Why are we eager to let children fail in schools?

The committee on the New Education Policy recently submitted to the Ministry of Human Resources Development its report, which reportedly includes a proposal to reinstate detention after Class 5. At present, all students up to Class 8 are automatically promoted to the next class.

There were several indications in the past year that the government may revoke the no-detention policy introduced under the Right to Education Act. Many states have also echoed this position, with Delhi and Rajasthan actually passing legislation to amend Section 16 of the Right to Education Act, which makes a student’s promotion conditional on the child achieving an “appropriate learning level” in the previous class. The validity of this move remains in question since the Right to Education Act is a central legislation.

Continuous evaluation

The Right to Education Act prohibits detention or failing a student until the “completion of elementary education”, which is guaranteed to every child between the ages of six and 14.

This phrase is poorly understood. Does it mean that every child simply has to be enrolled for eight years in school, irrespective of what she is learning? This is certainly the way many detractors of the no-detention policy see it, when they claim that children are being “automatically passed” to the next class without learning anything.

This reflects a specious understanding of the no-detention policy and the attached provision of continuous and comprehensive evaluation, which must necessarily be seen in conjunction. Together, they make for a different system of learning, where evaluation is not a determinant of a child’s failure or success in a given time frame – it is a tool for the teacher to supplement the child’s education according to her learning ability and specific needs.

Not all children master a standardised syllabus at the same pace. The process of continuous and comprehensive evaluation is intended to inform teachers about how a child is progressing at short intervals, so that supplementary instruction can be provided in time. The idea behind continuous and comprehensive evaluation, therefore, is to ensure that every child learns and progresses.

It must also be remembered that the Right to Education Act does not just secure a child’s right to be in school, but a group of rights that are invoked both before a child enters school and in school itself. These include rights against barriers to access, against harassment and discrimination, the right to learn in a safe building with adequate facilities, and the right to not be detained or expelled.

Many of these rights are inter-dependent and mutually reinforcing. It is in this context that “completion of elementary education” must be understood – every child has a right to learn eight years of prescribed curricula, without being derailed by high-stakes yearly exams, with the added guarantee of other rights.

A systemic failure

Expectedly, this understanding has not materialised in execution. The relatively simple act of not detaining a child has been easy to enforce, but not the positive components of the Right to Education – the duties of teachers, schools and governments, which though equally legally binding, require considerably more resources, time and effort.

The background factors needed to make the no-detention policy meaningful are not in place: A conducive pupil-teacher ratio, well-trained and decent infrastructure, with an enabling, non-discriminatory school environment.

Continuous and comprehensive evaluation has been reduced to a series of tests, resulting in lots of paperwork, but not in informing timely teacher interventions. Meanwhile, the fall in learning outcomes reported by the Annual Status of Education Report is being attributed to the no-detention policy. Not only is this claim unsubstantiated, it is also misguided in that it places the liability for low learning outcomes disproportionately on the child.

Many still believe that children only learn under the threat of failure. Detaining children is being envisioned as some kind of stopgap measure to improve learning levels, despite there being little evidence that it can do so. Such a reliance on conditional promotion also masks the incapacity of the system to teach first-generation learners and children with special needs, and deal with multi-level classrooms. It is unlikely that detaining children will fix these problems.

Exams and rote learning

The positive obligations under Right to Education must be subject to progressive realisation, unlike negative obligations, which are immediately realisable. This does not, however, mean that part of a child’s right to education can be held hostage in the face of a delay in enforcing the positive obligations.

It is also especially unfair that a child-centric policy is the first to be attacked – let’s remember that the constituency it affects the most cannot speak for itself. Yes, continuous and comprehensive evaluation constitutes a radically different teaching-learning process than what we have now, and it is for this reason that it should be given time to take shape.

Any return to detention, even if only after Class 5, militates against a conceptualisation of the right to education, which has been in the making for a long time. For decades, experts and laypersons have decried the stress-inducing, exam-centric culture of schooling. The Yashpal Committee (1993) and the National Curriculum Framework (2005) had both underlined how the exam system had become burdensome and was giving way to rote learning.

It is hoped that the Union human resources ministry squarely identifies the role of teachers, school administration and education departments in making sure that children learn, instead of sacrificing their hard-earned right and letting them believe that they are the ones who have failed.

Shruti Ambast is a Research Fellow at the Education Initiative, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.