Forcing children below 3 years to go to pre-school is illegal: Gujarat High Court

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The Gujarat High Court recently dismissed petitions challenging the State government’s decision to prohibit schools from admitting children below the age of 6 to Class 1 from the current academic year (2023-24) onwards [Shubhra Hiteshbhai Gupta v. State of Gujarat].

A Bench of Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal and Justice NV Anjaria noted that the right to free and compulsory education under the Right to Education Act (RTE Act) and Article 21A of the Constitution of India is available only after a child attains 6 years of age.

“The right conferred upon a child by the constitutional provision of Article 21A and the RTE Act, 2009 begins after completion of age of 6 years. A conjoint reading of various provisions of the RTE Act, 2009 makes it clear that a child above the age of 6 years cannot be denied in a formal school and the State is mandated to take all necessary measures that such a child who falls within the definition of ‘child’ under the RTE Act, 2009, completes his or her elementary education without any rider,” the judgment said.

The Court, therefore, rejected a contention by several parents (petitioners) that their children ought to be allowed admission to Class 1 early, since they had already completed their elementary education.

It noted that the RTE Act prohibits the admission of a child to a pre-school if the child has not completed 3 years of age as of June 1 of the relevant academic year.

“Three years ‘early childhood care and education’ in a pre-school prepares a child to take admission in 1st standard in a formal school. The children who are before us, have been admitted in a pre-school by their parents before completion of age of 3 years, prescribed minimum age for admission in a pre-school in the RTE,” the Bench observed.

Thus, it was held that the petitioners before the Court could not seek any leniency or indulgence, as they were violating the RTE Act, 2009 and the RTE Rules, 2012.

“Forcing children to go to a pre-school below the age of 3 years is an illegal act on the part of the parents who are petitioners before us. The contention that the children are school-ready as they have completed 3 years of elementary education in a preschool having been admitted in the Academic Session 2020-21, therefore, does not impress us at all.”

The Court was dealing with a batch of petitions filed by parents challenging State government notifications issued on January 31, 2020 and August 4, 2020, which were to take effect from June 1 of this year.

Pertinently, the petitioners’ children had not completed 6 years of age as of June 2023.

In its ruling, the Bench underscored that the minimum age requirement of 6 years for admission to Class 1 had a rationale. It explained that this cut-off is prescribed to achieve the objective of the RTE Act, 2009, which is to provide education to children at an appropriate age.

The Court also refused to accept the argument that fixing June 1 as the cut-off date for the current academic year would deprive approximately 9 lakh children in Gujarat of their right to education.

Further, the Bench referred to the National Education Policy, 2020, which stated that over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6. This indicated the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in the early years in order to ensure healthy brain development and growth, the Court added.

“It was noted that quality of early childhood care and education is not available to crores of young children, particularly children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Strong investment in early childhood care and education has the potential to give all young children such access, enabling them to participate and flourish in the educational system throughout their lives.”

The Court proceeded to uphold the notifications in question, opining that the same could not be termed as arbitrary.

Advocates Ashish M Dagli, Nayan L Gupta, Hitesh Gupta, Dilipkumar Prajapati, Amit Chaudhary and Samir Gohel appeared for the petitioners.

Advocate General Kamal Trivedi, Additional Government Pleader KM Antani and Advocate Ankeeta Rajput represented the State.

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