Binita Mehta, an IT employee from Pune, got the shock of her life last December when one morning she reached her daughter’s school and found it shut. “The school management had posted the notice on the front gate that they were closing down the playgroup, which had more than 100 kids.” Teachers of the school, called TreeHouse, told parents that they had not been paid salaries for months, while the management claimed that the institution was in a financial crisis.
An even bigger shock awaited the parents when they approached the state’s education department and found there was no government body to regulate such schools. The management eventually offered to admit the children in other branches of the school, but that meant travelling long distances.
Now the courts have stepped in to ensure that such situations are not repeated. The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court has ordered the Maharashtra government to formulate a policy to regulate pre-primary schools across the state before December 31.
Currently, pre-primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens, mainly for children of the three to six year age group, do not answer to any regulatory body. Even the total number of such institutions remains unknown – they could be in the thousands and range from the expensive (Rs 40,000 per annum and above) to the informal ones that are run out of people’s living rooms.
The order by Justices Manjula Chellur and R. M. Borade in early July to formulate a policy came in response to a plea filed in 2014 by Jagannath Patil, a social activist who was a member of the state’s education board.
Patil told The Wire, “If you want to open a grocery shop you require a certificate under Shop Act. But to start pre-primary schools you require no permission from any department. There are no rules, regulations and policies at all. If you look into cities like Pune and Mumbai, you will find play schools in each lane or colony. These schools exploit parents by charging fees from Rs 10,000 and even up to a lakh depending on the city, area, owner and brand of the schools. There are no guidelines about the syllabus either – each one designs its own, without any research on what children can and should study.”
Apart from a policy on what children can study or do, Patil said they need security and hygienic conditions but many schools just cram them in one room.
Mukund Kirdat, a social activist from Pune, said, “As per Section 11 of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, to prepare a child for primary education and to care for him till the age of six is the responsibility of the government. The RTE Act came into force in 2010 but Maharashtra has not yet thought it important enough to formulate guidelines. The government is so negligent that during the hearing of this PIL, officials from both the education and women and child development departments tried to push the responsibility of pre-primary schools on each other. Finally, the high court had to summon the chief secretary of the state.”
An owner of a pre-primary school, who declined to be named, said that the court’s orders were welcome. “If the government formulates the policy it will be easier for us to operate – we cannot be blamed for lack of any regulations.”