Dismissing a bunch of petitions challenging the Gujarat government’s decision to implement a minimum age limit of six years for admission to Class 1 from the current academic year, the Gujarat High Court division bench comprising Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal and Justice NV Anjaria said forcing children to go to a pre-school below the age of three years is an ‘illegal act.
Impugned notifications dated January 31, 2020, and August 4, 2020, prescribe the age limit of six years as of June 1 of the academic year 2023-24 for admission in grade one.
The petitioners-parents contended that children, not above six, have taken admission to elementary schools in the 2020-21 academic session and have completed elementary education. They held that their children were entitled to admission in grade one in the Academic Session 2023-24.
They claimed the policy of setting the age at 6+ years as of June 1 of the academic year only came into effect on January 31, 2020, which surprised many parents.
However, the HC noted that under Rule 8 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Rules, 2012 (RTE Rules) aligned with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act), there is a prohibition for admission of a child in a pre-school who has not completed three years of age on June 1 of the academic year.
The court said, “Three years of early childhood care and education in a pre-school prepares a child to take admission in standard one in a formal school. The petitioner – parents of children, who have not attained the age of six years as of June 1 of the year 2023, cannot seek any leniency or indulgence, as they are guilty of violation of the mandate of RTE Rules, 2012, which is in line with the RTE Act, 2009.
“Forcing children to go to a preschool below the age of three 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 three years of elementary education in a preschool and have been admitted in the Academic Session 2020-21, therefore, does not impress us at all.
“As regards the cut-off date, there is no challenge to the rule fixing 1st June of the academic year for completion of 6th year of age to seek admission in 1st standard. The only argument is to grant leverage/leniency to those children who were admitted in preschools in the Academic Session 2020-21 and have completed three years of elementary education to be school ready.”
The petitioners argued that children who were already enrolled in a pre-school during the 2020-21 academic session and had completed three years of pre-schooling should be granted an exception for the current academic session.
After hearing the arguments from both sides and reviewing the records, the Court noted that the counsels representing the parties admitted that they could not challenge the requirement of a child being six years old for grade one admission.
The Court further noted that the challenge focused on the cut-off date of June 1 for the current academic year, 2023-24, under the premise that approximately 9 lakh children in the State (including the petitioners’ children) would be deprived of their right to education in the current academic session owing to denial of grade one admission.
The court observed that according to Section 2(c) of the RTE Act, 2009, a child of six years is eligible for admission to a neighbourhood school for free and compulsory education until completing elementary education.
The court explained, “A conjoint reading of Sections 2(c), 3, 4, 14 and 15 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.”
“As regards the age of education below six years, the same has been recognised by the National Education Policy, 2020, framed by the experts in the field of elementary education, as the age of ‘early childhood care and education’.”
The court highlighted the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, which revealed that over 85% of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of six, underscoring the critical need for proper care and stimulation during these early years for healthy brain development.
The court also pointed out the lack of quality early childhood care and education for millions of young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It stressed the necessity for substantial investment in early childhood care and education to provide all young children with access, enabling them to thrive in the education system throughout their lives.
The court also pointed out that universal provisioning of quality early childhood development, care, and education must be achieved before 2030 to ensure that all students entering Grade 1 are school-ready.
The court said, “The children who are before us, have been admitted in a pre-school by their parents before completion of age of three years, prescribed minimum age for admission in a pre-school in the RTE Rules, 2012, which has been enforced in the State of Gujarat w.e.f. 18.2.2012. The challenge to Rule 8 of the Rules, 2012 has already been turned down by the Coordinate Bench of this Court in Special Civil Application No. 9879 of 2013, as noted above.”
“For the above discussion, we do not find any merit in the challenge to the Notifications dated 31.1.2020 and 4.8.2020. All the writ petitions, in this bunch, are found to be devoid of merits and hence dismissed.”