Popular imagination about school education in India is centred on children studying in either government schools or mainstream private schools that follow the conventional classroom teaching model.
However, increasingly, a trend has developed among some parents and guardians to follow unconventional elementary education models. Such educational experiments are trying to overcome the perceived shortages of conventional elementary education, such as its excessive emphasis on rote learning rather than problem solving, and its stifling of creativity in favour of conformity.
While homeschooling is at a very nascent stage, with conservative estimates putting the number of families in the country who have opted to homeschool their children somewhere around 15,000, the alternate education movement has existed for several decades in our country, since the pre-ndependence era.
Homeschooling Versus Conventional Education
Homeschooling, simply put, is the education of school-aged children at their homes rather than at a school.
Proponents of homeschooling argue that children who are home-schooled are able to learn more, and turn out be culturally more sophisticated and are able to excel in their natural abilities as their learning is more broad, and not just confined to a school environment.
In India, there has been no study on how home-schooled children in India go on to do in their lives. However, studies conducted on home-schooled children abroad have yielded that such children perform substantially better than their conventionally educated counterparts in areas of development such as verbal fluency, independence and life skills.
It is also noteworthy that Sahal Kaushik, the youngest person to ever clear the highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination in 2010, who had ranked 33 in the country and stood first in Delhi at the tender age of 14, was home-schooled.
Malvika Joshi from Mumbai, who was admitted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 17 in 2016, was another product of the homeschooling model of education.
RTE Poses a Hurdle for Homeschooling
Proponents of homeschooling are opposed to sending their wards to formal schools. However, the RTE Act does not recognise a child’s right to education at a site other than a school fulfilling the recognition norms set by the statute.
In that sense, the Act is more like a ‘Right to Free and Compulsory Schooling’, since it is making schooling compulsory for all children in the age group of 6-14 years.
Not only is there no space for homeschooling in such a scenario, but the type of schooling made compulsory is restrictive, and threatens the existence of certain kinds of schools.
Restrictive Approach towards Elementary Education
Another hurdle posed by the RTE Act is over the external certification of elementary education through homeschooling. Proponents of homeschooling usually avail of the National Institute of Open Schooling’s (NIOS) Open Basic Education (OBE) programme.
The OBE programme’s value lies in the fact that it is recognised by the Government of India as equivalent education to formal primary and upper primary schooling for purposes of higher education and employment.
However, due to the restrictive notion of elementary education germinated by the RTE Act, the NIOS announced in 2011 that in light of the RTE Act, the OBE programme will discontinue catering to children of 6-14 years of age after 2013.
PIL Comes to the Rescue of External Certification
That same year, public interest litigation was filed before the High Court of Delhi by 14-year-old Shreya Sahai contending that the RTE Act does not recognise any other mode of imparting education except the one through formal schooling, which is in violation of the fundamental rights of children.
In the course of the hearings in this matter, the Union MHRD Ministry filed an affidavit stating that there is nothing illegal about homeschooling, and that the RTE Act doesn’t come in the way of homeschooling. However, it also disclosed that the OBE Programme of the NIOS would not cater to children in the age group of 6-14 years beyond March 2015.
The petition was ultimately dismissed by the High Court in 2013 on the grounds that it would not be justified for the Court to direct the Government to amend the RTE Act “as it is the right of the Government and legislature to amend any Act or any provision of the Act” (which is unfortunate, since High Courts are empowered through their power of judicial review to strike down or modify the reading of statutory provisions if they are found to be unconstitutional).
Since then, the OBE programme has been incrementally extended for 6-14 year old children periodically, first till March 2017, and most recently, till March 2020, “subject to the NIOS showing regular progress on mainstreaming children as per Section 4 of the [RTE Act]”. What is meant by mainstreaming children as per Section 4 of the RTE Act, however, is unclear, and not clarified anywhere by the Union HRD Ministry.
Giving the Students a Choice
The Union HRD Ministry’s affidavit in the Shreya Sahai matter, affirming the legality of homeschooling, brought some consolation to the budding homeschooling community in India. The affidavit acknowledges, albeit indirectly, children’s right to education of choice.
While the OBE programme has been available to them for elementary education, they have faced tremendous uncertainty about the same since the enactment of the RTE Act. Though their worries have been placated through periodic incremental extensions of the programme, it is imperative that the Union HRD Ministry looks beyond such piece-meal measures, and arrives at a more permanent and sustainable solution.
One way to do that would be to perpetually and permanently extend the OBE programme to 6-14 year old children, so that temporary extensions are done away with altogether. Another solid step would be to include homeschooling within the ambit of the RTE Act.
The decision to homeschool is the gallant exercise of choice made by parents for their wards to shape their horizons and customise their learning beyond the confines of the formal schooling system. A statute that seeks to provide for compulsory elementary education for all children in the country must recognise and facilitate such a choice, not ignore it.
(The writer is with Centre for Civil Society, India’s leading liberal think-tank. This article was originally published on the CCS blog Spontaneous Order. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)