The year started badly for India’s school children. On January 3, Parliament voted to amend the “no-detention” provision of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which stipulated that no child could be held back in elementary school (Classes 1-8). The amendment to the Act permits schools to detain children in Class 5 and Class 8 if they fail an annual exam twice.

The no-detention policy, as the no-fail provision was popularly known, was based on the widely-tested proposition that children learn better without the pressure of a pass-fail type testing regime, and that there is a direct correlation between students detained and students dropping out of school after Class 8.

Importantly, the no-detention policy was part of a policy approach that put the child at the centre of education planning. It was premised on child friendly learning environments, with teachers making continuous assessments of each child’s progress, and following through with the necessary interventions to help each child along. In short, it was contingent on schools that were closely linked to the communities they served. These were supposed to be well-funded schools with easy access to academic resources, small class sizes, highly educated, well-trained and empathetic teachers, a functioning teacher support system and special needs educators for students with disabilities.

In reality, except for a select few private schools, none of these conditions exist in any schools in India – public or private. There has been no serious effort to make the changes that will eventually lead to such schools being the norm.

Punishing children

Parliament’s decision to amend the no-detention policy merely punishes children for the failures of the government. Chief among them is that they have failed to address the real causes of the crisis in school education and the vicious cycle of exclusion these create. State policy is, by and large, about running poor schools for poor children. This leads to schools with inadequate buildings, bathrooms and playgrounds; poorly educated teachers with paper qualifications, a large percentage of whom lack empathy; a school management system that privileges bureaucrats over school principals; a one-size fits all curriculum and school calendar designed for a small minority of India’s most privileged children; and a high-stakes examination system that promotes mindlessness and tests each child’s power to cram.

The Union government claimed that the amendment had the backing of state governments, which have primary responsibility for school education. State governments were asked for their views in 2015. Some states provided coherent reasons for keeping the no-detention policy as is. A few called for modifications that addressed some of the actual causes of the problem. Others sought modifications that ignored the real causes of the problem. A small number did not want the no-detention policy at all. And several did not respond.

The huge variation in the responses reflects the divergence among civil servants in education departments with regard to their understanding of issues related to education. Most civil servants, who drive education policy, have no domain knowledge of school education. Few make the effort to acquire it, and most hope that this or that quick management fix will solve the problem. How a state government responds to matters of education depends, to a great extent, on the civil servants running the department at that time.

What makes the push for the amendment so troubling is that there was more than sufficient evidence that contradicted the claims linking the poor quality of learning to the no-detention policy. All the research, anywhere in the world, shows that detention of students by a year or more does not improve learning. On the contrary research shows that repeating a year has negative academic and social consequences for a child.

A government without solutions

What is worse is that the drum-beat against the no-detention policy began within a couple of years of the Right to Education Act being passed. The consultations on the no-detention policy by the Modi government commenced soon after it came to power in 2014. Government data shows that during this entire period, children have continued to be detained in schools across the country, although at a declining rate. If children were being held back anyway, the obvious question is: on what basis did the government claim that problems with reading, writing and numeracy skills in higher classes were linked to the no-detention policy in elementary school?

During this period too, the Annual Status of Education Report or ASER, based on the non-governmental organisation Pratham’s nationwide sample survey of children’s reading, writing and numeracy skills, has shown marginal improvements rather than a decline. The latest survey, released this week, also finds that it is government schools that are showing improved learning levels. So, again, the question is: On what basis did the government draw a link between the no-detention policy and children’s learning?

What is even more bizarre is that less than two years ago, the Union government announced with great fanfare that it had found a solution to poor quality education – defined as low levels of reading, writing and math skills. It adopted a template of class-wise, subject-wise “learning outcomes” to be achieved, and changed the central Right to Education rules to include these “as a guideline for States and UTs [Union Territories] to ensure that all children acquire appropriate learning level”. Announcing the change, Union Human Resource Development minister Prakash Javadekar, declared it to be “…a great initiative which will ensure accountability and will achieve the purpose of quality education to all”.

Any government serious about what it claimed was a transformational shift in policy would allow a reasonable amount of time for the new policy to show results. In school education, change takes time – possibly a whole primary school cycle to even begin to show results. The amendment to the no-detention policy, less than two years after the learning outcomes framework was presented as a game changer, suggests that the government does not believe its own claims.

For the Modi-BJP government, amending the Right To Education Act is a desperate attempt to give the impression that it is doing something to fix the system. It can now rest easy for it will have the support of teachers unions that represent vast numbers of government school teachers who believe – contrary to all the evidence – that the problem lies with the children.

A 2012 report of the Central Advisory Board of Education sub-committee on assessment and implementation of continuous and comprehensive evaluation and the no-detention policy noted: “While majority of the State officials were of the opinion that the teachers are responsible for the progress of a child in class and to a lesser extent the student themselves, teachers were found to be of the opinion that the child itself is responsible for its progress.”

The government also has the support of a sector that actively lobbied for the amendment – the vast number of private schools that market themselves based on the exam scores of their students. Teachers and owners of schools are voters, elementary school children are not.

The bottom-line is this: The reversal of the no-detention policy is an admission of failure by the Modi government. It is an admission that the government does not have the tools to understand the root causes of the crisis in school education. It follows from this that this government actually has no solutions.