The no-detention policy in India’s schools may have done less harm to learning than it is accused of, according to a study by two research scholars from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

A provision in the Right to Education Act, 2009, the no-detention policy mandated the annual promotion of all children from Classes 1 to 8 regardless of their academic performance.

The policy has been blamed, almost exclusively, for the dismal performance of school-going children in large-scale assessment surveys, mainly the private Annual Survey of Education Reports or Aser, and the government’s National Achievement Survey or Nas.

The Act, universalising primary education for children between the ages of six and 14, was implemented from the 2010-’11 academic year. Last August, the government introduced an amendment Bill in Parliament to allow states to detain a child at the end of Class 5, Class 8, or both. That Bill is now with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development.

The Aser survey is most frequently cited to oppose the no-detention policy. But the research scholars, Ankit Saraf and Ketan S Deshmukh, studied 10 years of national-level data from this very survey to arrive at the opposite conclusion. “Implementation of the NDP [no-detention policy] has not systematically lowered the learning levels of students,” their study says.

The Annual Survey of Education Reports – a household-based survey of learning among children between the ages of three and 16, with specific focus on those aged six years to 14 years – has been conducted from 2005. To compare data from the years before and after the Right to Education Act and its no-detention policy were implemented, Saraf and Deshmukh studied Aser reports from 2006 to 2016. Their findings countered all assumptions about learning and its decline in schools after the no-detention policy was implemented.

The researchers found that learning levels were falling even before 2010, and that some states were able to improve learning or at least arrest its decline after 2010. Studying the ability of Class 3 students to perform subtraction over four years, 2009-2012, they also found that students who were taught exclusively under the no-detention policy “are able to show the same level of performance as those students who have partly been taught the same concept under the detention system, by the time they reach Class 7”.

In short, failing children is not likely to improve their learning.

Saraf and Deshmukh have submitted their paper, To Fail or Not to Fail?, to the Parliamentary Standing Committee as well as the committee that is drafting India’s new education policy.

Grim picture

The Aser survey tests mathematics and reading skills, but the researchers considered just the first for the purpose of the study. Citing other research, they wrote: “Math skills are regarded to be a good measure of ‘school effectiveness’.” They also did not distinguish between private and government schools. The no-detention policy is applicable country-wide and in both types of schools.

The duo first tracked the performance of students over 2006-’10 – the years before the no-detention policy was implemented – to check for “rising or steady levels of performance”. They argued that an improvement in learning could be expected if detention indeed had the power so frequently attributed to it – to make children work harder and learn. For this, they considered the percentage of students in upper-primary school – Classes 6, 7 and 8 – who could perform division-based mathematics problems. The researchers assumed that till 2010-’11, no child from this group was automatically promoted. But instead of finding a trend showing improvement over the years, or even stagnation, they found that “across the grades there is an average drop of nine percentage points during…2006-2010”.

The researchers wrote: “This finding runs contrary to [the] assumption…made by us and propounded by many, [that] under the detention system, the performance of students in a given grade would either improve or remain stagnant as they would necessarily need to meet or exceed the required levels of performance.”

Learning levels dropped even before 2010-'11 when the Right to Education Act was implemented. In this chart, the reason why more Class 8 students were able to solve the division problems is that all the classes took the same test.

States and detention

As a sub-committee of the Central Advisory Board on Education had observed in 2015, even before the Act was passed, over 20 states had already banned the holding back of school children up to a certain level because of poor academic performance. The Central Act merely standardised that practice and extended it till Class 8.

The sub-committee report said that Tamil Nadu practiced no-detention for primary school (Classes 1 to 5) even before 2010. West Bengal had this policy for Classes 1 to 4, Uttar Pradesh for Classes 1 and 2, and Manipur did not have any such policy at all before 2010.

Saraf and Deshmukh examined the performance of students in Class 5 from the academic year 2010-’11 in these states and compared it to the trends before that watershed year. They picked division, a concept taught in Classes 4 and 5.

Once again, the data did not bear out the assumption that the no-detention policy “would lead to systematic reduction in learning levels…across states as they would be promoted…without any compulsion of learning”.

The study found that the average performance over five years, in Tamil Nadu and Manipur, improved after the Act was implemented; West Bengal “was able to arrest the rapid decline in learning levels” immediately before the Act and maintained those levels after; and Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, showed a “stable level of performance”.

Saraf said: “The narrative is that learning levels are falling in all states but our analysis shows that there is no such clear trend across very different states.”

There is no clear trend of learning levels consistently falling after 2010-'11 in four very different states.

In Class 3

Saraf and Deshmukh also studied the mathematics skills of student groups who were in Class 3 in 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12 – to see whether groups introduced to subtraction before no-detention became compulsory, performed better in later classes. Subtraction is taught in Classes 2 and 3.

They found that the different batches of Class 3 students performed at about the same level by the time they reached Class 7. The paper says: “This…runs contrary to [the] assumption…[that] if NDP [or no-detention policy] dis-incentivises learning, then the learning levels of a student cohort only taught under the NDP system would stagnate over time.”

Children who studied subtraction before and after 2010-'11, when the Right to Education Act was implemented, showed the same level of skill later.

The researchers point out that the explanation for low learning must be sought elsewhere – in the very large classes in India’s schools, the absence of qualified teachers in sufficient numbers, and most importantly, in the flawed implementation of continuous comprehensive evaluation. This alternative evaluation system, also mandated by the Act, required teachers to constantly track a child’s growth instead of relying upon a year-end exam and the threat of failure.

“The [no-detention] policy was not framed to promote learning but to ensure that children who are likely to drop-out stay back in school,” said Disha Nawani of the Centre for Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “There are other measures which need to be put in place to ensure learning, and unless they are fixed, children who fail cannot be unilaterally penalised.”

The paper also argues that the Bill’s provision for re-examination of a child who has failed an exam within two months from the declaration of results “looks impractical”. Teachers may not have the time for remedial teaching and the children may be put through the same system that failed them.