Since it was passed in 2009, the egalitarian promise of the Right to Education Act (RTE) has been undermined by the incapacities of India’s school system. Several surveys, ranging from the Pratham-conducted Annual Status of Education Reports to the international Programme for International Student Assessment run by the OECD, have indicated that learning levels of Indian schoolchildren are abysmal, and worse, stagnant over time. While the RTE’s focus on inputs and the emphasis on the expansion of schooling have succeeded in achieving near-universal enrolment and in retaining students, this has not had the intended effect of improving learning outcomes. A report by the parliamentary standing committee on human resource development recognises this gap and has recommended that the “no detention” until Class VIII policy be reconsidered.
This should prompt a broader rethink on the kind of government intervention the school system really needs. The RTE’s aim should be to orient schools towards delivering a certain minimum level of learning to every child. This requires having an independent measure of learning at each grade, rather than automatic advancement that fails to take into account if children are actually meeting the expectations of the curriculum. This is not to suggest a return to the type of high stakes, end-of-year examination system that favoured rote learning. But there is evidence to indicate that the method of continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) mandated by the RTE has been stymied by lack of guidelines on how it is to be implemented. Teachers are not trained to use the assessments to map student outcomes, and in some instances, they have been made so complicated that teachers are reluctant to use them. The learning gaps, then, show up only during Class IX or competitive exams.
In this context, a no-detention policy could actually exacerbate the problem — one study finds that when the curriculum moves faster than students learn, it creates a growing gap between levels of learning and the instructional material. There is an urgent need, therefore, to align pedagogy with the needs of children. The government must foster an environment where different ways of doing so — for instance, grouping children by learning level rather than age — can be explored, with requisite monitoring of these experiments.