We donít need no education

Last year, 12-year old Shreya Sahai dropped out of class and decided to be homeschooled. Not unusual. But she hit a roadblock with The Right to Education Act (RTE) stipulating formal schooling for eight years. When she approached the Delhi High Court, the court dismissed the petition, telling the petitioners to approach the Human Resource Development Ministry to clarify its stand on homeschooling.

There is a reason why a tiny fraction of parents, dissatisfied with the state of formal education in India, didn't figure in the larger context of the Act. There aren't many parents who homeschool their children in the country ó conservative estimates put the number anywhere between 500 to 1,000 children In many cases, it is disabled children who are homeschooled because the education system is not geared to provide special education to all disabled children.

Homeschooling is "education of school-aged children at home rather than at a school." Homeschoolers argue that children who are homeschooled are able to learn more, and turn out be more culturally sophisticated and are able to excel in their natural abilities as their learning is more broad, and not just confined to a school environment. Shreya Sahai's father pointed out that the Delhi region IIT-JEE topper, the 14-year-old Sahal Kaushik, was homeschooled, and that shows homeschooling is not just a fad. The modern-day American homeschooling movement began in 1969 and has now become one of the great populist educational movements of the past century. But it evolved over the years: laws were formed, regulations were put in place, and the state worked with parents who wished to provide home-based education to their kids. In India, it is more of a reaction rather than a well-thought out option.

Whether the RTE Act has scope for such a mode of education, and whether the government can govern such private choices is not what should concern the handful of parents who are agitated about the Act's focus on "formal schooling." What should be their concern is whether home-based education, given the lack of any monitoring agency or an organisation that can bring such parents and children together on a platform, is the right choice for their kids.

In 49 out of 50 US states, homeschooling is regulated. According to the Washington State homeschooling law, it is necessary to file a "declaration of intent" and follow certain requirements. Parents who are homeschooling their wards must be deemed qualified to provide home-based instruction by the superintendent of the local school district or complete a parent-qualifying course or meet with a certified teacher for an average of an hour a week. In the UK, since last year, a government report sharply criticised unregulated homeschooling. In Germany, it is altogether banned.

In India, where homeschooling has only recently started gaining some momentum, it does not require any registration, recognition or regulation by any agency or authority. Most parents, who have chosen to homeschool their kids either follow the CBSE curriculum or opt for the respective state board syllabus. Washington State homeschool curriculum also requires parents to include 11 subjects in their curriculum. The home-schooled children are also required to appear for annual testing ó standardised or one-on-one assessment with a certified teacher ó annually. Similarly, in New Jersey homeschooling is allowed as long as the home-based education is comparable to that provided by a public school.

There are, however, no special requirements that a parent must qualify for to begin homeschooling. But in case there is litigation about whether the education that the parent is giving to his/her ward is equivalent to that of a state school, the onus is on parents to prove their case to a local school superintendent. Besides, in most places where homeschooling is a success, parents who homeschool their children have formed clubs where they meet weekly to discuss curriculum and where their children can socialise and make friends. One criticism against homeschooling has been that it produces social misfits. In India, except in the virtual space ó blogs, internet forums ó homeschooling parents have not set up such organisations or social clubs. But then, in order for homeschooling to become a successful movement in India, there needs to be some supervision, because after all it boils down to whether those who are educating their wards are qualified enough. It is true that given the quality of our own teachers, the lack of infrastructure to produce quality teachers, dilapidated school buildings, and many private schools promising a good deal but delivering little, parents have the right to decide on the mode of education for their child. But is is homeschooling a viable option in the country today?

The HRD ministry will meet the parents of the homeschoolers soon, and discuss their issues. But lost in this maze of arguments on democracy, freedom of choice and dissatisfaction with the education system, is a simple point: why can't parents supplement a child's experience at school with more learning at home? Besides, if parents prefer homeschooling, they must first collaborate with the state to set up regulations so at least the system gets standardised. As it is , enforcing the RTE act will be an administrative nightmare. The option of unregulated homeschooling might be a convenient excuse to unwilling parents or lazy officials. Homeschooling in India is a nascent phenomenon. The inherent danger, as with all trends, is that it can attract many followers simply because it is the next cool thing to do.

That's where homeschooling is in India today. The desire in a country that is teeming with millions who can brandish degrees is to stand apart. India needs to have to evolve the regulatory mechanisms that exist in other countries where homeschooling has been successful. Besides, even the worst of schools have their advantages. Growing up together teaches a child how to compete, yet work in a team.

chinki.sinha@expressindia.com

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