States in India may soon have the option of holding children back in Classes 5 and 8 if they do not meet expected learning standards. A Parliamentary Standing Committee has approved a proposal of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to do away with the no-detention policy introduced by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. This policy, which bans the practice of making under-performing children repeat classes in elementary school (Classes 1 to 8), was introduced to ensure children did not drop out of school.

An amendment to the Act was introduced in August after over two years of debate, but was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Rajya Sabha. Headed by Satyanarayan Jatiya, a member of the Upper House from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the committee presented its report before both houses of Parliament on February 9. It endorsed the Bill “in its present form”.

The Bill allows states to hold a regular examination at the end of Classes 5 and 8. It says that if a child fails in the examination, they shall be given additional instruction and granted the opportunity for a re-examination that will be held within a period of two months from the date of the declaration of the examination result. If the child still does not pass the exam, they may be detained.

In its report, the committee said that the “abysmally low learning levels among school children” – detected through public and private assessment tests – “is a cause of serious concern”. It repeated the common belief that the no-detention policy meant that there is neither any pressure on the children to learn nor on teachers to teach. This is the reason there “is a need for policy change”, the report said. While the proposed amendment allows states to take the final call on detention, the committee has suggested that common guidelines be issued to all states and Union Territories with respect to it.

However, the responses of government and non-governmental bodies the committee consulted were mixed. Some opposed all provisions, some objected to giving children just two months of remedial teaching and one opportunity to take another exam; others suggested that factors such as school attendance and efficiency of the administrative apparatus in delivering various resources be considered too.

Here are some of the responses sent to the panel.

Ministries and state governments

The Cabinet note on the amendment was shared with the government think-tank, Niti Aayog, the ministries of finance, law and justice, women and child development, labour and employment, tribal affairs, social justice and empowerment and minority affairs and with the Prime Minister’s Office. “All the ministries concerned have supported the proposed Bill,” said the report.

State governments of Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Mizoram and Manipur were “by and large in agreement” as well.

In August 2015, only six states and Union Territories – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Telangana – had demanded that the no-detention policy be retained as it is. “The committee observes that majority of States/UTs desired either modification, review or withdrawal of No Detention Provision in the RTE Act,” says the report.

The secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy, Anil Swarup, told the committee that the automatic promotion of children up to Class 8 “was resulting in a huge bottleneck in Class [10], where a large number of students were failing”. He clarified that the amendment will merely give states the option to hold exams and detain children, not make it compulsory to do so. He said that the ban on expulsion in the Right To Education Act still stands. “Small bottlenecks” at Classes 5 and 8 are preferable, he had argued.

National Council of Educational Research and Training

The country’s top advisory body on curriculum, the National Council of Educational Research and Training, stressed on comprehensive continuous evaluation. Under this system, also mandated by the Right to Education Act, a child’s progress is tracked through the year instead of being measured by a single year-end exam.

The director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, Hrushikesh Senapaty, argued that a “one-time year-end examination is not sufficient to fill gaps in learning”. He said although it is not clear from the Bill whether the regular examination will be conducted by the school or an examination board, he was “not in favour of public examination but school-based examination”.

Instead, he said, “the focus of assessment should be on assessing the process of learning and weakness [or] gaps in learning should be identified through continuous assessment and methods like observations, peer and self-assessment, tests and assignments”.

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights

Responsible for overseeing the Act’s implementation and investigating complaints that it is being violated, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights supported “the assessment of children in Class 5 and 8” but not their detention.

It also found the “two months window with one re-examination…very small”. The commission suggested that a Class 5 student “should be allowed to appear for examination as and when the child feels confident [and] allowed any number of attempts till the child is on the rolls of the school up to class 8, without being held back”. And a Class 8 student “may be allowed two years…to appear for examination instead of failing the child”.

The commission also told the standing committee that it receives a large number of complaints under the Right to Education Act, 2009, “relating to non-implementation of the Act, infrastructural defects in schools and non-availability of teachers”.

The committee recommended that the Department of School Education and Literacy “take every conceivable step to strengthen and implement comprehensive and continuous evaluation at elementary education level” and that concerted efforts should be made to train teachers.

Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights

The only state-level commission whose inputs were included in the report, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, agreed to both examinations and detention in Classes 5 and 8 but suggested some additional safeguards. It suggested a clause ensuring that students with over 66% attendance are not detained, and one allowing punitive action against department officials “for failing to deliver books,…providing adequate number of teachers, failing to disburse funds on time and for not ensuring proficiency of foundational skills to students”.

Central Board of Secondary Education and National Institute of Open Schooling

The Central Board of Secondary Education and National Institute of Open Schooling supported the Bill. Examination bodies for secondary and senior secondary levels (Classes 9 to 12), they have little to do with elementary education. In an earlier article, had explained how the Central board’s flawed evaluation pattern for elementary classes is largely responsible for the failure of continuous comprehensive evaluation.

The National Institute for Education, Planning and Administration also supported the Bill.

PRS Legislative Research

Representatives from Delhi-based non-profit, PRS Legislative Research, said “that detention puts the onus of learning entirely upon the child and does not acknowledge the role of other factors that affect learning outcomes…[including] lack of professionally qualified teachers, teacher’s absenteeism, limited infrastructure and inadequate roll out of the Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation”. It also found the proposed remedial action for under-performing children inadequate.

Right to Education Forum

An all-India alliance of educationists, non-profit groups and activists, the forum has categorically opposed the Bill. It argued that “no cause-effect link has been established between ‘learning levels’ and ‘no detention policy’”. Like PRS Legislative Research and the National Commission of Child Rights, it pointed to the shoddy implementation of all the other provisions of the Act, and said that the “No detention clause, one of the most critical parts of RTE [Right to Education] Act, if pulled out, would put the entire RTE Act at risk of disintegration”.

The forum fears it will undermine other provisions in the Act – Section 29 on comprehensive and continuous evaluation; Section 4, which allows out-of-school children to take admission in an age-appropriate class and which makes special training to close the learning gap a right; and Section 15, which guarantees admission all through the academic year.

Also, it said withdrawing the no-detention policy will harm the marginalised the most – poor children, Dalits, Adivasis, first-generation learners.

Care India

Another child rights organisation, Care India, agreed that the Bill “damages the internal coherence of the RTE [Right to Education] Act”. It pointed out that the “no detention policy is standard practice in several high performing education systems in the world” and while “reliable statistical data are not available which can corroborate that repeating improves the academic learning”, its links with “poor mental health, negative attitude to school learning and...students dropping out” is documented. It said that detention is “penalising students for the system’s failure”.

Pratham Education Foundation

Pratham Education Foundation stated that “although the proposed amendment does not directly ask a child who ‘fails’ to be kept back, in essence it creates conditions for keeping back children”. According to the report, it said: “The amendment should specifically direct the states to give the children under 13 as many opportunities as necessary to pass Class 5 examination…However, after the age of 14, children may be allowed one year to ‘pass’ the Class 8 end examination and then allowed to leave the formal education stream. They may appear for Class 10 examinations through open pathway”.

Supreme Court advocate

Finally, Supreme Court advocate, Radheyshyam Gora, pointed out that detaining children may not serve the purpose of improving learning as they may drop out of school. If that happens, Gora said, they could be exposed to crime and exploitation.