Mumbai: Indian states can now choose to hold children back in grades V and VIII if they fail the year-end tests, but this is not enough to improve learning outcomes, experts said.

Earlier, students could not be held back--or ‘detained’--until grade IX, under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act). This meant that students were promoted to the next grade even if their learning outcomes did not match their grade level.

The parliament passed an amendment to the RTE Act on January 2, 2019, empowering states to choose to detain students in grades V and VIII.

The amendment was introduced after 22 states demanded it, Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javadekar told parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, on July 18, 2018, adding that the no-detention policy had led to a scenario where there was a lack of responsibility towards quality of education.

“Schools, teachers, parents and students have become less responsible towards education,” Javadekar said when he moved the amendment in the Lok Sabha in July 2018. “Many schools have become ‘Mid-day-meal schools’. Students come to school, eat and go back home.”

As per the amendment, if a state decides to re-introduce detention in grades V and VIII, students who fail the year-end tests should be allowed a second attempt within two months of the declaration of results. A student can be made to repeat the grade only if he or she fails the second exam.

The amendment is aimed at improving learning outcomes in Indian schools, Javadekar said.

Numeracy and literacy standards remain sub-par and, in many instances, lower than standards recorded 10 years ago in 2008, IndiaSpend reported on January 15, 2019, based on the Annual Status of Education Report, 2018.

The percentage of rural children in grade V who can read text at grade II level fell from 52.9% in 2009, when RTE was introduced, to 47.8% in 2016, as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), published by Pratham Education Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working to improve quality of education in India. The percentage of children who could solve a division problem fell from 38.1% in 2009 to 26% in 2016.

However, the rates have shown improvement recently. In 2018, 50.5% of grade V students could read a grade II level text, up by 2.7 percentage points from 2016. Similarly, 27.9% of grade V students could do division, up by 1.9 percentage points from 2016.

Some experts blamed automatic promotions introduced by the RTE in 2009 for the poor learning outcomes. “No-detention policy did affect the learning outcomes,” said Sudha Nair, headmistress of Shri Madhavrao Bhagwat High School in Vile Parle, a western suburb of Mumbai, “Automatically promoting a child irrespective of what he or she knows has led to students and parents taking the system for granted. This needs to change.”

Hailing the amendment as a good move, Nair said, “I don’t want the child to lose a year. If the child is not able to perform well in an exam, take a re-exam and promote him to the next class.”

However, some experts say the amendment puts the blame of failure completely on the child by penalising him with detention, without adequate focus on addressing the causes for detention such as underutilisation of funds, untrained teachers, vacant teacher posts and flailing school infrastructure.

“The consequence of detaining a child in the same class works adversely on the child’s psyche and has a deep impact on his or her self-esteem,” said Ambarish Rai, national convener of Right to Education forum, a platform of educational networks, teachers unions, NGOs and educationalists. “It’s a very unfortunate move which will impact all children, particularly those belonging to most marginalised communities leading to an increase in the number of dropouts,” Rai added.

The negative effects of repetition largely outstrip the expected benefits, a 2015 report by a sub committee under the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) said, adding that repetition leads to wasting of resources as it reduces the intake capacity of the grade the student repeats.

Experts agree that only reintroducing detention may not solve the problems.

There needs to be a shift in learning assessment methods, said Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham Education Foundation. “There should be more focus on foundational skill learning and not just 'completion of syllabus'. There should be focus on learning skills rather than memorising lots of information.”

Funds remain unutilised; cases of diversion and misappropriation noted: Govt’s auditor

In the last three years, the school education budget has increased in absolute terms, according to a December 2018 study by Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a non-profit working towards transparency and accountability, and Child Rights and You (CRY), a non governmental organisation working for child rights. The study analysed education budgets of six states--Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu--for the periods 2014-15 to 2017-18 and found that despite increased funding, states have not utilised the budget to change the composition of their spending.

Poor planning and execution on the part of state governments had led to non-accomplishment of some goals under the RTE Act, a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on implementation of the Act noted.

There is no separate budget for RTE; it is funded through Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA or Education For All), a central government programme- now subsumed under Samagra Shiksha. Expenditure under the Act is shared between the Centre and the states in 60:40 ratio (60% of the expenditure by the central government) except for north-eastern states and Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, where the ratio is 90:10.

Some of the interventions under SSA include building of school infrastructure, provisioning for teachers, periodic teacher training and academic resource support.

The audit, which covered 3,370 schools in 112 districts across all states from April 2010 to March 2016, found that there were huge unutilised balance under SSA ranging between Rs 12,259.46 crore and Rs 17,281.66 crore at the close of each year.

The CAG also noted several cases of diversion, misappropriation of funds and irregular utilisation of grants at various levels.

Between 2010-16, Uttar Pradesh, reported an expenditure of Rs 47,403.24 crore ($7.24 billion) to the central government. However, the audited financials account for only 96.61% (Rs 45,797.05 crore or $6.99 billion) of the amount.

