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.

RTE and popular debates

November 12, 2017

Rohit Dhankar

If your schools have classes they will necessarily have pass-fail

The government has introduced in the Lok Shabha an amendment bill to modify some provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act, for short). This bill seeks to empower the appropriate Government to take a decision as to whether to hold back a child in the fifth class or in the eighth class or in both classes, or not to hold back a child in any class, till the completion of elementary education.”

As is well known there is a continuing debate in the country on examination reform and particularly on the issue of no-detention policy. When one goes through the loudest screamed arguments for and against no-detention policy one wonders whether it is an informed debate or simple emotional outburst; or worse still, vehement repetition of pretended positions adopted in order to look progressive.

The Education Minister states in the objectives of the bill that “In recent years, States and Union territories have been raising the issue of adverse effect on the learning levels of children as section 16 does not allow holding back of children in any class till the completion of elementary education.” This singles out “not holding back” as a reason for unsatisfactory learning achievements. Thereby giving good ground to supposed to be progressive educationists to shout “failing children does not produce better learning”. Both miss the point and neither position helps in clearing the mess made in school education, with substantial contribution from confusions in the RTE Act itself.

The supposed to be amended section 16 of the RTE Act states “No child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education.” The most popular reasons given in support of this command of dubious merit is that failing children demotivates them, discourages them, often encourages dropout. This is only a politically correct child centrist argument of no pedagogical value. Yes, children should be encouraged to learn and not discouraged. Yes, keeping motivation high for learning and building their confidence is very important in any worthwhile pedagogy. Yes, repeated failure to be promoted to the next class encourages dropout. And still both the diagnosis and the remedy for these problems is completely wrong. On the other hand, dubbing no-detention policy as the major cause of falling standards of learning is equally wrong. Both are examples of superficial thinking of the worst kind.

Learning requires coordinated and sensitive efforts on the part of the teacher as well as the learner. If the school or the system or the teacher starts thinking that learning of children is a result of their own motivation, intelligence and family background; and the quality of teaching has little or nothing to do with it, they are shifting their responsibility onto the children. The school/teachers have to device ways of engaging children cheerfully and teach them to make efforts to the utmost level of their capabilities, which are dynamic in nature and not static as assumed by the notion of IQ. On the other hand, not telling the children that they have failed; yes, failed, to achieve the expected standards and always communicating that whatever silly notions they have developed are correct, beautiful and epitome of creativity shows complete lack of human achievements as well as of human mind. Pedagogy is an art which requires calibrated feedback without shunning the truth. If a child fails to achieve expected learning the teacher has to find a way of communicating the failure to achieve in a manner that encourages better concentration and efforts; not mindless goody-goody talk of ‘everything is great’. Children have to learn that human ways of thinking, doing and feeling have norms and they are expected to meet those norms appropriate to their age. Also, the teachers have to communicate that the children are perfectly capable of achieving those norms. And that sometimes failing to achieve a normal is nothing more than a necessary part of the mastering anything new; and some other times, in the Indian situations it is also because of inadequate help and guidance available to the child. But expecting that simply failing and communication of inadequate achievements will make children solve their own problems and learn better is an equally stupid idea. Without improving the system and preparing teachers to use appropriate pedagogy with sincere efforts learning achievements will not improve. Therefore, both parties in this case are mindlessly barking up the wrong tree.

