy says.

It was the first Mr. Jha had heard of space travel.

Sumit is lucky. The family that his father works for tutors him on weekends.

But some wealthy parents consider it counter-productive for the poor kids to attend at all. Radhika Bharat Ram, who has two children in the school, and is the daughter-in-law of its founder, says she discouraged her tailor from enrolling his child because the lives of the rich and poor are so different that the poor children suffer feelings of deprivation.

Despite that advice, Raj Kumar, 39, who earns about $130 a month and lives in a mud hut, says he couldn’t resist the opportunity for his son, Ritik.

“I saw their kids’ discipline and behavior,” he says of the Bharat Ram family. “I wished my kids could learn like them.”

His son and Ms. Bharat Ram’s son are now classmates.

During a recent book fair, Ritik begged his dad for money to buy three titles. That prompted Mr. Kumar to call Ms. Bharat Ram to ask for funds. Instead, he got a lecture.

“Right now it’s books he wants, but what are you going to do when he wants a car?” she recalls telling him. She found old copies of the same books at home to give to Ritik.

Shalini Tandon, a teacher at Shri Ram, knows well the obstacles poor kids face. Two years ago, she encouraged her driver to enroll his son, Rajesh Kumar, after Rajesh’s mother was burned to death by villagers in his hometown who thought she was a witch.

At school, Rajesh spent months sitting under a table. To help him, Ms. Tandon started paying for tutoring and began serving as an intermediary between the boy’s teachers and his father—a frustrating role.

“Often [the dad] sends Rajesh to school in the same dirty clothes for days. I tell him to wash his clothes,” Ms. Tandon says. “The boy comes to school covered with mosquito bites. No wonder he’s sleeping through class.”

The father, who earns about $130 a month, says he does the best he can as a single parent.

The school moved Rajesh down a grade after his disastrous first year. He’s seven years old and in kindergarten with five-year-olds—but doing much better. This might suggest a model for other kids, but the Right to Education Act forbids holding children back a grade.

Vipin, the son of the principal’s former floor-mopper, shows the potential of India’s experiment. He is now the top student in his 2nd grade class. Rich and poor kids vie to sit next to him. Vipin’s friends from wealthier families beg for him to attend their birthday parties.

Vipin’s mother, Ms. Kumari, was reluctant accept the party invitations. “I told the teacher that I feel so small in front of these rich families,” she says.

However, prodded by her son, his teachers and the mother of Vipin’s best friend, Arman, she relented.

Arman’s mother, Vandana Ghosh, says at first her son seemed uncomfortable around Vipin and other poor kids, saying they acted differently. But within weeks, Arman began telling her all the things he was learning from Vipin.

Arman says Vipin taught him how to make toy guns out of paper and construct secret hiding places for things in his desk. “I love playing football with Vipin,” Arman says.

This year when he was planning his seventh birthday party, Arman says, he told his mom to make sure Vipin came.

Ms. Ghosh says Vipin’s parents insisted to her that they couldn’t, saying they were from very different backgrounds. “I told them the kids like Vipin very much—they don’t think of him as being different,” Ms. Ghosh says.

Ms. Kumari gave in. Recently, she paid about $1 to hire a motorized rickshaw for the ride to the party. She gave Vipin $2 or so to choose a gift. He bought a pack of colored pencils.

Ms. Kumari struggles to explain why her son is such a star in school. She doesn’t speak English, so she can’t help with studies. But she does what she can: Every day, she clears their one-room home of family members so Vipin can do homework undisturbed.

She also took the school’s suggestion to pay a tutor to help Vipin for an hour each day, at $10 a month. The $180 or so her husband earns per month as a cook is about 20% more than the typical salaries of maids and drivers. Thus, tutoring is a sacrifice but not unrealistic.

Seven-year-olds don’t carry the burdens their parents might. Sitting with his mother, baby sister and two other relatives on the floor of his apartment, Vipin opens his eyes wide at the memory of the party. It was “a lot of fun,” he says, oblivious to his mother’s worries.

He also remembers a play date at Arman’s house. “It was the most beautiful house I have ever seen,” Vipin says. “It was like the Taj Mahal. There were many, many rooms and many, many floors.”

“If you study hard, you can get a good job and live in a house like that, too,” his mother tells him.

—Diksha Sahni contributed to this article.

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