According to recent reports, the no-fail policy for students up to Class VIII has resulted in a sharp decline in the reading and math standards in schools. A panel, headed by Congress leader Oscar Fernandes, has asked the human resource development ministry to reconsider the policy. In an interview with Avantika Bhuyan, Anil Sadgopal, member, presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education, and former dean-faculty of education (Delhi University), talks about the flaws in the concept of the policy
Do you feel the no-fail policy is to blame for the falling standards?
It is like barking up the wrong tree. The flaws are built into the so-called Right to Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) itself. Few realise that the schedule of the Act prescribes inferior and discriminatory infrastructural and teacher-related norms and standards. When the Act is fully implemented, two-thirds of the primary schools will be denied a separate teacher/ classroom for each class. More than three-fourth of the primary schools and more than half of the upper primary schools (Class V-VIII) will be without a headmaster. It implies that a single teacher will be simultaneously teaching the syllabus of more than one grade in a single classroom. That very same overstretched teacher will, more often than not, also double up as the headmistress to perform administrative functions. This will be quite a normal feature in government schools for as long as the RTE Act continues to prevail. Further, the Act's Section 27 allows the administration to routinely pull out these teachers for a variety of non-teaching tasks like census, election duties and disaster-related duties (local authorities have been left free to define 'disaster' according to their convenience). The Act has provision for appointing only contract teachers and for denying dignified salaries with social security. This mockery of education won't be a result of failure of implementation as one is misled to believe but, on the contrary, due to its 'successful' implementation! Does one then expect anything other than falling standards?
What are the merits and demerits of the no-fail policy?
The 'no-fail' provision (Section 16) is a typical example of the Act's half-baked vision. This idea is indeed rooted in progressive educational thought which holds that "no child ever fails; rather, it is the school system that fails to educate the child". If the school system does not know how to educate the child, it must undergo radical transformation - budgetary, curricular, pedagogical, linguistic, cultural and infrastructural - apart from reviewing its outdated assessment and evaluation norms. This is vital so that we become capable of educating children, particularly the children of the masses. However, this progressive idea can be seeded only in a progressive school system. Another equally half-baked idea is the Act's Section 29(2)(h): Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation (CCE), which means that the teacher will conduct evaluation after she/he has completed a specific unit of syllabus. The idea is to enable the teacher to know how well she/he has taught. If there is lack of expected learning, the unit may be taught again, this time with altered pedagogy. This, too, requires infrastructural and other provisions that are also needed for the success of the 'no-fail' idea. Further, it also demands that the dilapidated and rapidly commercialising education system is radically overhauled. The Act has no provision for this as it will mean overhauling of higher education system as well.
The education department is thinking of conducting baseline tests every two months to evaluate the students' knowledge. How effective will these be?
This idea is borrowed from the United States' 'No Child Left Behind' programme. Its objective was to demolish the well-established public-funded school system. It achieved this by testing children frequently and then labelling the schools as 'non-performing' and weeding them out, rather than supporting them to improve. This widely discredited idea has ready acceptance in our government because this will hasten what the RTE Act is doing, which is demolishing government schools, thereby promoting profit-making schools.
Is the government right in reconsidering the policy?
The decision to amend the Act is clearly a knee-jerk reaction due to political pressure. The public outrage over the 'no-fail' provision is, in fact, an outrage over the poorly provided for and poorly governed government school system. However, the government is likely to only drop Section 16 of the Act, rather than investigate the reasons for failure of the 'no-fail' provision. One can't expect the government to do otherwise because it is committed to promoting privatisation and commercialisation of education rather than strengthening a public-funded school system.
What is the way out?
Learn from Finland. Transform the present school system into a fully public-funded 'Common School System' based on neighbourhood schools that are governed in a democratic, decentralised and participative mode. The condition would be to reverse the twin policies of commercialisation and shifting public funds to private players under PPP. The RTE Act will need to be repealed and a new Act enacted to enable this. The 'no-fail' and CCE provisions will then both make immense sense.