– Rajat Mukherjee and Monika Srivastava, partners at Khaitan & Co, LLP
5+3+3+4 will replace 10+2. This isn’t a math puzzle but a change in the framework of India’s school education system mandated by the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 promulgated on July 29. Put simply, the policy proposes that the present 10+2 structure covering age group 6-18 years will be replaced with a 5+3+3+4 structure covering age group 3-18 years. The most significant impact of this reconfiguration is that the previously unregulated pre-school sector will be brought within the ambit of government regulation and may be obliged to transform into not-for-profit institutions.
The preschool market in India was pegged at around USD 2 billion in FY18 and is projected to grow at CAGR of around 19 percent during 2019-2024. The market is dominated by top preschool brands including Kidzee, Bachpan, Eurokids, Tree House Education, Shemrock, Kangaroo Kids and Little Millennium. The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) market is comprised of these well established players managing branded preschools in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities as well as smaller or regional players and unorganised mom-and-pop establishments. The common feature that cuts across this market is that almost all of these businesses are promoted and operated as for-profit entities.
The NEP 2020 is not explicit on whether preschools will need to function as not-for-profit entities but it does state that a regulatory framework will be instituted for all stages of education, preschools 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”. As a general point, the policy places significant emphasis on and reinforces the no-profiteering principle. When viewed holistically, 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 (whenever they do come) toe this line. If they do, it could be a gamechanger for the preschool market.
A large part of the growth story in the preschool market can be attributed to the relative ease in doing business, which in turn flows from significant regulatory freedom and less onerous infrastructural requirements, especially when contrasted with the K-12 segment. This brings us to the question of whether preschools have so far been completely unregulated and consequently if the impact of the new policy would be drastic. The answer is ambiguous. Certain states, such as Delhi and Karnataka have existing laws which treat preschools on par with K-12 schools even though they are not bound by legal requirements. Other states such as Maharashtra have attempted regulation in the past by proposing legislative changes and more recently by adopting an ECCE policy. So, it would be incorrect to state that preschools are not regulated. Besides, efforts at regulating them have been ongoing in several states and the policy, in several ways, picks up on these threads.
Likewise, some ground work has already been done in terms of regulating preschools. For instance, the recommendatory guidelines for private play schools formulated by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The policy builds on these previous efforts. Three other key provisions of the NEP 2020 which could have a far-reaching impact on preschools are:
First, complete revamp of preschool curriculums will have to be made after the “National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education” mandated by NEP 2020 is developed by NCERT based on the vision of the policy and national and international best practices.
Second, a distinct cadre of professionally qualified ECCE educators will need 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.
Lastly, the state-level regulatory regime will need to be restructured with new and lesser functions for the Department of School Education (DSE), currently the apex state-level body for regulation. DSE’s role will be limited to policy making while overall monitoring will be done by a new independent state-wide body named the State School Standards Authority (SSSA). The SSSA will be responsible for standard setting and oversight over schools 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 devote special priority to districts that are not adequately serviced or are especially disadvantaged. On one hand, this holds promise of new business opportunities in the sector while on the other, it signals the possibility of increased government regulation of ECCE. Universal access to education is synonymous with the Right to Education Act, (RTE), 2009. Currently, under RTE, free and compulsory education is restricted to children in the 6-14 years age group. The exception to this is K-12 schools which also run pre-primary classes. In such cases, RTE is applicable at both levels i.e. pre-primary and primary, regardless of the age of students. The vast majority of preschools today operate on a stand-alone basis (i.e, not part of or co-located with K-12 schools) and therefore don’t fall within this RTE construct. Assuming the policy results in legislative change to expand the scope and applicability of RTE, it will mean significant disruption for preschools. Moreover, RTE requires a not-for-profit entity as a pre-requisite for registration of schools. Assuming such requirements are extended to pre-schools as well, it may potentially lead to a dual-requirement for not-for-profit status similar to the K-12 model where the not-for-profit requirements flow from state education laws and RTE.
In a nutshell, at the very minimum, the preschool market is looking at extensive changes in regulatory framework as ECCE is integrated with the formal regulated K-12 education. Until legislative changes on the aspects discussed above are in sight, we will have to wait and watch. Having said that, taking cognisance of these potential changes will be an advisable first step towards being prepared for the disruption. It’s not the strongest who survive, but those who are most adaptable to change.
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