A recent full-page advertisement in newspapers by an elected government seeking central government’s approval to revoke the “no-detention policy” for schoolchildren did drive home the point as to how desperate the situation has become. The no-detention policy was introduced as a part of the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) under the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2010. Under this policy, students up to class 8 are automatically promoted to the next class without being held back even if they do not get a passing grade. RTE provides children free and compulsory education until completion of elementary education in a school. Given India’s abysmal record of the most number of out-of-school children, this was a welcome step.
In addition, with record dropouts at primary education levels, the no-detention policy under the RTE Act was to ensure that no child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school until the completion of elementary education. The policy was path-breaking but, unfortunately, it ended up being completely opposite to its original objective. There have been plenty of arguments on both sides of this policy. One of the strongest points in favour is that detaining children at an elementary education level damages their self-esteem and brings social stigma attached to failing in a class. In addition, the fear of examinations hurts a child’s developmental plans and does long-term damage. By introducing a no-detention policy, it has also been correctly argued that it helps keep children stay away from social evils, including juvenile crimes.
However, supporters of revoking the policy have argued that automatically promoting all students to the next class leaves very little incentive for students to learn and teachers to teach well. When students know that they won’t be retained for academic performance or low attendance, it builds very little motivation. It ends up hurting the learning interest of the other students who want to study further. Teachers lose interest as well and the overall quality of education imparted suffers.
Since introducing the policy, although dropout rates have reduced, ironically there has been a drop in the overall gross enrolment of students. Enrolment for girl child, however, has shown improvement. But these metrics may appear superficial unless reviewed at depth.
Let’s evaluate two metrics to review this: There is significant concern that Learning Level Outcomes have been poor. Students in class 5 have repeatedly failed in both reading and numeric tests meant for class 2. Sadly, almost 40% of class 3 students cannot recognise numerics between 1 and 100, and 32.5% of class 2 students cannot recognise letters. No assessments to check learning effectiveness and a no-detention policy has meant that, in spite of not mastering fundamental knowledge blocks, students have been promoted.
The other worrying sign is the rising failure counts of students in class 9. Data indicates that the number of students failing in class 9—the first level where assessments are conducted—has not reduced, indicating there are challenges with the no-detention policy. States such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi NCR have reported high failure rates.
So, is there merit for revoking the no-detention policy or can there be a more moderate mid-way path?
1. There is significant merit to a no-detention policy at the primary school level and especially till class 5. Learning focused on building key foundational blocks, this can help children develop an interest in learning and encourage them to study further without fear of failure or assessments. Combined with the Mid-Day Meal scheme, this allows children to get nutritious food and also learn, thus increasing the probability of having them attend school.
2. The middle school levels of class 6 to class 8 are the most critical. This is a stage where a strong knowledge block, if built, can help a child stay through the entire learning life cycle and also develop skills which are very important for a sustainable livelihood. It is proposed that some form of evaluation is introduced in these classes.
3. However, unlike a summative assessment which is binary and turns up as pass or fail, the evaluation must allow credit points to be given for academic performance and school attendance. (By the way, in the no-detention policy, students without attending a single day of class can still be promoted). Evaluations done periodically, these points can be accumulated and carried forward, much like a deposit in a piggy bank.
4. These evaluations must focus on language (say, reading in mother tongue), numerical skills and one key vocational skill. Students need to collect credits in at least two of these critical learning areas before being promoted to the next class. This can help bring in some sense of seriousness in the class. Students now know that they won’t be automatically promoted. Executed well, this can ensure every child from class 6 to class 8 is trained on at least one vocational skill.
5. Such a method where students get to collect learning credit points will help integrate vocational education seamlessly into school education. It will also help students who want to pursue higher diploma in vocational skills to monetise the points for waivers in fee, learning subjects, etc. Students who drop out and are unable to complete education can use vocational skills to commence livelihood activities.
There are sufficient arguments on either side of this policy. However, what is a required is a pragmatic view of the problem and an avoidance of a one-size-fits-all solution. There appears to be an overemphasis on gross enrolments and dropouts. Both these are due to a variety of reasons, including socio-economic. Children in school help in controlling others factors like child marriages, reduced child trafficking, better health, child labour, slavery, etc. So, all steps must be taken to encourage maximum number of students in a classroom. A no-detention policy is a lame, easy-to-do method to get a quick-fix solution to a complex problem. There is evidence available that there are significant gains of keeping children in school even artificially by promoting them through multiple classes, but lack of long-term learning outcomes and mass failures in higher classes are signs that all is certainly not well. Modi-fying the no-detention policy is easier said than done, since this will mean a repeal of a provision under the RTE Act. The New Education Policy 2016 does mention these as areas of reform and hopefully this will be taken up soon.
The fact remains that today’s children are tomorrow’s future, and it is in our interest that we fix the issues we face before it gets too late.
(The author is the MD & CEO of the BSE Institute Ltd, and founder director of BFSI Sector Skill Council, NSDC)