In Odisha, the audit found that 58 headmasters in five sampled districts had withdrawn and retained Rs 1.04 crore without executing 80 infrastructure works allotted to them. Similarly, in Bihar, headmasters of 234 schools in six districts had withdrawn Rs 12.06 crore meant for civil works--which remained incomplete.

Funds for the Research Evaluation Monitoring and Supervision programme--meant to undertake research activities, conduct achievement tests or evaluations and create a pool of resource persons at various levels for effective field-based monitoring--were being underutilised.

Also, underutilisation of funds under the Learning Enhancement Programme--which calls for child-centric curricular reforms--resulted in affecting the teaching-learning process, the report said.

Infrastructure goals which were to be fulfilled by March 2013 remained unmet even by 2016, the report found.

This is even as many schools remain short-staffed and lack basic infrastructure.

Teacher shortage, flailing infrastructure affect learning outcomes

As of April 2014, there was a shortage of more than 500,000 teachers in elementary schools and 14% of government secondary schools did not have the prescribed minimum of six teachers, the CBGA-CRY report said. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh together account for more than 420,000 of vacant posts, while Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra reported recruitment in nearly 95% of the sanctioned posts.

Instead of recruiting regular teachers, states are in the process of deploying teachers or employing contractual teachers. The low recruitment rates or no recruitment situation is caused by the low fiscal space available, said the report.

This paucity of funds that the states face when it comes to teacher recruitments is because funding under SSA is conditional, said Protiva Kundu, senior research officer at CBGA and author of the study by CBGA and CRY. “Also, hiring permanent teachers requires the states to pay the salaries as per the pay commission and to provide the teachers with other benefits.”

Teacher salaries constitute the major share of school education budgets in Indian states, ranging from 60% (Chhattisgarh) to 82% (Maharashtra). But, it should be much higher than what it is, given the huge shortage of professionally qualified teachers, the study said.

Further, of 6.64 million teachers at the elementary level, 1.1 million (16.5%) are still untrained.

Professionally Untrained Teachers, Statewise

After the RTE Act was enacted, the government addressed the issue of untrained teachers through in-service teacher training under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, instead of building institutional capacity for teacher education, the report said. Building institutional capacity is resource-intensive and states have not invested in it for long.

School infrastructure also plays a key role in provisioning of quality education. To create an enabling environment for learning, availability of basic infrastructure in school is a prerequisite.

However, across states, there are gaps in school buildings, classrooms, repair work in classrooms and other physical infrastructure such as drinking water, separate toilets for girls and playgrounds.

As of April 2016, only 34.9% of schools in Bihar and 40.5% in Uttar Pradesh had electricity.

There should be at least one teacher for every 30 students in primary schools (grades I-V) and at least one teacher for 35 students in upper primary (VI-VIII) schools. Further, there should be one classroom for each teacher in the school. As of April 2016, in Bihar, two in three primary schools had more than 30 students per classroom, and seven in 10 upper primary schools had more than 35 students per classroom, data show.

School Infrastructure At Elementary Level, By State
States Bihar Chhattisgarh Maharashtra Tamil Nadu Uttar Pradesh West Bengal
Govt. primary schools with SCR > 30 66.3 19.7 22 17.6 39.5 21.3
Govt. upper primary schools with SCR > 35 71.9 26.4 35.4 29.8 27.9 55
Schools with drinking water facility 94.20 99.2 99.7 100 98.7 98.4
Schools with girls' toilet facility 89.90 99.4 99.4 99.9 99.8 98.3
Schools with ramp 86.70 77.9 93 72.8 86.5 91.9
Schools with playground 35.30 54.6 87.2 77 70.5 40.4
Schools with boundary wall 52.50 61.1 81.3 79.6 71.6 42.8
Schools with kitchen shed 62.5 84.7 88.2 96.3 82.3 86.3
Schools with electricity 34.9 64.8 85.9 98.7 40.5 72.4

Source: Budgeting for School Education: What Has Changed and What Has Not?, December 2018
Figures in %; SCR- Student-Classroom Ratio

Despite the shortfall in basic infrastructure, there is no clear trend in resource allocation for infrastructure. While Bihar and Chhattisgarh increased their allocations, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal reduced them.

Share Of Infrastructure In State Education Budget

“Along with better and efficient management of material resources, it is essential to address the issue of shortage in human resources to raise the quality of the education system,” said Priti Mahara, director, policy research and advocacy at CRY, “A substantially improved process of planning, smoothening fund flows, addressing bottlenecks in the fund utilisation process and constant monitoring can help bridge the gaps between resource needs, budget allocation and actual spending.”

“The no-detention policy was not balanced by a ‘high learning outcomes for all’ policy,” said Chavan of the Pratham Education Foundation, “This is why no-detention policy led to overall relaxation without adequate attention to the causes of detention.”

(Shreya Raman is a data analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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