Examining the No Detention Policy

When I started working as a teacher, I was in a class where most of my 8 graders were not able to read even four-letter words. To my alarm, the gap between the stipulated curriculum and my students’ level of preparedness seemed to be widening by the day. I started looking for explanations on how this learning gap may have come into being. Since students are never given an agency to speak for themselves and probably because of my self-righteous understanding about teaching I fell prey to the lore that the no-detention policy (NDP) was the reason for the learning gap. The NDP stipulated by RtE 2009, stated that students could not be held back/ detained in a grade until grade 8.  My limited understanding about learning and assessments, at that time, led me to make a misplaced judgment that this was the reason that my students weren’t at the expected preparedness level- that they could not be bothered to study since they knew they would not be held back and because they did not have an exam to clear.  

NDP and RTE 

I am sure that many teachers echo this assumption – that the NDP disincentivized children from working hard as they didn’t have to ‘perform’ in order to move to the next grade. This sentiment is shared by other stakeholders too such as school principals, head teachers, CRPs, all who said that NDP demanded no accountability from the teachers, which in turn is thought to have fuelled nationwide decline in learning outcomes (Taneja, 2018). Based on this popular sentiment and other reasons, the RtE (Amendment) act, passed in 2019 revoked the NDP. According to this amendment, states are now given the choice to detain their students in grade 5 and 8 if need be. But they are not allowed to expel them until they finish elementary education (class 8).

However, I argue that my earlier assumption- NDP being responsible for students’ falling learning levels- is wrong. As I continued along my teaching journey, knowing and getting to understand how children learn, and going deeper into NDP as envisioned by RtE, 2009, my thinking started to change. 

The RtE Act, 2009 was thought to be revolutionary because it had a larger vision about learning not defined by just having children present in schools. The understanding that children could learn irrespective of their current level of preparedness is a salient feature of RtE, 2009. It acknowledges that there could be barriers to access that hinder learning and puts the onus of creating positive learning opportunities on adults and the system rather than on children.  Moreover, the NDP and its corollary CCE were proposed with the understanding that an environment free of fear is necessary for learning.

NDP and CCE 

Instead of stand-alone exams at the end of a term, the RtE 2009 calls for “continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) of a child’s understanding of knowledge and his or her ability to apply the same” (Section 29.2.h, RtE, 2009). The CCE guidelines released by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) addresses the fact that standardized tests might often push students who do not have ‘normative childhoods’ to the margins. It has a dedicated chapter on how instruction and assessments should be planned keeping in mind that there are going to be various levels of preparedness among students in a classroom. Therefore, CCE is suggested as a tool to address diversity in the classroom, and challenge the notion that a single test will provide a complete picture of a student’s learning. Instead a teacher should develop a collection of diverse sources as evidence of and for learning. NDP and CCE in that sense were never meant just a measure to reduce drop-out rates. By doing this, it took into account that not every child learns the same way and therefore, not all children will give their best output in a standardised kind of test (Tomlinson and McTighe, 2001).

Sadly, as we all know, CCE is not perceived in the same vein as it was intended. The Bhukkal committee appointed by the Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE) in 2012 studied the experiences of implementing CCE and affirmed that the NDP was popularly interpreted as ‘no-assessments’. Thus, what we get in schools in the name of CCE is just two more ‘tests’ that are conducted before the term exam while the defining feature of formative assessments (FA) is that it is supposed to give feedback to students in a manner that will help students better their performance (Sadler, 1989). FA is also supposed to serve as a feedback system for teachers about their pedagogy. 

Therefore, the failure is in the understanding of CCE and formative assessments, and the will to develop expertise for the same, and not the policy itself. It is counterintuitive that the CCE would not be instrumental in ‘fostering a performance-driven culture’. If anything, CCE gives ample opportunities to students to keep practicing and bettering themselves such that a standardized test would turn out to be a cakewalk for them. This is possible obviously only if this is done in an environment that is free of fear (of failure or punishment). 

RtE and levels of learning 

It’s not that RtE is without its drawbacks. One of the major drawbacks of the RtE 2009 is that it fixates on ‘classes’ and assigning children to ‘age appropriate classes’ (Dhankar, 2017). What happens in that process is that it relegates learning to an age, which should not be the qualifier for a child’s preparedness! The principle idea of the RtE 2009 is that all children can learn provided they are in an environment that is free of fear. However, if we are committed to this cause- that all children are born with the ability to learn and should be given the opportunity to learn (free and compulsory education) then- we should also have the maturity to accept that every child learns at their own pace and their learning process shouldn’t be clipped by meaningless deadlines. Instead they should be encouraged to dig-deeper into things that move them and questions that make them restless. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t subscribe to a structure; learning outcomes are the cornerstone of such a system and formative assessments are perhaps the only way we can keep learning alive.  

CCE in action 

One of the earliest lessons I had to teach in my grade 8 was the French Revolution. I remember getting worried about how I was going to do this. I focused much of my energy on trying to get my students exam ready. I came with what in my mind was a good lesson plan, with FAs which would help me test my students’ understanding. What I did not do was spend enough time and effort mapping why the French revolution was something that was worthwhile for someone in rural Maharashtra to study or spending enough time to get to know my own students! 

As I started with the chapter, and continued to know my students more, I came to realise one thing- my class that had very poor English language abilities was a very curious and thickly-knit bunch. Therefore, anything that involved thinking together in groups would become an instant hit. Slowly, I played to their strengths. Most students were not performing well in the exam or the FAs I had laid down. But if you asked them to work in groups and make a concept map about why everyone should be treated equally or what are the ways they see people being treated differently they would come up with interesting answers. As soon as I started listening to them, rather than wishing for it to happen the other way around, I noticed some changes. Though it meant that I had to re-do my plans, re-look at what strategies will work best for them and not me, it sure was worth it! 

Concluding thoughts  

But isn’t that what a teacher must do? Establish relevance for what is being studied, dive deeper into what works for her students, know them more and understand each child’s innate ability, and differentiate strategies and assessments so that there is a wide range of information on how each child has performed and what they have understood? To imagine that these students would learn only if they were fearful of not being promoted to the next grade is quite silly. A lot of teachers would agree with me when I say that many children are fearful of attempting to write answers or even answer in class because they have been punished badly for making mistakes in the past. But imagine a situation where students are given feedback on where they have gone wrong and given multiple opportunities to improve on it, would they not be motivated to keep persisting? 

My own teaching experience allows me to say confidently that knowing the starting point of each student, identifying their dominant learning style, and giving them a picture of how much they have improved over the course of a term helps them see how much they have grown. It motivates them to own up their learning. 

Let’s not write off the NDP because of our own inability to do justice to what could have been a great way of addressing learning abilities and levels in a class.  


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Sharon Daniel

Sharon Daniel

Sharon Daniel has taught social sciences to senior classes. The class she mentions in the post was in an NGO run school in rural Maharashtra. Her interests are inclusive education, social sciences and assessments. She is currently working as the Social Science Specialist at TIDE Learning.