India’s elementary education system may be getting better at providing access to greater numbers of children, but has never really been able to answer the question, what is the measure of its success? If producing curious minds that have had exposure to life skills is the test, the system generally scores poorly, since it primarily emphasises competition, tests and scores. In spite of policy improvements, it has to contend with a significant dropout rate. In 2015, that figure stood at about 5% at the primary level and over 17% at the secondary level, with government schools affected more. So when the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act became law in 2010, it appeared to be a bulwark against the various ills that prevent continued schooling of all children up to the secondary level. The guarantee of uninterrupted schooling that the Act provides under sections 16 and 30(1) is founded on the no-detention policy until Class 8. This is a protection that should not be trifled with to compensate for the overall failure to improve the school education system, beginning with the neglect of teacher education, bad recruitment policies, and confusion over what the goals of schooling are. The decision of the Union Cabinet to scrap the no-detention policy at the elementary level , and introduce detention of students who fail a designated test in Class 5 or 6, is fraught with the danger of going back to a regime of early dropouts. Such a move can only feed the pool of cheap child labour that has been the notorious record of the school education system, and facilitate the newly liberalised norms of allowing child labour under the guise of family enterprises.
Building a schooling system that caters to every child without turning it into a testing factory is a challenge, but it should actually be easier in an era of robust economic growth, when there is a mismatch between the demand for a skilled adult labour force and what the system prepares the country’s youth for. Rather than detain a child early through a stigmatising test, a progressive system would open avenues for skills training after the elementary level for those who would prefer that over academic studies. Such a model has served industrial nations such as Germany for decades, raising the standard of living for all, while ensuring economic productivity. The objective is not to relegate academic attainments to a second order priority. On the contrary, the RTE Act has a provision for continuous and comprehensive evaluation, which governments have not found the time to develop scientifically. Raising the quality of classroom teaching, continuous monitoring of teacher attendance and introduction of free vocational and industrial skills training for all those with such an aptitude after elementary schooling should be the priority. Transferring the onus of performance in a narrow testing framework to children, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, can only produce a less literate citizenry. A more open and liberal approach to schooling will have good long-term outcomes.