Last week, the Union ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) stated that it was drafting an amendment to the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which will also provide that a student must get two chances if his performance is poor in any examination before detaining him.

Such a move would finally put an end to the disastrous policy of automatic promotions mooted by the existing Act. It may be recalled that the RTE Act has been steered by the former education minister Kapil Sibal. The Act required all students to be compulsorily and automatically promoted till Standard 7; thus, the only stage when they could be detained would be at Standard 9 examinations. The automatic promotions policy was reprehensible on account of several factors.

Need for a filter

It is imperative to have in place a system that weeds out students who do not study well. Typically, not more than five percent of a total population of students would fall into this category. But when five percent of students get weeded out at each higher class level, almost 30 percent of a student population gets filtered out by the time students reach Standard 9.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

To have an examination only at Standard 9 level would require a school to detain almost 30 percent of the students in that class. That is a step that principals of most schools are unwilling to take. The number is too large. The resultant outcry would be too great. And the political pressure on school managements to condone the results of some student or the other would be almost unbearable.

Consequently, many school managements had already announced almost five years ago that they would not detain any students in Standard 9. That would put the onus of filtering out the weak students at the SSC/CBSE/ISCE board examinations. Here too, no board was willing to detain over 40 percent of the students. Thus it would promote students who should not have been promoted at all.

That in turn increases the pressure on colleges to admit students, who should not have been admitted to colleges in the first place. It leads to greater politicization of colleges on the one hand. On the other, such students vitiate the classroom atmosphere for other serious students, preventing them to learning. The Sibal doctrine talked about the right of a child to learn; it ignored the right of other children who might want to learn, but could be prevented from learning because of a few bad elements in the class. It forgot that a boisterous class is capable of frightening away some of the best teachers as well.

Without a filter in place, the entire edifice of education can crash.

When grace becomes a disgrace

Ask any teacher who has been an examiner at board or University examinations. You will learn that even after the examiner has corrected the papers, all answer sheets are sent to a local moderator, who then decides to apply the right grace marks to ensure that not too many students fail in the region. The revised mark-sheet is then sent to the district moderator, who then applies the right multiplier to ensure that the passing percentage in his territory is “acceptable”.

The same process is followed at the board level, where the marks are moderated once again. The entire process ensures that many students, some with as little as 15% marks, can get “upped” to score the minimum required 35 percent in a subject. The filters that were in existence even before the Sibal proposals were weak enough. The automatic promotions stipulation made the situation even worse.

Empower teachers

The absence of class tests, and Sibal’s recommendation that unwilling students should be persuaded to learn, may be a good concept under ideal conditions. But talk to the teachers. Most school teachers in good schools ended up begging students to complete their project assignments so that the teachers could then fill up the required forms and inform the education inspector that the students had met the qualifying norms.

The RTE in its present forms puts the onus on the teacher to put in the additional hours that might be required to ensure that all students qualify. Since no detention is allowed, the teacher must either fudge records and say that an inept student is “qualified” for promotion, or must put in additional hours, or plead with the students.
The situation had become unbearable.

Funds for special schools

True, every child is a special case. He or she must be nurtured and taken care of. That is why, the government needs to spend more to identify the special needs of each child and place him or her in the right environment which will make the child blossom.

But without the funds, or the systems which allow for such needs to be met, or such special skills to be honed, don’t expect the existing system to take on this additional responsibility as well. Special needs require special processes and structures. The Sibal approach was to dump these special needs on the present structure. As a result, both the general lot of students as well as students with special needs suffered. It was destined for disaster.

Better late than never

This could be the first sensible educational policy that is being articulated by the present HRD ministry.
In fact, this need was well articulated at a meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in August last year. Most states had expressed the need to jettison the the system of continuous and automatic promotions.

HRD minister Smriti Irani had then asked all the states to submit their views in writing. In their feedback, 13 states – including Rajasthan, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Puducherry – said they wanted the no-detention policy revoked. Some states, such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana backed the existing practice of continuous promotions till Standard 8.

The HRD ministry’s decision takes into account that if schooling is bad, it will mean bad outputs, which become bad inputs for colleges. And no college can be expected to churn out excellent students if the input is bad, or if the ‘wrong’ types of students are clubbed with the ‘right’ types. If one has to improve India’s college education, it must start with schools. And if schools need to improve, the need for annual filtering of students needs to be restored urgently.