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No Holding BackIn the five years since the potentially transformative Right to Education Act (RTE) was implemented, several studies have documented the decline and stagnation of learning levels in school. The Annual Status of Education Reports have painted a dismal picture. Most children emerge from primary school lacking even rudimentary arithmetic and reading skills. Back in August, the Central Advisory Board of Education, emboldened by the recommendations of a subcommittee headed by former Haryana Education Minister Geeta Bhukkal, made a strong pitch to scrap one of the RTE’s central tenets — that no child would be detained, or “fail”, until Class VIII. Amid a reportedly near-unanimous agreement to do away with the no-detention policy, Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani asked states to furnish their consent in writing, which 13 of them did last week. Delhi has initiated proceedings to abolish the policy, while the Rajasthan Assembly has already passed a bill amending the RTE. But bringing back a pass-fail system threatens to undermine the egalitarian promise of the RTE.
There is little doubt that deteriorating education outcomes are a cause for alarm, and call for an urgent re-evaluation of the way the education system is structured. Students should not be blindly promoted only to set them up for failure later, when standardised assessments show up the vast gaps in their learning levels. But it is the government’s responsibility to set up enabling education infrastructure — and this does not just mean buildings, classrooms, blackboards and chalk — that allows students who are lagging behind to catch-up to their age-grade level. The RTE provides for “continuous and comprehensive evaluation” (CCE) — a necessary corollary of no-detention — which attempts to eliminate the prevailing end-of-year high-stakes examination system. In theory, the CCE allows teachers to track each student’s progress and tailor lessons to student capabilities. In practice, however, muddled CCE guidelines and lack of training have caused confusion among teachers on what their role is and, as the Bhukkal report notes, together with the no-detention policy, it has bred indifference towards what little assessment is conducted among all stakeholders — teachers, parents and children.
Instead of putting the onus of failure on children, as scrapping the no-detention clause would do, the government should work to, as Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia said, “strengthen the CCE system and prepare our teachers”. It ought to experiment with different methods of student assessment and after adequately measuring learning progress, provide remedial classes for those who need them. That way, the most disadvantaged students will have an equal opportunity to complete elementary education, rather than dropping out, demotivated and discouraged, after being compelled to repeat a class.