The real problems with the RTE Act

The RTE Act is badly thought through. It does not touch the heart of education. It is an example of superficial educational thinking. And I believe, (do not have adequate evidence for this, through) that this superficiality is not because of the politics and politicians but because of inadequate and confused understanding of educationists in the country as it seems to be on the basis of their advice. RTE is about elementary education. But is has a very inadequate definition of completion of elementary education. The elementary education itself is defined as “the education from first class to eighth Class.” There are many stipulations regarding “completion of elementary education” regarding provision of schools, ensuring completion, not having board examination, not holding back, and so on. But the only possibility it provides for defining “completion” is in laying down a curriculum, assessment and implied learning in that which is to be specified by appropriate authority. Even if an appropriate authority defines any kind of learning levels that may be deemed necessary for completion of elementary education the Act takes away from them the power to implement them. It demands from them that the curriculum be completed but also demands that no child can be held back till completion of elementary education. Which simply put means being in the school till the age of 14 years is itself the mark of completion of elementary education. This is a poor understanding of the very concept of education. Education necessarily has an achievement aspect; that is, one can be considered educated only if s/he has achieved specified standards in knowledge, values and skills. Those knowledge, values and skills need assessment if one wants to claim that appropriate standards are achieved. And that assessment has to be respected if some certificate is to be awarded that has some respectability in the society. The RTE Act disassociated certification from any kind of learning achievements; and thus, empties education of its achievement aspect. What remains in education is time spent in school. One can hardly imagine a greater disservice to the concept of education.

Another serious confusion in the Act is use of the term “class” in defining elementary education, its completion, infrastructure norms and stipulations regarding admission. But the term “class” itself remains undefined, and that is one reason the pass-fail is being brought back. The notion of class makes no sense without it.

The requirement of bringing back the possibility of holding children back (failing) is a requirement of certification, not that it will make them learn better. All it will do is deny certificate to those who do not meet the required learning. This is a requirement of putting achievement aspect of education back in the concept as it is implemented. But the government is doing it in a completely wrong way.

The roots of the problem

[This section I am writing on the pain of repletion, therefore, those who have been familiar with my views need not read it. IT needs to be repeated for those who are not familiar. Those who want details can read http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/12/perspectives/beyond-oxymoronic-idea-no-detention-policy.html ]

The roots of the problem lie in our confused thinking. Our imagination of structure of school and that of curriculum is rigidly stratified like our society. We cannot think of a school that does not divide children into hierarchical classes or grades, each one to be achieved successively through aggregated annual assessment. Our curriculum, textbooks, timetable, annual calendar, everything is governed by that imagination of a school. Undoubtedly this is administration friendly structure, but it can work. One can even run very good schools in this structure. They need not always be harsh on children either.

But the pedagogical thought the world over has moved on. There have been serious problems in this imagination of schools, it is challenged and has changed in most countries which do well in education. Particularly child centric ideas made this school structure look evil. Some of us then picked up some of the attractive ideas like CCE, no pass-fail, activity based learning and so on; and tried to implant them in our rigid authoritarian school structure and system. But the whole imagination of school and progression in school education logically demands pass-fail kind of annual assessment, if not one-shot exam at the least aggregation. Therefore, doing away with the pass-fail system actually renders the school a meaningless and aimless institution, in its present structure and imagination. It is natural that everyone practically connected with the school wants to bring back the pass-fail. The RTE and the educational discourse in the country has so far failed to develop an alternative imagination of school and curriculum where one can make pass-fail a redundant idea by organising the school and curriculum as an ungraded learning continuum.

The opportunity

There is an opportunity in the currently proposed amendment. Rather than spending our energies on opposing the idea of holding children back on account of not meeting the learning standard at 5th and 8th standards, we should ask different kind of questions and put forward different kind of demands.

For example, we can demand that rather than “holding back” at “5th and 8th” standard the amendment should mention “giving more time to complete primary” or “elementary” education, and that time need not be one year. Also, completion of primary and elementary level be defined in terms of learning achievements rather than in terms of class or grades. It could be stipulated that primary education is expected to be complete in 5 years normally, but it may be slightly less or more than that, depending on the achievements of the child.

We can also ask if the schools are completely free to disband the grades/classes before completion of primary/elementary education? That is maybe there are no grades 1 to 5. Only years in school and completion of stipulated learning. Similarly, for elementary education. That will give the schools complete flexibility to organise their learning groups and facilitate CCE and pass-fail will become redundant, at the least till students reach completion of primary education.

