Don't Make the No-detention Policy a Scapegoat for Poor Learning Outcomes

Instead of making the foundations of our education system ready for reform, we are blaming an important reform for the cracks that already exist in the foundation.

In the past few years, many cities have witnessed a rise in the number of students failing their class IX exams. In Delhi, for instance, the number of repeating students as a percentage of total students enrolled in class IX rose from 2.8% in 2010 to a startling 13.4% in 2014 (as per DISE data). According to news reports, a similar increase has been seen in Nagpur, and in Chandigarh, 27% of class IX students studying in government schools have failed their final exams this year. Why is this happening? It is believed by many that the culprit is the no-detention policy brought in under the RTE, which ensures that no student can be failed before class IX.

The reconstituted Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE) is due to have its first meeting soon, and one of the issues up for discussion is the no-detention policy. This controversial policy is widely being blamed for deteriorating learning levels across schools in India. Many state education ministers, student and teacher groups and most recently, Delhi deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, have said that the policy should be reviewed, if not removed altogether.

It should be a matter of concern to all those interested in the Indian education system that there is growing demand to bring back a pass-fail system in lieu of one that allows for non-threatening, holistic assessment. At the time when RTE targets remain largely unmet and consultations for a new national education policy are underway, it is important to examine why the no-detention policy is attracting so much resistance.

What is no-detention?

Section 16 of the RTE mandates that no child can be detained or held back in a class until the completion of his/her elementary education. The corollary of this is continuous and comprehensive evaluation prescribed in Section 29 (h), more commonly known as CCE.

These provisions have given a legal status to the principle of no detention and the development of a progressive and holistic evaluation framework, enunciated in the National Policy on Education, 1986 and also the National Curriculum Framework, 2005.

In 2012, the Ministry for Human Resource Development (MHRD) crystallised its position on the NDP as follows,

“The ‘no detention’ provision is made because examinations are often used for eliminating children who obtain poor marks. Once declared ‘fail’, children either repeat grade or leave the school altogether. Compelling a child to repeat a class is demotivating and discouraging.”

It was also clarified that the CCE is “a procedure that will be non-threatening, releases the child from fear and trauma of failure and enables the teacher to pay individual attention to the child’s learning and performance”.

As asserted by several educationists and academics, the no-detention policy (NDP) and CCE are based on sound principles of pedagogy and assessment, recognised world-wide. They are thus a welcome change to the exam-centric culture prevalent in Indian schools.

There are also very strong equity considerations behind the NDP policy, especially for children from low-income families, and girls. Failure for these children implies dropping out, as alluded to in the MHRD position. In fact, wastage in the schooling system due to high repetition and high dropout rates has been a major concern since the 1990s. The no-detention clause in the RTE Act seeks to address that concern.

Besides, research evidence indicates that detention of students by a year or more does not improve learning. Even the Geeta Bhukkal Committee—a sub-committee under CABE set up to look into this matter—admits that there is no research anywhere in the world which establishes that repeating a year helps children perform better. But research does say that repeating has adverse academic and social effects on the child. 

Implementation and fallout

After the RTE was enacted, the process of reform did not go down smoothly. A common misconception was that no-detention meant no assessment. This has since been clarified by the MHRD but it is possible that the message did not reach all ears. Guidelines for implementing CCE were issued at various points of time by the CBSE, NCERT and state-level bodies. In fact, CCE is the assessment system under RTE and should go hand in hand with the no-detention policy. It allows for students to be assessed on non-cognitive as well as non-academic areas of learning. In this way, a child need not be ‘failed’ simply because of non-performance on a narrowly defined and rigid set of indicators. Here again, there was, and perhaps still is, a lack of awareness regarding the finer points of CCE as well as of its implementation.

Meanwhile, as learning outcomes continued to dip, the NDP and CCE policies came under attack. Some of the criticisms that came forth were — students become lackadaisical as there is no longer a fear of failure, parents are no longer strict with their children, teachers are struggling to maintain discipline, attendance has dropped and so forth. Schools complained of poor performance in class IX because of students becoming used to automatic promotions. Many states, including Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Assam opposed the NDP at the 59th meeting of CABE in 2012. The Geeta Bhukkal committee reported, among other things, that no-detention demotivates students, and increases the burden on teachers.

The opposition to the NDP and CCE policies is worrying, for two reasons. First, failures in implementation are being conflated with failure of policy. The CCE has failed to take off in most schools, owing to lack of basic capacity and awareness. In the absence of an effective system of comprehensive assessment along the lines of CCE, which enables learning, a no-detention policy becomes meaningless. The result is anomalies like the large number of repeaters in class IX. This does not mean that the policy itself is flawed.

Secondly, the opposition itself tells us that there are still many stakeholders who are not receptive to the principle of no-detention. The above criticisms carry the assumption that students can only learn under the threat of failure. If this is a common belief, then maybe the groundwork for reform remains incomplete.

The way forward

The phenomenon of poor learning outcomes is the product of many factors which influence learning, and should not be conveniently pinned to the door of the no-detention policy. There is a pressing need to acknowledge the failure of other key provisions of the RTE, for instance, the stipulated pupil-teacher ratio (PTR). Many government schools still face an acute shortage of qualified teachers. Until the time an adequate number of teachers are recruited and the PTR is met, it is unreasonable to expect CCE and NDP to succeed.

Moreover, there is a need to engage more deeply with teachers, as they are the ultimate executors of any learning-oriented reform. Teacher training programmes must be revised in line with the requirements of CCE. In-service support should also be provided to ensure that teachers are equipped and motivated to drive learning outcomes without having to teach to a test. Meanwhile, more effort needs to go into designing a workable, accessible framework which meets the objectives of continuous and comprehensive assessment.

At the cusp of transformative changes heralded by the RTE, a drastic reversal in policy without wider discussions and consultations would amount to a retrograde step. It would be especially detrimental if it meant going back to a system acknowledged as poor–as it was based solely on a pass-fail calibration of learning. The foundation of the education system has to be made ready for reform. Reform should not be held responsible for existing cracks in the foundation. Instead, efforts to strengthen the foundation should be the objective of policy.

Shruti Ambast and Akriti Gaur and Research Fellows, Education Initiative, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy