Homeschooling In India At A Legal Crossroads
When Sandhya Wiswan decided to homeschool her son, Pranav, she was not worried about any consequences. Homeschooling in India isn’t common, but Pranav, a gifted musician, planned to pursue a career in music, which wouldn’t require a conventional education or degree. If he ever changed his mind, that route would still be open to him; the Cambridge IGCSE and the NIOS can both be taken privately, as can some state board exams, with varying restrictions. Pranav’s future seemed secure.
What isn’t secure, however, is the future of homeschooling in India. While the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates states provide free elementary education to every child between the ages of 6 to 14 and details ideal standards and conditions, it does not require parents to actually send their children to a school – nor does it explicitly recognize or prohibit the choice to home school in India. Supplementary laws aimed at ensuring children are not kept out of school are just as vague, said Manna Biswas, who has worked with both governments and NGOs on children’s rights issues for nearly 10 years.
This leaves families homeschooling in India in a legal grey area and parents vulnerable to prosecution under other laws, like the Children In Need of Care and Protection provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act.
The two sides to homeschooling in India
It’s an issue that divides the homeschooling community, loosely organized as it is. On one side are parents like Vineeta Sood, a member of Swashikshan, a community of homeschoolers across India. Sood started homeschooling her children in 1995, when the number of likeminded parent-educators were fewer and the RTE had not been passed. More than 30 years later, after hearing of incidents of parents being prosecuted for home education in India, Sood believes the environment has changed enough to require some form of regulation.
“These kind of instances bring in a need to have some kind of a body or association or a trust, I don’t know in what from, but some kind of body which also supports something as free flowing as homeschooling,” she said.
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On the other side are parents like Jaspal Ahuja, who homeschooled his own child before founding an alternative school in Bangalore. Ahuja finds the idea of regulation at odds with the basic philosophy of homeschooling in India.
“I have actually not understood why people want it to be legalized, or want to say, ‘We have the approval from the government,’” he said. “If the government legalizes it, there will be other problems; they could create a syllabus. Then, the whole freedom of homeschooling is defeated.”
His concern stretches beyond his own home.
“I also think our country is not evolved enough (for legalization),” he said. “If the government legalizes homeschooling, many people can misuse it. Is India ready for that?”
Biswas thinks India is. The potential for people to make children work under the guise of homeschooling in India, he said, shouldn’t keep the country from recognizing it as a legal form of education.
“Every act that is prepared can be used and misused,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a law, a regulation or guideline. They can always be improved upon after they are passed.”
For the most part, parents who choose to home school in India seem content to fly under the radar, taking advantage of the formal school system when it suits them or when they have no other choice. (Wiswan spoke of a homeschooling family in Bangalore whose son wanted to compete in sports at the district level. His parents enrolled him in a government school so he could qualify, but do not send him to it.)
But fault lines are already appearing. In 2012-13, Swashikshan experienced much internal strife over the idea of legalization, Wiswan said. Three years later, the group has no cohesive take on the issue, though Wiswan and others are taking steps to develop one, starting with educating parents on the risks to families homeschooling in India under current laws and legal homeschooling pros and cons at a meeting next week in Bangalore.
“We are still laymen as far as the law is concerned,” she said. “We understand the intent of the government in enforcing the RTE, but we want to know: How do we protect ourselves while also protecting those children whose parents might want to make them work?”
An uncertain future for all
But Wiswan is worried even these initial steps will have ramifications. She said she is concerned attempts to form a group that advocates for legalization could draw the attention of academic institutions with the money and influence to successfully lobby against it. Still, she is taking a long view.
“As a parent, I am not bothered; I don’t think it will affect my kids,” she said. “But I think someone needs to get the ball rolling so we are prepared for what the future holds.”
Like Wiswan, Biswas feels it is just a matter of time before homeschooling in India gets attention from the government in one way or another.
“For so many years we had no legislation for adoption, but now we do,” he said. “If things are left to a gray area, that would only create confusion.”