But this is the tougher path. It will require developing a complete conceptual scheme of elementary education with new organisational principles, massive teacher education and very substantial changes in the administration system. But this is not impossible.


12th November 2017






Staying power of the pass-fail system

June 17, 2016

Published in The Hindu on 17th June 2016.

Rohit Dhankar

Once again, it is that time of the year when the examination results season may be just ending and the admissions season is in progress, and marked by a cacophony of two contradictory voices — often from the same people — that rose to deafening levels from April to May when the results of various school boards were declared. The first voice celebrated those who succeeded and did wondrously well. Newspaper articles were published on which sections of students did better than the other. Did girls do better than the boys? Did school system ‘X’ do better than school system ‘Y’? Pictures of individual students who topped the examinations were published and their parents, teachers and schools eulogised. Once the general ‘results fever’ subsided, this shrill voice was echoed by private schools which claimed to have taught some of the toppers, with their posters appearing in every possible place, from roadside electric poles to walls.

In general, this celebration of success in an examination goes on for the whole year, till the next results season when the old faces are replaced with new ones to valorise.

Pressure of expectations

More importantly, the second voice is one of lamentation as many students, wilting under stress and pressure, burnout and even commit suicide in this season, simply because they could not fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The loss of these young, and often bright, people must make us ponder. They have moved up all the way from nursery class to high school to fulfil their parents’ ambitions of seeing them grow into engineers, doctors or managers graduating from the so-called top-level institutions in the country. These children must have seen themselves only as exam-cracking “achievers” in order to make their parents happy. They lost out on their childhood play and free time; no pranks with their friends and no experience of the simple joy of just being a carefree child. This loss would have led to a narrow vision of human life guided by the all-important value of “success”; which is just defined as getting a top job. Period. These children, deprived of social development and trapped in an artificially developed world, choose death over struggle when that world suffers a rude shock with exam results that are less than expected.

There is very little recognition that the first voice I talked about creates a powerful environment wherein the trait of parents imposing their ambitions on the children becomes dominant. When they do not turn out to be as successful as their parents want them to, they fade away. This problem has two sides to it: the first is the examination-oriented Indian education system, and the second is competitive and cruel parents.

The ‘crushing weight of exams’

About 80 years ago, the Zakir Hussain report on National Basic Education noted that the “system of examinations prevailing in our country has proved a curse to education”. It pinpointed the malady by saying that a bad system is made worse by awarding examinations a place much beyond their utility. The problem, however, is much older than stated in the Zakir Hussain report.

For this, one has to go back as early as 1904 to the Indian Educational Policy issued by the then Governor General. This colonial document had a section titled “The abuse of examinations” and noted that “[e]xaminations, as now understood, are believed to have been unknown as an instrument of general education in ancient India”. It also claimed that examinations did not have a prominent place even in the Despatch of 1854, commonly known as Wood’s Despatch. The Hunter Commission report of 1882-83, which left examinations and promotions to the next class up to standard eight entirely to the schools, did not recommend any province-level or board exemptions. Still, the educational policy of 1904 noted that examinations had “grown to extravagant dimensions, and their influence has been allowed to dominate the whole system of education in India, with the result that instruction is confined within the rigid framework of prescribed courses, that all forms of training which do not admit of being tested by written examinations are liable to be neglected”. It further noted that the system was adopted on the precedence of English education which itself has “finally condemned” it; however, in India, it was proving to be “disastrous in its influence” on education. The policy recommended reforms that included abandoning public examination at the primary level, “more equitable tests of efficiency”, and “to relieve the schools and scholars from the heavy burden of recurring mechanical tests”.

The Indian Educational Policy of 1913 declared victory and stated that “the formerly crushing weight of examinations has been appreciably lightened”. It further declared that the “principal objects of the school final examination are adaptability to the course of study and avoidance of cram”.

