Page last updated at 06:55 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 07:55 UK

India passes free education bill

A village school in India: From 2006 BBC television series
A quarter of private school places will be reserved for poor children

The Indian parliament has approved a landmark education bill which seeks to guarantee free and compulsory education for children aged between six and 14.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament, will set up new state-run neighbourhood schools.

It will also force private ones to reserve at least a quarter of their places for poor children.

Currently about 70 million children receive no schooling, and more than a third of the population is illiterate.

The bill was passed by the upper house last month.

It now needs presidential assent - a mere formality, correspondents say - to become law.

'New era'

India's Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal described the passage of the bill as "harbinger of a new era" for children to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

"We as a nation cannot afford our children not going to schools," he said.

The minister said the bill covers children with disabilities and that the government is planning to set up special schools for them.

"This bill provides for the inclusion of children who are disadvantaged because of disability. The government is not only setting up special schools for them but doing all it can to provide education to them in all types of schools," Mr Sibal said.

The bill also ends widespread practices by which schools impose admission fees on parents to guarantee their children a place and bureaucrats enjoy discretionary powers on deciding who to let in.

Achieving universal education is one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals to be met by the year 2015.

Critics of the bill, however, say it is not clear how the government plans to pay for this.

Also, they say it does not cover children below the age of six and therefore fails to recognise the importance of the early years of a child's development.

They say it also does little to address India's inequitable school system under which there are vast discrepancies between well-funded private schools and state-run schools with poor quality teaching staff and infrastructure.

At the moment India spends a little over 3% of its GDP on education.

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