The provision of not detaining children till the elementary school level, irrespective of their failure in examinations, was included in the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) 2009. The Act simultaneously introduced Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) as a more complete way of tracking children’s progress in schools. These reforms were initiated with the objective of motivating children to stay in school, reduce examination-related anxiety and curtail dropouts caused by ‘failure and subsequent humiliation’. However, of late these measures have been criticised and charged with doing just the opposite — ‘discouraging children against learning, promoting a lackadaisical attitude among teachers and students and resulting in deteriorating learning levels’. Both these provisions are not new and were in existence at different levels in some states before being mandated by the RTE.
The Annual Status of Education Report, 2014 has held the no detention policy (NDP) responsible for the falling learning levels of school children. Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia recently urged the Union HRD minister to restrict this provision till Class III in Delhi. Examinations have long enjoyed a hallowed position in India’s school education system and it is time that the focus shifted from ‘performance in exams’ to ‘learning for learning’s sake’. While assessments and learning are integrally related, an assessment-driven learning can have only a restricted meaning and value. With rewards, promotions, scholarships and admissions hinging on exam results, it is no rocket science to understand why exams cause the stress that they do. Exams lead to inordinate anxiety, especially when there has been no learning in schools and lack of learning cannot be attributed solely to lack of desire, willingness or effort on the part of children. Instead, it signifies an absence of a conducive teaching-learning environment in schools.
It is unfortunate that despite a reasonable understanding of the ills that plague the education system, we quickly blame the children who are at the mercy of a system which is often insensitive to their individual needs and oblivious to challenges they face. Children do not learn because of factors both at home and in school. Children of parents who are illiterate and migrate from place to place in search of livelihood, or children of casual, daily wage labour whose minds are occupied with doubts about their next meal face far greater challenges in meeting the learning expectations uniformly imposed on them by schools. These children don’t go to the best of schools and they study in difficult circumstances with no proper classrooms, inadequate teachers and large pupil-teacher ratios. In schools such ‘non-learners and potential failures’ are subjected to prejudices, and stereotypes such as being ‘disinterested and dumb’.
The NDP, as popularly misunderstood, does not mean lack of ‘assessments’. It simply prevents schools from penalising the child for ‘failing’. However, it is true that such a policy of automatic progression may make both the teacher and the student smug and the realisation of ‘non-learning’ may hit only in Class IX when the conceptual gaps become obvious. This provision acknowledges the need for additional support to such children so that despite failing and being promoted, their learning needs are addressed in an appropriate and timely manner. This is obviously not easy. However, if such a provision stretches the school-life of millions of children and saves them from the ignominy and shame of failing and dropping out, then it is worth holding on to and finding ways to make it work. More systematic research is needed before condemning the NDP.
Failing students can by no stretch of imagination ensure learning. The fear of failure only makes the teacher and student desperate and anxious, leading them to focus their energies only on ‘clearing the exam’, not necessarily ‘ensuring learning’, unless one equates learning with only passing exams.
The fear of failure and the desperate need to pass exams were evident recently in a higher secondary school in Bihar where the parents and relatives of students writing their Board exams were seen scaling the school wall to pass answer sheets to them. While the photograph published in newspapers evoked ridicule and shame, the incident reflects the deeper malaise in our education system. An exam where such notes can apparently help the student pass shows the shoddy meaning attached to learning — where learning is reduced to ‘memorising’ content without reflecting on it. This also reflects the nature of assessment, which largely evaluates students’ ability to recall prescribed content and not use the information gleaned from textbooks and classrooms to build knowledge. By this logic, the learner would always remain passive and merely be copying notes either from the blackboard, textbook or such cheat sheets.
For learning to become intrinsically motivating it’s important that ‘meaningful connections are made between the world of school and the world of the child’ and that learning goes beyond memorising information and becomes truly reflective. Besides this, the assessment system should not restrict itself to testing memorising content alone but must facilitate the process whereby the child connects between what’s been done in school and what she experiences outside school. Until teachers and students are empowered to do so this, cheating cases will continue to get reported as unethical issues. Failing students can at most serve as a punitive measure and can never ensure learning.
The government should direct its efforts towards ensuring that children learn meaningfully rather than detaining them in the same class. For learning to happen, besides valid measures of assessment, it is imperative that schools function properly, have a nurturing, pedagogic environment, adequate infrastructure, meaningful and contextual teaching-learning materials, and most importantly, competent, qualified teachers.
Disha Nawani is associate professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views expressed by the author are personal