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States Failing Children
Many states have decided to hold public exams and detain elementary school children.
Atul Krishna

On March 1, 2019, an amendment to India’s most important law on school education, The Right of Child to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, was notified. The amendment permits states to do two things: hold examinations in Classes 5 and 8 and make children who fail these exams repeat those classes.

This overturned the “no-detention policy”– a crucial provision of the Right to Education (RTE) Act that, in 2010, had imposed a country-wide ban on the practice of making elementary school children who fail exams repeat classes. The decision came after years of deliberations pitting the state governments, many of which wanted the policy scrapped, against academics and activists who believe grade repetition will only encourage the most disadvantaged students to drop out.

Now, it is up to the states to decide whether to detain and several have decided to do so. Gujarat, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka have all decided to detain students. In addition to detaining children, most of these are also likely to hold public examinations, akin to board exams, in Classes 5 and 8.

Some states, including Delhi, are yet to finalise their policies. The Capital’s Aam Aadmi Party government had vehemently opposed the no-detention policy but is apparently in no hurry to implement the amendment. Kerala, which according to the Centre’s think tank, NITI Aayog, runs the best performing school system in the country, has chosen not to detain.

‘Regular examination’

“The state has a policy of 100% enrolment and 100% retention,” said A Shahjahan, secretary, Kerala General Education Department. “We have decided not to have a public exam for Class 5 and 8 and are continuing the same policy of no detention.”

Few have followed this path as most state governments had been clamouring for an amendment. At a 2015 meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), 23 out of the 28 states had supported the scrapping of the NDP. State representatives argued that the policy leaves students unprepared to face public examinations leading to an increased failure rate in the Class 10 board examinations and also causes an overall decrease in learning. Without the threat of failure hanging over their heads, children do not study, it was argued.

Now, several states are opting to hold public exams, conducted by agencies outside the school, in Classes 5 and 8. The Right to Education Act prohibits board exams at the elementary stage and that provision, Section 30 of the Act, still stands. However, the amendment has diluted the central policy. First drafted in 2017, it provides for a “regular examination in the fifth class and in the eighth class at the end of every academic year” but does not clarify the nature of the exam.

Consequently, many states are opting to hold high-stakes public exams for Classes 5 or 8 or both.

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November 2019

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