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Will Detaining Children Ensure Learning?

A proposed change in the Right to Education Act could kill its intent.

The rollback of the no-detention policy (NDP) is a classic example of one step forward and two steps backward in envisioning and implementing reforms in school education. An amendment bill to scrap the NDP in schools till Class VIII under the Right to Education (RtE) Act was recently cleared by the union cabinet. It proposes an enabling provision that will allow state governments to detain students in Class V and Class VIII, if they fail in the year-end exam. They will be given a second chance before they are detained but no class is specified after which detention will be legal, implying that children can be held back from the entry level itself. 

Under the existing provisions of the RtE Act, students are automatically promoted to the next class till Class VIII. This provision, popularly called the NDP, was hailed by most educationists and practitioners as being the most progressive component of the RtE Act. However, the public perception of this provision was contrary and it soon came under criticism, and began to be contested. The uproar eventually culminated in a decision by the Central Advisory Board of Education to roll back the policy and restrict it to Class V. Interestingly, the decision is understood to represent the concerns of parents and teachers, and resolve the problem of “reported” non-learning of children, especially those studying in government schools.

On all counts this is a regressive step. It has implications for both students and the meaning, and processes of learning as envisioned in schools. It is based on the assumption that children are responsible for failing in examinations and the only way to bridge the learning gap is to make them repeat the grade. No questions are raised about the quality of schooling. This underlying idea is further linked to two more assumptions: first, fear of failing and repeating a grade will make students more serious about studying; second, grade repetition will lead to positive outcomes, in this case facilitate learning. While there is no research to support the hypothesis that detention and grade repetition lead to better learning, there are enough studies to show how this damages the self-image and morale of students, eventually even forcing some to quit.

The RtE Act was an attempt to provide a compulsory, fear-free learning atmosphere to children in the age group of 6 to 14 years and also to proactively prevent their dropping out in the elementary school cycle. It was believed this could be achieved by universally abolishing the practice of detaining children if they failed in school-based examinations till Class VIII and also changing the meaning, form and nature of assessments. The continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) system was supposed to replace the annual system of examining students and rewarding (promotion to next grade) or penalising (detention in the same class while others moved onto a higher grade) students till Class VIII. Additionally, board examinations were to find no place in the elementary school years.

All these provisions were implemented with immediate effect across schools, both private and public. But having believed in fear as the primary motivator of learning, many found it difficult to dissociate fear from learning. Regular learning-assessment surveys like the Annual Status of Education Report compounded the panic when connections began to be established between the CCE and the NDP to an extent that they began to be seen as synonyms for each other. Unilateral connections bereft of an understanding of the larger picture wreaked havoc, further victimising children. Yet, it is not difficult to comprehend the reasons for children being unable to learn and project their learning in desirable ways. An uninspiring curriculum, substandard textbooks, poorly-trained teachers and frugal infrastructure are undoubtedly the real impediments in children’s learning. 

A non-critical cause and effect relationship being assumed between these variables led to a naive solution to the growing menace of reported non-learning among children. Clearly, learning as understood in such a narrow manner could be objectified, exhibited and measured. If children no longer learnt because they did not get held back and repeat the grade then the magic mantra to ensure their learning was to hold them back and examine their learning in standardised, time-tested reliable ways where students had to learn (or memorise), pass the exam and get promoted to a higher grade.

If the change in the law is passed, it could result in students from socially, economically and culturally disadvantaged communities struggling and suffering humiliation in schools, and eventually dropping out. The NDP was primarily meant to facilitate retention of children in schools for at least eight years and not necessarily to assess how much they learn. The latter is a separate issue that must also be addressed. It is preposterous to believe that detaining children and shaming them will enhance their learning. Moreover, conventional systems of assessment, especially board examinations which are now going to be introduced as early as Class V will further reinforce the belief that teaching–learning–assessing remain restricted to didactic transmission of content, rote memorisation and mechanical reproduction of that content.

Updated On : 4th Sep, 2017

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