The RTE Amendment Bill, recently passed in Rajya Sabha, has again triggered the periodic debate between anti-detentionists — votaries of No-Detention Policy (NDP) — and detentionists. The amendment allows states to decide whether to withdraw automatic promotion at the end of 5th and 8th grades, which is the point of contention.
Detentionists usually advance only one argument: That if children know that they will automatically pass, they don’t study, thus learning achievements come down. They can advance at least one more argument: Since Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) is not implemented seriously, if no-detention is practised then certificate of elementary education will certify no learning.
Anti-detentionists argue that fear of failure causes stress and trauma and failure demotivates and pushes children out of system. That stigma of failure mainly harms Dalit and tribal children. They also argue that detention will weaken many other provisions of RTE, like admission in age-appropriate class. And they raise the battle cry of “failing children does not make them learn” — which is true — and that no-detention is claimed to produce improved learning achievements.
I will only try to point out why CCE, the holy grail of anti-detentionists, cannot be implemented, and therefore, the pass-fail system gains a kind of grudging plausibility. The shortage of teachers and lack of training are cited as the main reasons for failure of the implementation of CCE. Though these claims are true, a fundamental contradiction in the RTE is ignored in this debate. Unless that contradiction is removed, the CCE cannot be implemented in its true spirit.
The term “class” is very important in the RTE. The norms for teachers, teacher-pupil ratio, infrastructure and elementary education, are all defined in terms of class. “Elementary education,” says the RTE “means the education from first class to eighth class”. Regarding the admission of a child above six years, the act demands that “. he or she shall be admitted in a class appropriate to his or her age”. The act is aware that such a child may not be at par with other children in the class, implying that class is associated with some standards of learning. The act itself is “to provide for free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years”. Reading this together with the definition of elementary education will give the duration of “class” as one year.
From these and other references to “class” in the act, it can be conclusively established that: One, duration of study in a class is one year. Two, a class has its specific curriculum in which learning expectations increase as the order of class increases. Three, that the school is organised class-wise. Though the RTE does not say anything about textbooks, we do know that they are written class-wise. Therefore, promotion to the next class is not a matter of age, but of learning achievements; implying that the very concept of class as used in RTE contains the idea of detention, if need be.
With this definition of class and elementary education, the ideas of no-detention and admission in age-appropriate class completely de-emphasise learning expectations. All that remains is eight years in the school, that too if the child is admitted in class one. For the child admitted in “a class appropriate to age”, all that remains is attaining the age of 14 years.
This happens because “no-detention” is introduced in a school system defined in terms of class; this is the first contradiction. Second, CCE demands that assessment should be continuous and it should feedback into pedagogy to help the child learn better. Thus CCE, primarily, is not for promotion or its denial. With age-appropriate admission and no-detention, children in any given class are bound to be at different levels of achievement, and if the CCE is to help every child learn, then it cannot be based on the same tasks and assessment criteria for the whole class. But that is precisely the demand of class-wise teaching. CCE on the other hand, demands individual attention in assessment and pedagogy. Therefore, the class-wise structure of curriculum and school on one hand, and CCE on the other, pull the system in opposite directions.
There are two ways to resolve this contradiction. One, accept the true definition of class or grade, which is to complete a defined curriculum in one year, and detention on unsatisfactory completion. Precisely what the government has done. While this is retrograde and hardly improves learning, it resolves the contradiction in the teachers’ minds, and allows them to practice the age old authoritarian rigid system in its true glory.
The other way is to carefully work out the implications of a pedagogically sound CCE and take on the arduous task to reform the system to implement it. That would require defining elementary education in terms of learning standards; organising curriculum as a free-paced learning path, and not boxed into classes; organising schools as ungraded heterogeneous learning groups, composed of children at various levels; and introduce the ideas of self-learning and peer group learning, a necessity to manage a heterogeneous learning group. All this will require systemic reforms and to prepare teachers for this change through massive and serious in-service professional development.
This is the difficult path, but it does not contain internal contradictions, and may solve the problem of low quality.
The writer professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and secretary, Digantar, Jaipur