All this shows that the devastating effects of this “curse to education” have been known quite well for over 100 years. There is no commission or committee report after Independence which does not acknowledge the burden of rote learning and the examination system on its students and its futility in assessing their real abilities. They all recommend examination reforms. The recent attempts, after Right to Education (RTE) stipulation, of no pass-fail and no board examinations till completion of elementary education in favour of a continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) are well known.

However, the public education system has completely failed to implement these reforms and the private schools have never paid much attention to them. We have now reached a stage where no one in the country knows how the CCE can be implemented, and how we can measure progress of the child without pass-fail systems. Therefore, there has been a concerted effort to discard this half-hearted foraging into unknown territory as soon as the present government came to power at the Centre. The result is that many States have gone back to their familiar pass-fail system and board examinations at the end of eighth standard if not earlier.

Nexus of forces

The question that stares us in the face is, how is it that we haven’t cleansed our education system of a curse that has been well known for over a hundred years? There is never a single factor behind the persistence of such problems; it always has to be a nexus of forces. Some of the factors that lie within the education system are often mentioned. The lack of seriousness, of resources, teachers untrained in new methods, etc. form the routine list. One reason rarely mentioned is the inconsistency between the prevailing grade-wise curriculum and school structure on the one hand and the idea of progress on the learning continuum inherent in the CCE on the other. The CCE does not suit our authoritarian school organisation, administration and syllabus organisation.

But it seems that the biggest force behind the persistence of this curse and useless examination system is a social one which is grossly under-examined. We are a caste-based and strictly hierarchical society. In earlier times, this hierarchy had the iron-clad stability of the caste system. That determined the place, function, work and life of an Indian even before his/her birth. There are attempts now, which range from constitutional rights to political struggle, to break that mould. It may not have been dismantled yet, but is under tremendous pressure ever since the freedom movement began.

But social hierarchies involve privileges, prestige and goods of life that are cherished by all. None is ready to let go of the privileges one has. As a result, the attempts to maintain the old hierarchy as well as the ways to challenge it look toward education. Education, therefore, becomes a means of fierce competition either to remain in one’s position of privilege or to rise in the hierarchy. It completely stops being a self-motivated way of forming an authentic self and gaining an understanding of the world, and is reduced to a means to beat/best the neighbour. A more open and thoughtful system of education will challenge the hierarchies which are so dear to a caste-minded Indian. The result is that the authoritarian system of pass-fail stays.

The stand of intellectuals

One wonders why the intellectuals in Indian society, and who understand the ills of this education system and the implied curse of examinations, don’t make a beginning to dismantle it. The answer perhaps lies in the often noticed phenomenon of the very people who write scathing papers and offer opinion on the ills of the current examination system, hold seminars and give keynote addresses on it in conferences, taking leave and cancelling all their engagements to be at hand when their own children are to appear in the standard 10 and 12 board examinations. Interpreting this contradiction as a simple lack of commitment to ideals is a superficial understanding even if it has an element of truth. The malady is deeper. In spite of being convinced of the “truth” of their analysis of the education system and the ills of examinations, they see the possibility of privileges their children will get through success in these very examinations; and the dangers of losing the positions achieved by themselves.

To face this situation one requires courage of conviction which scholar Alberuni noted a thousand years ago, albeit in the context of religion, that Indians don’t have. In the context of theology Alberuni notes: “at the utmost, they [Indians] fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property in religious controversies”. Not putting at stake their soul, body and property in religious disputes may be considered a welcome openness; but it seems this tendency is applicable to all ideas that might bring change. Indians don’t stake their property and position on ideas that may collide with the existing system. Unfortunately, no change in the system is possible without there being a critical number of people in society who are ready to pay the price to make a beginning. We don’t seem to have that critical number yet. And till we reach that number, our children will continue to commit suicide and their parents will continue to disown the responsibility to push them to do it. And we will all continue to blame the rigid system without noticing that its roots are in our own souls.