New Education Policy’s Impact on Pre-Schools – Survival of the Fittest

By Rajat Mukherjee and Monika Srivastava

5+3+3+4 will replace 10+2. This isn’t math magic. But a change in the framework of India’s school education proposed by the new National Education Policy. The ‘5’ in the proposed new framework includes two years of pre-schooling. The unmissable impact of this reconfiguration is that the previously unregulated (debatable, as discussed below) pre-school segment will be brought within the fold of regulation and will likely be subject to not-for-profit parameters.

The policy is not explicit on whether pre-schools will need to be housed under not-for-profit entities. But it does state that a regulatory framework will be instituted for all stages of education including pre-school. It also goes on to acknowledge that public-spirited private schools or private philanthropic efforts will be encouraged. But “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 pre-schools, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if legislative or regulatory change (whenever they do come) go in this direction.

To put this in context and truly appreciate the magnitude of change, it’s important to look at the market and the present regulatory landscape. Pre-school market at present comprises of both highly organised players operating branded pre-schools in tier 1 and tier 2 cities or corporate day centres as well as unorganised mom-and-pop establishments. The common feature across the pre-school segment is that most of these are, legally speaking, set up and operated as for-profit entities. Therefore, if and when regulatory changes guided by the policy are implemented, these could be game-changers for the pre-school market.

This brings us to the second question of whether pre-schools have so far been completely unregulated and consequently whether the impact of the policy is in fact so drastic. The answer is ambiguous at best. Certain states, such as Delhi and Karnataka have laws which treat pre-schools at par with K-12 even though the reality is removed from legal requirements. Other states like Maharashtra have attempted regulation in the past by proposing legislative change and more recently by adopting an Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy. So, it would be incorrect to state that pre-school has not been regulated at all. Besides, efforts at regulation of this space have been ongoing in several states and the policy, in many ways, picks up on these threads.

Likewise, some ground work has already been done in terms of regulation of pre-schools, for example the recommendatory Guidelines for Private Play Schools prepared by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The policy builds on these previous efforts. Three other key areas of change suggested by the policy, which will have a farreaching impact on pre-schools, are:

Firstly, a complete revamp of the curriculum which would be undertaken through development of a “National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education” by the NCERT based on the vision of the policy and national and international best practices.

Secondly, creation of a distinct cadre of professionally qualified educators for ECCE who will be required for delivery of pre-school education. Creation of these cadres will be entrusted to state governments and will be based on specialised stage-specific professional training, mentoring and continuous development.

And thirdly,restructuring of the state-level regulatory regime with new and lesser functions for the Department of School Education (the present apex state-level body for regulation) where their role will be limited to policy making and overall monitoring and creation of a new independent state-wide body called the State School Standards Authority (SSSA). The SSSA will be responsible for standard setting and oversight over schools in a new model based on the principle of self-regulation and disclosure.

To round off these changes, the policy aims for universal access to high-quality ECCE. It’s solution is to devote special attention and priority to districts and locations that are not currently adequately serviced or especially disadvantaged. On one hand this puts in focus potential business opportunities. But on the other hand, it brings us back to the point on increased regulation. Universal access to education is synonymous with the Right to Education Act (RTE). RTE formulation of free and compulsory education is currently applicable only to children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. The exception to this is K-12 Schools which also run pre-primary classes, where the applicability of RTE is at the actual entry point i.e.pre-primary level and not Class I, regardless of the age of the student. The vast majority of pre-schools today, which operate on a stand-alone basis (i.e.not part of or co-located with K-12 schools)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 further disruption for pre-schools. 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 as well asRTE.

In short, at the very minimum, the pre-school segment is looking at extensive changes in regulatory framework in the time to come, in order that it is integrated with the formal regulated K-12 segment. Until legislative or regulatory changes on the aspects discussed above are in sight, it will be  wait and watch. Having said that, taking cognisance of these changes will be an essential first step towards being prepared for the change. It’s said that it’s not the strongest that survive, but those who are most adaptable to change.

Authors  are partners at Khaitan & Co, LLP. Views are personal.