The Monsoon Session of Parliament sure started with a bang.  While The Hug will dominate the news, millions of India’s children will be affected by the HRD Ministry’s announcement that schools in India will not allow detention of students in Grades 5 and 8 to help learning outcomes.

Education being a concurrent subject, States have as many powers over policymaking as the Center.  A majority of the States argued against the no-detention policy, saying that students who haven’t learned anything in lower grades get promoted, without the required skills.

A study by Pratham in January 2018 found that only 19% of government school students in Grade 3 can read a Grade 2 text book.  This is an interesting statement for many reasons:

  • The lag has been identified in Grade 3 and the lag is 6 – 12 months at most
  • Grade 3 is the last grade to which grade detention (or ‘failing’ a child) has shown slight positive results.

Does Detention Work For Every Grade?

Worldwide, studies have shown that grade detention does not work long term.  While there are some short-term gains, research has proven (through longitudinal studies) that these gains dissipate in two years.  Even these short-term benefits recede when new material is encountered – another interesting statement that suggests solutions.

In the long term, results of keeping a student back include dropping out, a continued lack of self-regulation, a reduced sense of belonging and decreased peer liking.

Do We Have Enough ‘Valid’ Data?

The no-detention policy is not new to India: Andhra Pradesh instituted it in 1975 and was one of the states that argued for it in the assembly of its peers. The perception of Andhra Pradesh isn’t one of low academic performance by any means. HRD Ministry data measure the State’s performance in English at 238 (national average 250) and in Math at 251 (national average 250).  Given that we have more than 40 years of data from one of our states, arguments like cultural appropriateness of research (many research studies are non-Indian) don’t hold.  

Even a state like Delhi that has had significant advances in education in the last three years (evidenced by CBSE exam results) that argues for detention does not recommend it after Grade III.

Detention and RTE

The Right to Education Act that brought in the no-detention policy did so in the context of the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation(more familiar by the term CCE), a system that used various methods to assess student understanding.  The schools that followed CCE in both its letter and spirit were few but were able to implement other ways of assessing learning. For example, a child who had trouble expressing themselves in writing might fare better in a speech.  CCE also introduced the radical idea that students could be assessed in ways other than written examinations.

What a continuous assessment (in the way it was envisaged) could do was point out strengths and areas of improvement timely and in ways that might allow teachers and parents to work with students in all these areas. And here come the real issues that we face in education, issues that you and I with our middle-class privileges may not even be able to identify, much less understand.

The Myth of Learning Equality

A child born to educated parents has access to learning opportunities from when they open their eyes.  They have indirect access to education through nutrition and nurturing. It’s now a known fact that malnutrition impacts brain development, issues that children from well-heeled families will never face.  Access to books and reading aren’t out of reach. This is called the birth lottery and has been acknowledged worldwide as a predictor of lifelong success.

Reading and early math skills (knowing numbers, some letter-sound association, vocabulary, etc.) are early predictors of academic success in life.  Children who enter school with these skills (age appropriately) are better off. Here, India’s diversity hits the child hard. Many children don’t know these concepts in English and our measures don’t take vernacular languages into account.  They don’t grow up in environments where English is heard often, an artificial barrier that affects children in very real ways.

What about when parents are not educated?  What about when there is no homework help at home like other children get?  What about when children are working and studying at the same time, where studying is only at school and home is about tending to a farm or animals or other economic considerations?  What about homes where there are abuse and alcoholism, where children who bring their books home have them destroyed on a consistent basis? These children are hit with a double whammy – not only did they luck out on the birth lottery but drew a card due to poverty where access to help isn’t an option.

The RTE Act, while enacted with the right intentions, needs rejigging on several fronts.  It is also true that society as a whole has not implemented the Act in its spirit. Schools that go beyond what they are required to do and do what students need to learn may not have issues with as many failures.

When schools seek the minority tag (an increase since the RTE Act was enacted, because these institutions are exempted from its requirements…including ‘linguistic minority’, whatever that is in a country with more than 1,500 languages!), the signal is clear: we don’t want ‘them’ in ‘our’ classes.

Who is vulnerable?

UNICEF estimates that 80 million children will drop out of school in India. Significantly affected populations are Dalits, tribal communities and adolescent girls.

I am a special educator and I know that the children I work with, with developmental and learning differences will also have their heads on the block.  The discrimination their populations face in the education system is another whole discussion altogether. The implementation issues with the RTE is yet another interminable topic of discussion.

Worldwide though, the only thing detention is linked positively to is dropping out: the chances that someone detained in middle to high school dropping out of the system completely is very high.  How would that be good for any society, much less one like ours with its inequitable distribution of wealth?

So what does one do?  Well, for a start, placing the onus of education completely on the lap of the child doesn’t work.  If they could, they would. It isn’t fun to be on the receiving end everywhere and when a child can’t do something, they can’t always ‘ask’ for help in ways we want.  They will show it through behaviour that isn’t appropriate and in our fantastic way of treating symptoms, we use ‘mis’-behaviour as the excuse to suspend them and otherwise write them off.

India needs around 20% more teachers than her schools currently have.   In total, we are looking at a shortage of 1 million teachers.  Around 1 lakh of our schools are single teacher schools, so the official statistic of around 24 children to a teacher hides more than it reveals.  In several states there is not ONE special educator, in total, our country has a 65% shortage of special educators.

Why is this significant?

Because teachers whose responsibility it is to provide teaching and therefore improve learning outcomes can barely know what their students’ starting levels are with 65 students of different ages in a one-room school. There are 1 Lakh such schools. 

Take the other statistic from above – we knew that Grade 3 children didn’t read at Grade 2 level.  That is a full three years before they face potential detention in Grade 5. Are remedials done? What action is taken to help that child address their difficulties?  How can it be that we are not able to bring children up to even 40% in grade 5, after identifying issues in Grade 3? Are we saying that no-detention is the real issue? Or even the only issue?  If not, what is being done on these other, much more significant fronts to address learning outcomes?

Also Read: Gender Stereotyping in Schools

Assuming I have had a child with me for 3 full years and haven’t been able to get them to pass Grade 5, what is the guarantee that the same instruction methods, in the same system, with different classmates (and the resulting self-esteem hits) and the same teacher will make a difference?  If three full years haven’t, how will one more?

Detention in classes 5 and 8

The Solution 

The answer lies in early identification (ASER does this) and then a strong remediation.  We need systemic reform that doesn’t take a curriculum’s disability and foist it on a child.  A child can not manage to do it all for themselves without us adults. Should we be a part of their progress or their inevitable dropping out of the system?  Chapter V of RTE Act also talks about the ways in which learning should be fostered and it would behoove us to put in resources to use those fostering methods into teaching.

Detention didn’t help children when new material was introduced, so it isn’t content-based intervention always, but skills-based ones that are required. We need summer schools to help children work on skills.

I asked a teacher from a prominent school with many branches in Bangalore – how do they get their 100% results?  Is everyone vetted, does no one in Grade 9 ever fails. He said, “Of course they do. But we identify them and make them come to extra classes, give them extra classes, attention and work at home.  We also make parents accountable for the work being finished. No one wants their child to fail, Ma’am. They won’t score 90%, but they definitely pass.” The argument, of course, is whether exams assess learning outcomes but that battle was lost the minute detention was linked to exam scores.

A friend who is also a special educator once observed: I have seen that every child who gets intervention does progress.  Every child. I don’t see why this can’t be true of all children – IF we give them the intervention that is required.

One student commits suicide every hour in India, one of the highest rates worldwide.  Academic failure is already one reason.  I hope we don’t end up debating how much the detention policy has contributed to this rate in the years to come.