The Union Cabinet’s decision to modify the “no-detention” policy under the Right to Education Act marks a small but significant step towards improving India’s abysmally low education outcomes for school leavers. The fact that some 24 state administrations are keenly awaiting a parliamentary amendment to allow for evaluation-based promotions for lower-school students from the 2018 academic year suggests that the Centre is responding to the reality that 20 per cent of students drop out in class IX, a symptom of a systemic flaw. Under the current law, originally designed to encourage children to stay in school, students are to be promoted automatically till class VIII. The enabling provision that the Cabinet proposes to introduce in the Act will allow states to conduct year-end examinations for students in classes V and VIII, that is, in their middle-school years. If they fail, states will have the discretion to allow these students to attempt the examination again two months later. Those who fail to clear this second exam can then be detained.
At the very least, this reasonable relaxation raises the possibility of state administrations pressuring schools and teachers to work with academic laggards to make the cut. It will only work, however, if it were augmented with a focus on a substantial upgrade in teaching standards. Despite a significant increase in salaries after successive Pay Commissions, poor teaching standards remain the single biggest weakness in enabling India to encash the famed demographic dividend that policymakers factor into their projections of the future. It is no secret that the bulk of Indian children struggle to comprehend material at their level of education, so year-end exams are likely to result in large-scale detentions, which may defeat the purpose of the Act.
The 2016 edition of Pratham Education Foundation’s authoritative Annual State of Education Report (ASER) offers the depressing finding that, despite improvements in school enrolments, facilities (toilets, pucca buildings and so on) gender gaps and arithmetic and reading skills, the state of education in rural India is far from optimum. Since most Indians still live in rural environs, the ASER’s findings offer a handy proxy of the state of education in India in general. The 2016 report says reading levels for class V students are unchanged between 2011 — two years after the passage of the Act mandating free and compulsory education for children between six and 14 years — and 2016. For students of class VIII, the same metric has seen a small decline in the same time period. In simple arithmetic skills, the results for class V children is worrying for a country that prides itself on its IT prowess: Only about a fourth of students can do simple division. For those in class VIII, the proportion has fallen sharply: From 68.4 per cent in 2010 to 43.3 per cent in 2016. This plays into the fact that less than half of India’s graduates can be employed as teachers.
A good part of the problem, of course, is that teaching remains a second-hand profession, one that many enter when all other job avenues fail. The corruption inherent in the appointment of teachers in government schools is another element of the public education crisis. Both are issues states urgently need to address so that India does not end up as a nation of under-educated children in a hyper-competitive globalised world.