Millions of parents and their children may soon no longer have to bear the risks associated with unregulated playschools with dubious teaching methods and crumbling infrastructure that often charge high fees but fail to deliver on promises.
The human resource development (HRD) ministry, headed by newly appointed MM Pallam Raju, on Thursday got state governments to agree to expand the Right to Education Act (RTE) to cover preschools. Under the plan, children between three and six years of age will be guaranteed preschool facilities.
Winning the support of states at the meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (Cabe) — where every state is represented — will help the HRD ministry push for expansion of the law. But the ministry, educators and education experts caution it would not be an easy task due to shortage of qualified teachers, poor infrastructure and a financial crunch.
The government has identified the RTE Act as a key accomplishment to highlight before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The law currently covers children between six and 14 years old and may be also offered to 16-year-old students. But, this is unlikely to influence urban, middle-class voters - the constituency where the government has lost face due to scam allegations.
"That's where expanding the law to cover preschools could prove to be a game-changer," a senior government official said.
Although India has 159 million under-six children, who either are in or can soon join preschool, this massive segment under the Indian education system is almost completely unregulated.
Lack of regulations has allowed several substandard playschools and preschools to flourish across the country's cities, feeding on the anxiety of working parents to ensure that their children start learning early in an increasingly competitive environment. Many parents suffer bitter experiences with preschools that sometimes fall short even on safety issues.
Rahul Prasad had to pull his three-year-old son, Aayush, out of a Delhi playschool in August after he found that it was using dirty utensils and metal toys with rusted and sharp edges frequently without supervisors, while charging Rs. 10,000 a month.
Apart from free preschooling for every child, the extended RTE Act plans to ensure a safe environment, minimum teaching and infrastructure standards and a ban on homework for toddlers.
"I wish the act could already help Aayush," Prasad said. "But it'll help a lot of people like me. It's about time."