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Elite Indian schools open doors to poor students
Poor kids in India are getting access to an elite private school education under a government policy that is forcing schools to open up 25 per cent of places to slum children, as Stephanie March reports.

Opportunity is everything in India. And for many people wrenching themselves and their children out of poverty is near impossible without help.

As part of a recent government promise to provide free education for all children, expensive elite schools have been ordered to open up 25 per cent of places to poor children, at no cost to their families.

But some schools say the program is sending them broke.

India correspondent Stephanie March reports from New Delhi.
(Footage of children returning home after school in New Delhi)

STEPHANIE MARCH, REPORTER : It's the end of the day at this elite schooling in Delhi. Most of these students and their parents are heading home to middle-class houses, with running water, regular electricity and a bathroom.

But for 11-year-old Sandeep and his mother Pushpa, home is a very different place.

PUSHPA, SANDEEP'S MOTHER (translation) : We stay in the slum cluster. I got out of the village to come to the city to give my child an education.

(Footage of Pushpa and Sandeep heading home plays)

STEPHANIE MARCH : Sandeep is one of a growing number of slum children being given the opportunity their parents could never have been able to pay for - an education at a private school.

It is not easy to study in the tiny room he shares with his parents and three siblings. It's so dark he can barely read the words on the page, but Sandeep loves learning and he says there a lot to like about his school.

SANDEEP, STUDENT (subtitled) : Tennis, skipping, library and computers.

(Footage of children in classroom)

For many years, it's been law in India for private schools to reserve places for children from poor families.

Sandeep says at school he is treated just like the other kids.

(Footage of children in classroom)

The elite Sadhu Vaswani School in New Delhi is one of hundreds of institutions where poor students now learn alongside their well-off classmates.

NEETA RASTOGI, PRINCIPAL : It's I think when children come from different social economic background they bring varieties of cultures, varieties of views with them. And when children interact with each other, they get exposure to it. And, as they grow together, they develop social skills.

STEPHANIE MARCH : But while the children flourish, the school's bottom line is suffering.

NEETA RASTOGI : While I feel it is a very good job the government has done, it's very good cause, but since we have a fixed style of working and the expenses are also fixed, it's getting difficult for us to manage both the ends meet.

(Footage of school children on parade)

STEPHANIE MARCH : Schools get some reimbursement for educating the economically weak students but some school administrators say it is not enough.

Last April, an association of private schools challenged in court the legislation that requires schools to accept poor children. The judge ruled in the government's favour, cementing the requirement that over time schools will have to increase the number of poor children they accommodate to 25 per cent of all places.

This year, about 10 per cent of the students at Sadhu Vaswani School are not paying fees.

NEETA RASTOGI : These children are not paying. Definitely the school's income has come down, total income, has come down because of non-payment of fees by these children.

STEPHANIE MARCH : But she says the government may have to start giving schools more money or allow them to take steps to increase their revenue.

Only the government and charitable institutions are allowed to run educational institutions in India. Schools aren't allowed to operate as for profit businesses. It is that constraint that is fuelling the debate about what schools should and should not be allowed to do to accommodate these poor students.

ASHOK AGERWAL, ADVOCATE FOR FREE EDUCATION : I can say that such schools are not justified in making such a grievance because the money which is being given to them is not small. It is 1,200 rupee per month, per child which is being given to the school. And in fact they don't need more than that. There are, of course there are charitable institution.

STEPHANIE MARCH : Ashok Agerwal is a lawyer and instrumental in the fight to force elite schools to allocate more space for poor children. He says schools that want more money from the government are just being greedy.

ASHOK AGERWAL : They are already charging so much from the paid parent that even without getting any reimbursement from the government they can take care of this 25 per cent. So why they're all making false excuses there and there, I think they don't have any substance in their arguments.

STEPHANIE MARCH : But those in charge of the schools' finances say that is not the case. Critics of the scheme say schools may eventually increase fees for other students and cut back on programs and events.

NEETA RASTOGI : We don't have extra funds. And with the number increasing we will get, it will be confused. The government will have to come up with some solutions.

STEPHANIE MARCH : If she's right, the government will need to act sooner rather than later to make sure Sandeep and children like him can achieve the dreams they so desperately long for.

SANDEEP (subtitled): I'll be a doctor, or I want to do social service, to serve the nation.
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