"They fail because they are afraid, bored and confused"
- John Holt, How Children Fail
The Lok Sabha on July 18 passed an amendment to the Right to Education Act, revoking the no-detention policy. It is likely that given the support across parties, it will pass through the Rajya Sabha too. Even so, it is necessary to continue this conversation and inform both the public and policymakers about the potential damage of this reversal.
Section 16 of the RTE Act that earlier prohibited from holding back a child in any class cannot be read in isolation, and no detention did not ever mean no assessment. Section 16 should have been read in conjunction with Section 29 that talks about Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) and "making the child free of fear, trauma and anxiety". In ASER 2016, Madhav Chavan, the co-founder of Pratham, noted that detention is "simply a punitive action that humiliates the child" and that "we may be seeing the beginning of a major error in the opposite direction".
The financial implication of detention
The revised Section 16 has the provision for having examinations in Classes 5 and 8, and sub-section 3 also allows "schools to hold back a child… if he fails in the re-examination". Any policy decision has consequences - social and economic costs, and the reversal of the no detention clause will have its ramifications too.
Going by ASER data, roughly half of the children in Classes 5 and 8 are a few classes lower in terms of learning outcomes than the class they study in, and hence, would fail their exams. Re-examination is an important element of the amendment. Section 16, sub-section 2, states "if a child fails… he shall be given additional instruction and granted opportunity for re-examination within a period of two months…". The additional instruction will have some associated costs too - it may require additional training, special curricula, and if regular teachers are not available during the two-month window, some honorarium for part-time or volunteer teachers may need to disbursed. Additional remedial interventions like these can cost Rs. 800 - 1,000 per child, but even the most cost-efficient program will have an average cost of Rs. 250 (see footnote 1). Assuming 30% of children in classes 5 and 8 fail their first attempt and have to undergo the additional instruction, this would translate to 61 lakh children in rural government schools, and the cost of providing such programs would be Rs. 150 crores.
Now, this does not seem much given the scale of the public education system in India. But while some children may pass this re-examination and some may drop-out, others will repeat the same class. Let us say 25% of the 61 lakh children (see footnote 2) have to repeat a year. Assuming an average expenditure of Rs. 12,700 per child (see footnote 3), this would mean an additional financial burden of over Rs 1,900 crores. Put together, the cost of failing children would exceed Rs. 2,000 crores. To put this in perspective, this equates to 8% of the Rs. 26,129 crore Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) budget for 2018-19.
The question then is that wouldn't it be better to prevent this from happening? Wouldn't it be better say to invest in Early Childhood Development (more anganwadis, better pay, better training) to ensure that children have the right start before Class 1? Wouldn't it be better to improve teacher training institutions so teachers get the best inputs for foundational learning, and ensure children learn, and do not fail at a later stage?
Repetition is not remediation
The fact is that learning outcomes are declining. Both NAS and ASER attest to this. According to ASER, 47% children in Class 5 could not read a Class 2 text in 2010; this increased to 52% in 2016. But can this decline be attributed solely to the no detention policy? The pre-RTE scenario reveals an equally abysmal picture for the same class - in the first ASER survey in 2005, 39% could not read.
But, how does failing a child improve her/his learning? Mere repetition is not remediation, and definitely not learning. At its worst, it will completely shatter the child's confidence, potentially resulting in them dropping out from the system.
There is no research indicating that detention leads to improvement in learning. Even the government's own Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) sub-committee on CCE and no detention noted that that there is no evidence in India and abroad that proves that detention helps learning. It points towards evidence to the contrary, i.e. that detention leads to discontinuation of studies.
This idea of no detention being the source of poor quality in schools is not backed by data or research; it is based on perceptions. One of them is that children, parents and teachers are not serious because there are no exams, that the fear of failure will make students concentrate, it will make teachers teach. Fear may improve some results in the short-term, but not learning. It will, as it has before, create masses of people who have gotten 40% and passed, a country of people fearful and doing just enough to pass the day, pass at their jobs, fearing their superiors, not willing to take risks and not wanting to excel.
The other thought is that Class 10 board exam results are getting worse too as a result of poor quality. Pass percentages dropping due to stricter monitoring, introduction of CCTVs in exam halls, and this year, a crackdown on the cheating mafia that led to over 10 lakh children not appearing for their exams in Uttar Pradesh - all make headlines and grab popular attention.
Now, pass percentages are calculated by dividing the number of children passing the exam by the number appearing for the exam. If the percentage of children having achieved certain outcomes has to increase, there are two ways - one is reducing the denominator, the other increasing the numerator. Clearly, the former - reducing the denominator - is much easier. Failing children at an earlier stage may improve the Class 10 pass percentage, but will the absolute numbers increase? Is it a matter of improving perceptions rather than improving the system that is at play here?
The second chance
A more detailed discussion of the re-examination provision in the amendment is also required. If a child fails the exam in March, they will be tested again after two months, in May or June, and only after the second attempt, will the decision to hold them back be taken.
First, is it possible that a child who has suffered through five years of bad schooling leading to poor acquisition of basic language and math skills is able to make this gap up in two months of summer? Even the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) stated to the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Rajya Sabha that the "two months window with one re-examination is very small" (see footnote 4). States have special training provisions for children who need remediation, and there are structured programs to fill up foundational gaps in literacy and numeracy. But, getting a child who has foundational gaps to their grade level in two months would be like playing a test match with T20 rules.
Second, who will provide the "additional instruction"? Teachers who already have a lot on their plates will somehow need to take out more time. This two-month window will also coincide with blazing heat in most parts of the country - a time for summer holidays, even for school teachers. So, it is likely that this very important activity will be hived off to volunteer teachers having some child-friendly nomenclature, but with minimal experience and training.
What is also likely to happen is teaching to the test - where teachers focus only on the questions that are likely to be asked in the re-examination. Rote memorization techniques will be encouraged, given that activities for conceptual understanding tend to take time. Some children will narrowly pass through to the next class, but would their learning be enough to see them succeed in the next class?
The road ahead
Promoting a child with poor learning to the next class would definitely not improve learning outcomes. The biggest need is for effective formative assessment - assessments for learning. Such assessments that can diagnose reasons why a child is not able to do a particular task, and then feed into developing individual learning plans to address these gaps. Understanding formative assessment and implementing CCE is challenging, but not impossible. Diagnostic assessments can be designed and implemented at the school level in a child-friendly manner, and without the negative implications of a high-stakes 'exam'.
We should also look at engaging School Management Committees (SMCs) in this process of assessment. Parents, who have a stake in their child's education, should have a say. Initiatives like community learning audits, where parents and teachers get together to assess children and discuss what needs to be done, need to be encouraged. Such mechanisms that strengthen community-school linkages and ensure accountability should be recognized.
It is likely that this amendment to the RTE Act will pass, but I hope that the conversation continues. I also hope that state governments, who can formulate their own guidelines, do not fail in their duty towards our children. We should not reverse the no-detention policy. By doing so, we will be, both literally and figuratively, failing our children.
1. Pratham mentions USD 25 as the annual cost of educating a child (Source: Pratham USA website)
2. Estimate of children based on enrolment figures from U-DISE 2015-16 and 8th All India School Education Survey 2016. Enrolment figures of classes 5 and 8, in rural Govt. and local authority schools
3. Median per child expenditure per annum is INR 12,768 - PAISA 2014, Accountability Initiative
4. Three hundredth report on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, presented to the Rajya Sabha on 9th February 2018
(Arjun Sanyal is an IIM-Ahmedabad alum who has worked with leading international NGOs and led programs on improving the quality of education in government schools since 2009.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)