Cambridge Assessment International Education

Imminent disruption of preschool education

EducationWorld November 2020 | Special Essay

The preschool education sector is on the brink of extensive changes in regulatory framework as early childhood care and education is integrated with formal K-12 education

– Rajat Mukherjee and Monika Srivastava are partners at Khaitan & Co, LLP. Views are personal

5+3+3+4 will replace 10+2. This isn’t math magic but a change in the framework of India’s school education system mandated by the new National Education Policy, 2020 released on July 29. Put simply, the policy proposes that the current 10+2 system covering age group 6-18 years will be replaced with a 5+3+3+4 structure covering the age group 3-18 years. The unmissable impact of this reconfiguration is that the previously unregulated preschool sector will be brought within the ambit of government regulation and may be obliged to transform into not-for-profit institutions, whereas all private preschools are promoted and operated as for-profit business enterprises.

NEP 2020 is not explicit on whether preschools will be obliged to function as not-for-profit enterprises. But it does state that a regulatory framework will be instituted for all stages of education, ECCE included. It states that public-spirited private schools or private philanthropic efforts will be encouraged. But also that “all educational institutions will be held to similar standards of audit and disclosure as a ‘not-for-profit’ entity”. Therefore, even though there is no clear guidance on how or to what extent the not-for-profit principle will be applied to preschools, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if legislative or regulatory changes are made to force preschools to fall in line. If such laws/rules are legislated, they could be game-changers for the country’s estimated 60,000 private preschools.

A large part of the growth story of the preschool market can be attributed to the relative ease of promoting and running them which flows from significant regulatory freedom from the not-for-profit principle and less onerous infrastructure requirements, especially when contrasted with the K-12 segment. However, Delhi and Karnataka have laws that treat preschools on a par with K-12 schools even though this reality is divorced from legal requirements. Other states like Maharashtra have attempted regulation in the past by proposing legislative changes, and more recently by adopting an ECCE policy. Therefore to state that preschools are not regulated at all, is incorrect. Besides, efforts at regulating them have been ongoing in several states and NEP 2020, in several ways, picks up these threads. 

Likewise, some ground work has already been done in terms of regulating preschools. For instance, the recommendatory Guidelines for Private Play Schools prepared by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. These guidelines are a summation of previous regulatory efforts. Moreover, three other key proposals of NEP 2020 will have a far-reaching impact on this segment.

First, there has to be a complete revamp of preschool curriculums after the National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education mandated by NEP 2020, is developed by NCERT based on the prime objectives of NEP 2020 and national and international best practices.

Second, a distinct cadre of professionally qualified ECCE educators will have to be trained for delivery of preschool education. Creation of these cadres will be entrusted to state governments and based on specialised professional training, mentoring and continuous development.

And third, the state-level regulatory regime will need to be restructured with new and reduced functions for the Department of School Education (DSE), currently the apex body for regulating K-12 education in the states. Under NEP 2020, DSE’s role will be limited to policy formulation while overall monitoring will be done by a new independent state-wide body named the State School Standards Authority (SSSA). SSSA will be responsible for standards setting and oversight of all schools — including preschools — under a new model based on self-regulation and disclosure.

To round off these changes, the policy mandates universal access to high-quality ECCE. Its solution is to accord special priority to districts not adequately serviced or especially disadvantaged. On one hand this promises new business opportunities. But on the other, it brings us back to the possibility of increased government regulation of ECCE.

Currently, the Right to Education Act, 2009 mandates free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 age group. The exception to this rule are K-12 schools which also run pre-primary classes. In their case the RTE Act becomes applicable from the pre-primary stage. However, the vast majority of preschools today operate on a stand-alone basis (i.e, not part of K-12 schools) and therefore don’t fall within this RTE construct. Assuming this requirement is extended to preschools, it may lead to insistence on not-for-profit status similar to K-12 schools.

In short, the preschool education sector is on the brink of extensive changes in regulatory framework as ECCE is integrated with formal, regulated K-12 education. Until legislative changes on the lines discussed above are enacted, it’s a wait and watch period for preschool managements. In the circumstances, taking cognisance of these imminent developments, an advisable first step is to be prepared for change of status. In the final analysis it’s not the strongest that will survive, but those who are most adaptable to change.

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