Renewed retention policy in schools may not fix India’s dismal education system


The decision on whether or not to revoke the present ‘no detention’ policy in primary schools has now been left to the discretion of the states. At a Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meeting on Tuesday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Prakash Javadekar told the media: “It was agreed that the Central government may bring in suitable amendments which will give states the freedom to review the ‘no detention policy.'”

Not rushing through yet another ill-considered policy reversal is indeed a good decision. Though it can be argued that against the overall dismal scenario in the education sector, the debate over the pass/fail system in primary schools seems to be somewhat hyped.

Examinations are, after all, just a small part of the larger and all-encompassing malaise destroying the fundamentals of the system as a whole. Amid this systemic failure – not just of public but also of private schools – the ongoing preoccupation with the contentious pass/fail system does seem lopsided.

The fundamentals of school education in India seem to be weaker than ever. Reuters

The fundamentals of school education in India seem to be weaker than ever. Reuters

Consider the long list of calamities that has corroded the school education system at all levels. Of late, more and more examination scams have been unearthed, and poor learning outcomes – that have so worried serious educationists for long – have shown little or no sign of reversal.

The fundamentals of school education seem weaker than ever; a concern that should be taken as seriously as, for instance, the state of the economy. Yet, education – particularly primary education – has never been a heated subject of discussion on the national agenda, except of course, on occasions when it is politicised through textbooks and the likes. The cost of such continued negligence cannot be underestimated.

Like the rest of the world, India too is moving towards a knowledge-based economy. One of the basic requirements for closing the inequality gap within the society is to provide decent school education to every citizen. Those failing to meet this requirement are going to find themselves pushed out of the ambit of well-paying jobs. Something that is already happening on a large scale in the country.

The quality of primary school education forms the foundation on which future educational qualifications are built. The alarm bells are already ringing, alerting us to the poor quality of primary education – and they have been ringing for a very long time now.

But if the politicians have been too busy scoring electoral victories and engaging in slapstick politics, the official policymakers too have done what they are doing once again – tinkering with the system and talking about piecemeal reforms. This time around, the churn is about bringing back the pass/fail model.

Yet, many among the pedagogists working in the field of education have expressed serious reservations about reinstating the policy, which, as we well know, had traumatised students in the past; particularly the first generation learners from lower economic and social backgrounds.

If large numbers of students have been failing in higher classes, or are not able to match up to the basic standards even in lower classes, that is because of the distortions in the classroom environment. After all, many among the instructors are themselves ill-equipped to teach. Flawed teachers’ training (the eye of many scams), social indifference to the plight of school teachers, rampant use of ad hoc teachers in small towns and villages, etc. have all substantively contributed to a failing school system.

Rather than address these core issues, the entire focus seems to be veering to bring back the pass/fail model. No doubt, it’s a catchy slogan, already pitting stakeholders against each other.

But the discussion around school education hasn’t focussed on the fundamental concerns; issues that need to be addressed in a sustained manner. How will reinstating the pass/fail policy produce learners, when the entire system seems to be hollowing out?


Written by Saheli