On January 3, the Narendra Modi government amended the Right to Education Act, 2009, the country’s most important law on school education, permitting states to hold examinations in Classes 5 and 8 and make children repeat those classes if they fail.

The Act had previously banned the practice of holding children back in elementary school (Classes 1 to 8), universally enforcing a “no-detention policy”. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, lifted that ban, leaving each state to frame its own policy on the matter.

The Right to Education amendment was notified on January 10. On February 28, the Ministry of Human Resource Development set March 1, as the date from which the amendment would be implemented. It wrote to state education secretaries on March 5 informing them of this decision.

But the states themselves are in various stages of deciding on their policies. Many will hold exams in Classes 5 and 8 and these will be public ones with all children across the state writing the same test. Some are considering introducing detention in only one class and not in both Class 5 and Class 8. But for many, whatever policy they come up with will only be implemented in the next academic year.

Public exams

Even before the Act was amended, some states had begun holding public board examinations for elementary school children. At that time, it was in violation of the Right to Education Act. But the amendment has rendered the central policy more ambiguous.

The Act’s Section 30, forbidding board exams in Classes 1 to 8, has been retained but the amended law now says states will hold “a regular examination in the fifth class and in the eighth class at the end of every academic year”. As many education activists had feared, many states have interpreted this to mean public examinations.

Primary school children in Pipla, Rajasthan, in 2017. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Odisha’s School and Mass Education Department, for instance, has proposed public examinations in both Class 5 and Class 8 but detention only in Class 8. “We would like to hold a common examination for all children in the state,” said special secretary Biswanath Pradhan, tasked with framing this policy. “We are not implementing this in the current year. In any case, this is just our proposal – it will have to be approved by the government.”

Jharkhand introduced public exams in Class 8 last year. Conducted by the state’s main educational board, the Jharkhand Academic Council, this year’s exam began on February 11. AP Singh, principal secretary, school education and literacy development, said the state may implement the detention policy from this year itself. “We have felt that detention is required and will probably have it in Class 8 but it is still undecided,” he said. “For Class 5, we are not sure.”

In Rajasthan, principal secretary, school education, R Venkateswaran said the state had not yet decided on a detention policy or even whether it will be implemented in this year’s academic session. The state already holds exams in both Classes 5 and 8.

In Delhi, a committee set up in February to seek public opinion and frame recommendations submitted its report on Wednesday. The state’s new director of education Binay Bhushan said he had not read the report and could not say if the policy was for implementation this year.

Several insiders within Delhi’s Department of Education, however, said that the committee has recommended detention in both classes but that the policy will be implemented next year. The committee has also suggested a number of measures “to safeguard the interests of students and to ensure a student is not unnecessarily detained”, said an official.

“Multiple chances will be given to students to be promoted,” the official said. “The second measure will be early identification of children who need extra assistance, and they will get the help of our special educators and our counsellors.”

The official added: “We have also recommended that detention not be based only on the final examination held in February-March. We will assess students throughout the year and performance in different activities can be considered for promotion to the next class.”

Uttar Pradesh has not officially finalised its policy either, but SVB Singh, director, basic education, said “if we do it, we will do it [introduce detention] for both [classes]”. Uttar Pradesh too already holds exams in both classes.

State officials from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal could not be contacted but teachers from both states said they have not received any official instructions from their governments.

B Preethi, a primary school teacher from Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, said will be no extra exams or detention this year. But judging by news reports, the state government had been revising its stand practically on a weekly basis. In the latest news report, on February 23, Tamil Nadu’s school education minister KA Sengottaiyan said the state was not going to introduce exams in Class 5 or Class 8 from this year.

Abhijit Mukherjee of the All Bengal Primary Teachers Association said that the West Bengal government has not issued any directions yet but will likely reintroduce detention.

For those who fail

A primary objection to the amendment was that making children repeat classes simply puts them, for the second time, through the same system that failed them, said Ambarish Rai, of the Right to Education Forum, a forum of non-profit organisations, activists and academics working on education and child rights. The amended Act barely addresses this problem. It simply says that students must be provided “additional instruction” before they resit the exam.

The law’s provision on remedial measures is already sketchy and states appear to have given it little thought as well. Odisha’s Biswanath Pradhan said the state will “later decide what will be done with the children who do not pass”.

Jharkhand is yet to decide as well. “When the matter is decided, it will be decided in totality,” said AP Singh.

For Uttar Pradesh, SVB Singh said, “SSA people do it”, referring to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – a national programme for universal elementary education and the only scheme that supported the Right to Education Act. It was merged into another scheme last year.