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






To detain or not to detain: Barking-up the wrong tree

September 3, 2015

[A shorter version of this article is published in THE HINDU on 3rd September 2015. it could be accessed here http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/right-to-education-act-beyond-the-passfail-binary/article7608382.ece ]

Rohit Dhankar

The national press is abuzz whether to re-introduce the old pass-fail system or continue with the current automatic promotion (referred to as “no-detention policy”) to the next class brought in in the process of implementation of RTE. The central government is treading cautiously “[i]rrespective of the unanimous outcry for revocation” of no-detention policy and has “decided to get written responses from all State garments”[1]. “Most states in the country … want the Centre to amend the Right to Education Act and revoke its no-detention policy for students of classes I to VIII”, according the state minister of education, Maharashtra[2]. Some educationists, however, see a corporate agenda behind the push to do away with this policy. They think that “The RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented. Just by failing children you do not make them good learners”[3]. The teachers often complaint about no detention and no punishment; as some of them see these two the most effective tools of control over the children; and control, as we all know, is seen as a necessary condition for making the children learn.

Both claims, it seems, have some truth in them; but miss the real issue by a wide margin. Our formal education system has been straddled by the tight grip of exams for more than one and a half century by now. Exams have an unstoppable tendency to become the only motivation for learning, and effectively kill all other motivations. All educated Indians have experienced it, and therefore, are thoroughly conditioned in believing that “no exams, not learning”. This beliefs is easily transferred to the children in a system that has almost no idea of joy of learning in itself. Therefore, the people who believe that children will not learn without the fear of exams have a practical point; even if very untenable from the pedagogical point of view.

The educationists are right when they say that just “by failing children you do not make them good learners”. But they are wrong when they think just by automatic proportion to the next class elementary education can be completed. The often expressed idea that children drop-out because of failure[4] is actually wrong; children drop-out because of non-learning, failure is just the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. The claim that the “RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented” is plainly wrong; the RTE hardly displays any understanding of CCE; leave out how to implement it.

First, we should note that ‘no-detention policy’ and CCE are very closely connected. Admission in age appropriate class[5] is a third issue which may have complicated the situation in some schools. As according to this provision if a child above the age of six years is either not admitted to school or left school without completing elementary education “he or she will be admitted to a class appropriate to his or her age.” We already know that our children are much behind learning in comparison to what is expected in the curriculum.

In such a complicated situation the only thing no-detention policy can ensure is pretention of completing elementary education without any real learning. However, if we want to understand the educational worth of no-detention we have to take into account three important ideas promoted by RTE simultaneously, they are: admission in age appropriate class (AAAC), continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) and no-detention policy (NDP).

The roots

All three of these ideas come from what could be broadly called the progressive education movement in the West, which has many internal forms and variations; but entered India under the name of Child-centred Education. The slogan of child-centred education is a powerful and alluring one. It talks of the classroom process being guided by the child’s interests and learning through activities. The current pedagogical form promoted in Indian education discourse by the name of constructivism is the pedagogy that suits child-centred education perfectly. Constructivism, like progressive education has many forms. One extreme position is that the teacher should facilitate the children to construct their own knowledge and should apply no criteria for the veracity or appropriateness to their constructed knowledge, as all knowledge is a result of individual experiences and meaning making. A more modest form is to start from where the child is and help her actively engage in making meaning through constructing concepts and forming relationships between them; but the goal remains to arrive at the knowledge generally accepted today.

These ideas demand that the children work together in collaboration with each other and progress in rational enquiry in a free atmosphere. It is assumed that interaction and collaboration with children of similar age will help them better in this progressive meaning making. Therefore, AAAC. Similarly, children progress with varied speeds and not necessarily through the same conceptual routes; therefore, one periodic examination on fixed questions for all becomes inappropriate and leaves much of the child’s progress in scholastic as well as moral and emotional development un-assessed. Hence, CCE. Since children progress as per their own speed, which is necessary for conceptual clarity through their own engagement of mind, there is no point in pass-fail in classes. This will only artificially bunch children together. Therefore, NDP.

The three ideas are closely connected through assumptions regarding knowledge, human learning and child’s nature. They are complementary to each other and can only work in any education system if taken together seriously. Separating them and adopting any one leaving the others out will not work.

Deep contradiction

If we accept the assumptions underlying AAAC, CCE and NDP then the organisation of the curriculum and the structure of the school will have to undergo a fundamental changes. The curriculum and syllabi will have to assume a “learning continuum” rather than a “learning ladder”. A continuum imagines a curve of learning which might be an individual path taken by each child and which does not necessarily have any time-bound fixed milestones. The knowledge, skills and values in the curriculum and syllabus may be organised sequentially where need be, but no year-wise rigid packaging can be admitted.

In learning ladder, on the other hand, the curriculum and syllabus are neatly organised in yearly packages, which we call grades or classes, to be learnt in one year. Examinations may come during the year and as many of them as one likes, but results are finally aggregated at the end and decision on whether sufficient learning has happened or not is expressed in the form of a pass or fail. In case of failure the whole chunk has to be learnt again; in case of pass no further opportunity to strengthen learning in the already covered areas is supposed to be needed.

Organising curriculum in the form of learning continuum will immediately contradict the grade-wise structure of the school. Since learning is supposed to be continuous, no rigid year wise division is made; putting children into different grades and pass-fail kind of examination system becomes redundant as well as an impediment to the process of teaching-learning. The only form of assessment that can serve the purpose is CCE then.

Now, our education system is profoundly authoritarian. The idea of progressive creation of knowledge by the child directly contradicts the idea of knowledge as finished product enshrined in the textbook. The grade-wise organisation of curriculum goes very well with this idea of knowledge, as any finished product can be neatly packages in manageable chunks. The class-wise structure of the school is an administrator’s delight; as it can be used for simple delineation of tasks for teachers and students. And the pass-fail examination system is a natural logical outcome of these ideas of knowledge, learning, curriculum and school.

This is the contradiction between an outmoded authoritarian system and a more enlightened idea of education that is being played out in the form of introduction and then clamour for removal of CCE and NDP. CCE and NDP simply cannot be meaningfully implemented unless we challenge and dismantle the authoritarian education system.

Lacking in courage or understanding?

All the three ideas of CCE, NDP and AAAC are theoretically sound and practically proven. They are much better for quality education than what we have today as fixed grades and pass-fail examinations. That is what makes the current antagonism to NDP barking-up the wrong tree. The fault lies in the authoritarian structure of the school, not in NDP.

But in India we have a history of attempting to introduce half understood ideas without proper preparation in terms of institutional structures and personnel capacity building. The DPEP kind of child-centrism, ideas of BRC/CRC and the farce called annual in-service teacher training are examples. Now this is the time to discredit another educationally sound idea of NDP, and we are busy doing precisely that.

Expecting education administrators to understand the CCE and NDP properly would be a pipe dream. But what of the educationists who advise on policies like RTE? Do they lack the understanding of the sophistication and interconnectedness of these proposed educational reforms? Or do they lack the courage to suggest the above mentioned contradiction, and therefore, dismantling of the authoritarian structure of school? At present we are discussing new education policy for the nation. The issue of a more enlightened vision of education and school should have been in the centre of this discussion. One is dismayed to note that those who are guiding the policy debates seem to have no awareness of this dire need of our education system. And therefore, we will continue basking-up the wrong tree.


[1] The Hindu, in “Govt. treads warily on RTE amendment” dated 21st August 15.

[2] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[3] The Hindu, in “Panel for phased implementation of no-detention policy in schools”, 18th August 15.

[4] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[5] RTE section 4.