Focus beyond school ‘detention’ policy

The implications of States having different policies with regard to detaining students goes against the principle of having a uniform elementary education system.
As per the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) sub-committeereport, “No detention policy is implementable (only) in an ideal system.” The recent Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, passed in the Lok Sabha on 18 July (pending Rajya Sabha approval) is a tacit and misguided admission of how far India is from that ‘ideal’ place.
The bill amends Section 16 of the Right to Education (RTE) Act and gives States the option to mandate examinations at the end of classes 5 and/or 8. Students unable to clear these exams will receive additional inputs and be allowed to reappear within two months. If they still do not pass, the school will be allowed to detain them. However, it is encouraging that the Centre has left the final decision in this matter to the respective State Governments. It can only be hoped that most States will appreciate the soundness of the ‘no-detention’ policy and not discard it, at least in the long-term. However, the implications of States having different policies with regard to detaining students goes against the principle of having a uniform elementary education system.
It is a major departure from the original provisions of the RTE Act that prohibits detention of any student within the elementary education (class 1 to 8) system. There are several arguments in its favour, including ‘unconditional promotion reduces incentives to study,’ ‘high failure rate post class 8,’ ‘declining learning outcomes,’ ‘lack of preparedness,’ others. While some part of these arguments holds credence, it is essential to analyse the issue beyond the myopic lens of ‘yes/no detention.’

It is important to remember the distinction between ‘no-detention’ and ‘no-assessment.’

At the outset, it is essential to state that there are a number studies that conclusively prove that there is no correlation between detention and improved learning levels or decrease in dropout rates. On the contrary, the social stigma faced by detained students from friends and society at large is well documented. Also, amidst the mainstream and social media din, it is important to remember the distinction between ‘no-detention’ and ‘no-assessment.’
Even the RTE in its original form espoused a comprehensive no-detention policy. Section 29 of the Act called for assessment mechanisms through Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) that can evaluate a “child's understanding of knowledge and his or her ability to apply the same.” As per the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) guidelines, CCE must include ‘Assessment for Learning,’ ‘Assessment as Learning’ and ‘Assessment of Learning.’ The inclusion of current examination systems within the ‘Assessment of Learning’ bucket itself is fraught with issues such as over emphasis on rote learning and meagre testing of understanding levels. More importantly, in the current debate, the other two forms of assessments are relegated to the periphery.
Since the school education system does not have any robust accountability framework for teachers, exams become the only measurable yardstick. Different States reported that a disproportionally large number of students failed class 9 examinations and blamed it squarely on the no-detention policy. To put it mildly, it’s a flawed correlation. Inadequate and unsuccessful implementation of CCE is one of the major reasons for the failure of the ‘no-detention’ concept. As mentioned in the CABE report, “the challenges faced by teachers inside the classroom will increase due to no-detention and CCE.” This is more of a mindset problem. On ground, practitioners have consistently maintained that if understood and implemented correctly, models akin to CCE can actually distribute assessment responsibilities more effectively and allow teachers to change their approach to certain topics/subjects based on short term learning results.

Inadequate and unsuccessful implementation of CCE is one of the major reasons for the failure of the ‘no-detention’ concept.

For example, Pratham’s Learning Enhancement Program (LEP), which focuses on grouping and teaching students of different learning levels, showed tangible results in government schools of Haryana. However, it is important to note that the CCE model showed no relative improvement among these students. A similar study conducted by IIM Ahmedabad found no difference in learning levels as a result of CCE. Thus, there is a valid argument to be made against the hasty rollout of CCE across the country. A more nuanced approached involving pilots in different parts of the country to iron out the chinks, look at the other assessment models, sustained training of teachers, inclusion of such models to evaluate teacher training courses and awareness of such assessment models among parents might have yielded better results.
The ‘declining learning outcomes’ argument used in favour of doing away with the no-detention policy is also misdirected at various levels.
First, the RTE is applicable only for students in the 6-14 age-group. There is no sustained policy intervention which focuses on Early Childhood Education (ECE). The Ministry of Women and Child Development is tasked with the ‘holistic development of women and children’, thus often making it difficult to give adequate focus to ECE. Since a significant number of children are first generation learners, lack of ECE leads to insufficient school preparedness when children enter the formal education system. Even basic skills like comprehending instructions on a blackboard becomes a challenge. Thus there is a gap right at the fundamental level which has a cascading effect in the latter years.
Second, a large number of school students in their initial years find little/no familiarity with the medium of instruction. Cosmopolitan urban student profiles, attraction towards English medium schools and a language policy that is not in congruence with contemporary needs and aspirations are some of the challenges the government is grappling with in this sector. As the struggle with language continues, learning outcomes suffer.
Third, as mentioned before, there are no parameters to gauge teacher accountability. So, while the Annual Status of Education Reports continues to paint a grimmer picture every year with regards to learning outcomes, there is no mechanism to understand why teachers have failed to instill basic grade level competencies among students. All the issues mentioned above have nothing to do with the existence or absence of the no-detention policy. All of them are systemic issues that have plagued school education well before the RTE Act.
Once again, a well-intentioned policy measure has not even come close to achieving intended outcomes as a result of flawed execution. With its reversal, several students will once again have to bear the brunt and ‘fail’ for systemic lapses. Instead of focusing on creating outcome based assessment frameworks and implementing them in a phased manner, it was unfortunately deemed prudent to pass a regressive legislation. Ultimately, the goal of any progressive school education system should be to completely do away with the conventional examination paradigm and replace it with one that follows an integrated assessment and learning model. No-detention for students is a progressive policy initiative. Hasty and ineffective implementation should not sound its death knell.


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