Abolish grades, hated detention will disappear

January 23, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

[A shorter version of this article was published in Indian Express on 19th January 2019. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/rte-amendment-bill-school-no-detention-cce-5545512/ ]

The passing of RtE Amendment Bill by Rajya Sabha again triggered the periodic paper debate between antidetentionists, i.e., votaries No-Detention Policy (NDP) and detentionists who want to do away with NDP. The amendment allows states to decide whether to deny automatic promotion at the end of 5th and 8th grade. It does not say that the states have to detain non-performing students, it only says that they are free to decide whether they want to or not. But the tenor of debate is as if the states are legally bound to use detention.

The detentionists’ argue from age old wisdom of ‘bhay bin hoye na preeti’ or ‘no love without fear’; emphasising that the fear of failure in examination is a necessary motivator for learning, all other motivators fail in its absence. That almost summarises their theory of learning. This is certainly mistaken. Self-motivation is an important factor in genuine success which comes from learning and awareness of one’s own achievements. The external motivation is a function of loving care, appreciation and respect for the child’s mind. Fear goes against both, and therefore, never produces genuine lasting learning. Success attributed to fear is because of other factors in the system and family. The scrapping of NDP, therefore, is a mistaken and retrograde step. However, the dentionists can advance another argument, that in absence of CCE, which the government failed to implement, examinations are the only thing which can put some meaning in certificate of completion of elementary education.

Flawed arguments of detentionists, however, hardly make demands and arguments of antidetentionists valid, even if their main charge against detentionists is true. It is not a case of binary logic, here X being false does not necessarily make not-X true.

The antidentionists are well-read people, they have a plethora of arguments supposed to be based on rigorous research. The main arguments of antidetentionists can be reasonably summarised under psychological, social justice, legal and achievement heads. The psychological argument is the loudest and proclaims that fear of failure in examination causes stress and trauma, actual failure demotivates and pushes children out of the system. Social justice argument emphasise the stigma attached with failure, lower self-esteem, and that the harm is mainly done to the Dalit and tribal children. The legal argument worries about weakening other provisions of the RtE related to admission in age appropriate class, freedom from fear and trauma, and section 29 provisions. The achievement argument begins with the battle cry of “failing children does not make them learn”, which is actually true, and then goes on to site researches that prove that no-detention produces better results in learning achievements. This argument at the best is of dubious worth as generalisations in education is a hazardous business. Children’s learning depends on a number of factors in the system and society. In a reasonably well functioning system where teachers are appropriately trained and are really concerned about every child’s achievements, no-detention may improve learning; while in a system where teachers are clueless regarding learning levels of their own students and not trained to use alternative ways of monitoring their progress, it may spell disaster; which unfortunately is the Indian case.

No one points out to the antidetentionists that their psychological, social justice and legal arguments are of little educational worth if the achievement argument is not valid. Self-confidence without capabilities is nothing but arrogance of ignorance, and education does not mean shielding from set-backs through pretended success; it actually means teaching how to learn from set-backs, how to see them in proper light and how to deal with them emotionally and performance wise. Certifying all children as educated without required capabilities does no one any good, Dalits and tribals included. Legal provisions of RtE are not sacrosanct in themselves, the curricular and pedagogical provisions are worthy only if they help achieve educational aims, which necessarily require appropriate learning achievements. Thus the psychological, social justice and legal arguments depend on the achievement argument.

The holy grail of antidetentionists is by now famous CCE, i.e., Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation. They rightly point out that replacing the system of pass-fail by CCE is a much better and progressive option. They site shortage of teachers and lack of training as the main reasons behind failure to implement this perhaps most progressive provision of RtE. In spite of both the factual claims of shortage in numbers and inadequate understanding and training of teachers for CCE, a very significant and fundamental contradiction of RtE is missed or deliberately ignored. And without first addressing that contradiction implementation of CCE and NDP will neither be successful nor will succeed in improving quality of education.

The contradiction

The term “class” is the fulcrum of vision of school and school education in RtE. It remains an undefined term in RtE, and still 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”. Further it says that “every child of the age of six to fourteen years shall have a right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school till completion of elementary education.” (Emphasis added) Which implies that one class is of one year in duration. The teachers should “… complete the curriculum in accordance with the provisions … complete entire curriculum within the specified time.” All this makes it amply clear that class is of one-year duration, the curriculum is organised class wise, and that the curriculum of each class has to be completed in one year. Add with this no detention till completion of elementary education and admission in age appropriate class, and you have as confused a picture of elementary school as it can get.

On the other hand, CCE demands that assessment should be continuous and it should feedback into pedagogy to help the child learn better. It is not primarily for promotion or its denial. If children in any given class are bound to be at different levels of learning achievements, and if the CCE is to help every child learn, then it cannot be based on uniform tasks and criteria for assessment. Which demands individual attention in assessment and pedagogy. The class-wise teaching on the other hand leaves no room for such individual attention.  The help provided to the child cannot be considered ‘remedial’ as differing paces of learning is no ‘malady’, it is a natural way of learning.

Therefore, the class-wise structure of curriculum and school on one hand;  and CCE on the other, point in two opposite directions. That is why all schemes prepared for CCE turn out to be nothing more than smaller tests more frequently taken. Because summation at the end of the year is a demand of the class-wise structure, and assessment made part of pedagogy is not conducive to mechanical summation. Therefore, CCE will require a more careful analysis in writing annual progress report and the learning achievements may not fit into neatly divided year-wise range; the curriculum for that class may not necessarily be completed in that sacrosanct period of one year. As a result assigning class to children will become a meaningless arbitrary exercise having no connection with the specified curriculum and learning levels.

This is one thing for an educationist to recommend this bundle of contradictions in the name of RtE, and quite another for a teacher to run a school, implement the curriculum and complete elementary education on its basis. No wonder the teachers who are not close to academicians get thoroughly confused and oppose NDP. These recommendations put together make a mockery of elementary education, as it is possible for a child to complete 8 years in the school and therefore complete 8 classes without acquiring learning appropriate for elementary education. Certificate at the end guarantees nothing more than the time spent in school.

Resolving the contradiction

There are two ways of resolving this contradiction. One, accept the true definition of class or grade, which is to complete a defined curriculum in one year and if the learning levels are not satisfactory then remaining in the same class. This is what the government has done. Surely, this is retrograde and does no good either to the children or to the education system. But all said and done, resolves the contradiction in the teachers mind, and allows them to practice the age old authoritarian and rigid system in its true glory.

The another way is to carefully understand the implications of progressive and pedagogically sound CCE and take on the arduous task to reform the system to make it capable of implementing CCE. That would require defining elementary education in terms of learning standards and not in terms of classes or years; organising curriculum as a free-paced learning path, and not year-wise boxes; organising school as ungraded learning groups which are composed of children at various levels, and not as small homogeneous folks of sheep walking listlessly in the indicated direction; and the ideas of self-learning and peer-learning have to be refined and made common place is the schools rather than complete dependency on the teacher. This is not a small change. It cannot even be imagined without appropriate systemic reforms and massive and serious in-service professional development of teachers. If the nation lacks consensus or the will to muster energy and resources for this change, the status quo will remain.

In short, abolish grades so that CCE becomes possible and detention loses meaning and disappears altogether. Or remain content to accept detention as a logical demand of grade wise organised curriculum and school. As they say, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.


Rohit Dhankar, Secretary Digantar, Jaipur & Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.