Last week, the Rajya Sabha approved a significant amendment to the Right To Education Act. It passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that empowers state governments to scrap the No Detention Policy (NDP). The policy to promote students automatically to higher classes every year till Class VIII was instituted to check the high number of dropouts, especially among the socially and economically disadvantaged sections. But 25 states raised objections against the NDP, citing it as a reason for high failure in Classes IX and X. In the debate in the Upper House, Union Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD) Prakash Javadekar agreed with the naysayers and said that the NDP has created a situation where a “7th Standard student can’t solve math problems from Standard 4.”
Pinning the blame for learning deficiencies on the NDP is problematic. The policy was never envisaged as a standalone reform. In his Rajya Sabha speech, Javadekar did admit that “Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation was not taking place”. But the government has scarcely made any attempt to understand why the system, that involved tracking the progress of children through a range of activities over the academic year, proved to be a non-starter. The reasons would not have been difficult to find had the HRD ministry tried to connect a few dots. According to the ministry’s own records of 2016, for example, government-run elementary schools are short by 5 lakh teachers. And, according to the ASSOCHAM, there is a 50 per cent shortage of teachers across all government-run schools. The already overburdened teachers were not given any training on how to carry out the crucial reform. They had very little idea on what to evaluate and how to evaluate it.
There is no research to suggest that the quality of learning improves if the child goes over the same curriculum again. In contrast, a growing body of scholarly literature has emphasised that detention damages the morale of students, eventually forcing many – many of whom belong to the marginalised sections — to quit. In his Rajya Sabha speech, Javadekar did try to allay fears of an increase in the drop-out rate. But the HRD ministry would do well to address some of the systemic problems of the Indian education system, given that there is enough evidence to show that uninspiring curricula, poorly-trained teachers and inadequate infrastructure are the real bottlenecks in improving learning outcomes. Removing these snags will require creative solutions, not knee-jerk reactions.