Our dilemma arises as we see detention or no-detention as an either/or proposition.
By Ashok Pandey
No other provision of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 has attracted as much attention, in the last six years, as the provision of section 16 of the Act. This section mandates that no child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education. No detention policy, as we understand it, has been roundly criticised, with demands for its scrapping becoming louder by the day. Our inability to fail a child is cited as the sole reason for unprecedented failures at higher grades, indiscipline among children, and falling standards in education. The policy, amid growing chorus, proved the proverbial Albatross around the neck for the government. No one commits to a complete revocation of the provision; no one supports its continuation either. During the debate on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education recognised through the Act, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “We are committed to ensuring that all the children, irrespective of gender and social category, have access to education. An education that enables them to acquire skills, knowledge, values and attributes necessary to become a responsible and active citizen of India.” To ensure access, expansion and inclusion as echoed above, the RTE Act brought in a series of provisions to act as a bulwark against any possibility of non-compliance. Namely, admission in a class appropriate to the child’s age (section 4); ensuring compulsory admission, and completion of elementary education (section 8(a), explanation ii of the Act); no screening (section 13(2)(b) of the Act); and finally (section 16)(Supra), implying no detention.
Naturally, not detaining a child is presented with a fait accompli, particularly in the absence of any major pronouncement on the enabling, and intervening stipulations in the Act. Developing a differential framework of the curriculum; enforcing standards for training of teachers; providing technical support; promoting innovation, research and capacity building have not received support, encouragement and funding. Even the provision of section 24(1a) of the Act, maintaining regularity and punctuality, does not explicitly fix the onus on the parents and families. The existing rules do not offer any flexibility to the teachers to work out a bespoke curriculum and appropriate assessment to suit the unique talent and needs of the students mainly among the most affected category of the students—the weaker section.
HRD minister Prakash Javadekar rightly pointed out that the absence of a precise definition of learning outcomes remains an alarming gap in the RTE Act. He alluded to the same in his post-budget analysis in February 2017. The NCERT’s publication, under the ministry’s push, Learning Outcomes at Elementary Stage, April 2017, is a welcome step to bridge the stated gap, as highlighted by the minister. It’s reasonable to expect that, through a state-wide implementation, the learning outcomes will get a fair chance to succeed. The national achievement survey due in November will also feed useful data to drive future decisions. However, the government in the meantime has proposed to amend the Act allowing states to detain children in classes five and eight if they do not clear the standardised test/retest. Though an attempt is made to find a middle ground, the move is surely going to hurt students from the weaker and marginalised sections, and not the ones cushioned by privilege and comfort.
This move, unwittingly, questions the fundamental principle behind the enactment of the Act—delivering social justice. Our dilemma arises as we see the detention or no-detention as an either/or proposition. Both, giving a carte blanche license to detain a child and providing for a constitutional guarantee to promotion, must come under scrutiny. Through a creative expansion of possibilities, we can reach a feasible, acceptable and ethical solution. The classroom insights offer several remedies to work for learners and teachers and to redesign the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Meeting learning expectations and goal-setting finds meaning in these insightful understandings. Competency to deal with children from the mixed socio-economic background, engaging parents to elicit their involvement, co-learning, peer-tutoring and investing time are useful strategies to support children at the far end of the learning queue.
As we await parliamentary discussion and its outcomes, the thought of thousands of children in schools failing and lost by the wayside, without bothering to know what happens to them, is very scary. While schools and educators must reconfigure their stand, the provision of section 29(2h) of the Act, mandating comprehensive and continuous evaluation of a child’s understanding of knowledge and her ability to apply the same, must be judiciously adhered at least up to elementary level. We must personalise the curriculum, enhance the skill component and broaden assessment tools to help the children falling in the vulnerability bracket. It would be prudent to take a leaf out of the letters the children of Barbiana wrote to their teacher to ensure that the dream of equality and social justice does not remain a dream. Published in “Social Class, Language and Power: ‘Letter to a Teacher’: Lorenzo Milani and the School of Barbiana” by Borg, Carmel et al, their agenda of reform demands, (1) do not fail, (2) to those who seem to be cretins, offer them full-time schooling, (3) to the unwilling it is enough to give them a goal.
Principal, Ahlcon International School, Delhi. Views are personal