Parliament’s nod last month to an amendment in the Right to Education Act that allows children with severe or multiple disability to be home schooled—a move that has been strongly criticised by activists and some MPs for being ‘non-inclusive’—has also raised the hackles of another group.
“We are asking for homeschooling and we have been denied. The disabled never asked for home-schooling and they are being sidelined in the name of homeschooling. This amendment has further fuelled the possibility of disabled children not being admitted to school,” says Somnath Bharti, a Supreme Court lawyer who has filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court challenging the RTE Act.
His argument, “If the government has permitted disabled children to be home-schooled, then what about the other extreme of this band, children who are exceptionally-abled, whose parents want their children educated at home. Why can’t they be allowed?”
The PIL filed late last year in the Delhi High Court, the third such attempt since 2010, has sought an amendment in the RTE Act to grant home-schooling and alternate schools—such as Rishi Valley run by the Krishnamurthi foundation—’specified category’ status defined by the Act as “a school known as Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodaya Vidyalaya, Sainik School or any other school having a distinct character which may be specified, by notification, by the appropriate government”.
As per the RTE Act, all other schools that are not recongised by the government will be declared illegal. And recognition by the government will depend on whether the school meets the standards of infrastructure and teaching staff laid down under the Schedule provided in Act.
From 2013—when the three-year deadline set by the Act comes into force—children who are being home-schooled will have to be enrolled in government recognised schools and alternate schools will have to seek government recognition or risk being shut down.
In 2010, the Delhi High Court had dismissed the PIL directing the petitioners—which included the 12-year-old home-schooled Shreya Sahai—to make a representation to the human resource development ministry to explain their case. A talented painter and photographer, Shreya went to a formal school before her parents opted for homeschooling so that her training in art was not compromised in anyway. Says her father, Sandeep Srivastava, “Shreya is being educated the right way – multiple intelligently. She has best of class mentors for a whole range of domains such as Spanish painting violin (she is a national scholar), photography, film making, creative writing, design, fashion,besides math and physics.”
According to Bharti, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal during a meeting with them made it clear that the government would not cater non-formal modes of schooling and that to get a CBSE certificate, admission in a government-approved school was imperative.
The PIL describes the RTE Act as “dictatorial” and “dogmatic” in its approach. And that while the Constitution makes it mandatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to children between six and 14, the RTE Act talks of schooling.
It goes on to state that “It is the parents of a child who have a natural and prior right to make a choice of content, form, means and mode of education for their child, whether private or public and formal or non-formal.”
As a result of the RTE Act, the National Institute of Open School (NIOS) is likely to be discontinued. The petitioners argue that with the NIOS arrangement now illegal, parents are being forced to send their children to a “school of the liking of the government to study a curriculum of the liking of the government and in an environment of the liking of the government”.
The question parents of home-schooled children are asking is whether the government has the right to dictate how they choose to educate their children and to close every other source of education in favour of government-recognised schooling?
Ashok Aggarwal, lawyer and child rights activist who has been at the forefront of the Right to Education campaign, believes the government can. Aggarwal is also party to the case as an ‘intervener’.
Opposing the PIL, Aggarwal says that such an amendment will have a much wider impact and allow a host of sub-standard NGO-run schools that don’t follow a recognised syllabus to run. “A lot of NGOs are now running schools that not recognsied. They don’t have full-time teachers nor do they follow a proper syllabus. The RTE Act has clearly stated that such schools have to either fall in line or shut down.”
According to Aggarwal the right of the parent, as far as elementary education to the child is concerned, is subordinate to that of the state. “The state has a responsibility to safeguard the interest of the child and the parent cannot intervene in that. The parent only a limited right, the State has the upper-hand.”
The lawyer-activist gives examples of how certain NGOs in order to keep children in their non-formal schools allure parents in urban slums to withdraw their children from regular schools. “There are a lot of such reports with the Delhi government. It has withheld money to such NGOs which were entrusted with identifying out-of-school children, train them and then admit them in regular schools. Instead, these NGOs pulled children out of regular schools and enrolled them in their own schools.”
But then, shouldn’t the state make a distinction between first-generation learners and those who are being home-schooled? The petitioners argue that that government has “wrongly equated ‘the haves’ who are aware and informed of the education and its benefits and are already imparting and providing for the education of their child on their own, with the ‘have-nots’ those who are poor, ignorant and deprived and are in dire need of the state’s guided and sponsored and meaningful education of their child”.
Rebutting that argument, Agarwal says, “The larger good will always prevail over smaller good. Elementary education is the absolute basic that every child should get. That cannot be compromised, it is non-negotiable.”
The next hearing in the case is on 18 July.