Maharashtra Scraps the No-Detention Policy: Uncovering the Problem Solution Mismatch

In June 2023, the Maharashtra government announced its decision to scrap the No-Detention Policy (“NDP”) and introduced annual examinations at the end of classes 5 and 8. Maharashtra is not the first or only state in the direction of detaining students in elementary education. Over the years, several states like Assam, Gujarat, and Delhi have also scrapped the NDP. 

While there is a significant lack of clarity on the specific details of and the mechanisms to conduct these annual examinations, one thing is evident: in so far as the state’s end goal behind this move is to improve the elementary education system as a whole, it needs to do more. The State must come up with measures to address the various problems that are actually plaguing school education in Maharashtra and in the absence of this, the decision to detain students will inadvertently alleviate existing problems. 

No Detention Policy: An Overview 

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (“RTE Act”) encompasses numerous provisions to enable and facilitate access to elementary education. One such provision was the NDP under Section 16, which stated that no child will be detained until the completion of elementary education i.e., up to Class 8. The NDP ensures that vulnerable children do not fall out of the education system. It seeks to reduce dropout rates by alleviating  pressure on children. 

However, in 2019, Section 16 of the RTE Act was amended to enable the appropriate government to conduct ‘regular examinations’ at the end of classes 5 and 8. On failing such an examination, the student would be provided with an opportunity for re-examination. In the event where a student also fails the re-examination, the state government is allowed to hold back the student in the same grade. 

The Problem: Poor Performance in Elementary Education

The crux of the issue lies in the dismal state of elementary education in Maharashtra. The Annual School Education Report, 2022 showcased a drastic decline in the basic educational abilities of elementary schools in the state. This report focuses on education levels in rural areas and reported that only 26.1% of children in government schools in class III, 55.7% in class V, and  75.2% in class VIII  were only able to read class II level text. Additionally, as per the National Achievement Survey 2021, the performance of elementary students in several parts of the state was also reported to be well below the national average. 

The Proposed Solution: Examinations and Detention

Poor performance in schools across Maharashtra and several other states in India has often been linked to ‘lack of seriousness’ among students, partly attributed to the No Detention Policy. Critics have argued that automatic promotions disincentive students from learning, thus leading to complacency. The scrapping of the policy is viewed as a means to motivate both students and teachers to perform better. 

In light of this, the NDP has been scrapped, thus introducing annual examinations for students of classes 5 and 8, as a solution to cater to the above problem of poor learning levels in schools. 

The Mismatch: Various Structural Issues Still Remain

While the rationale behind the state’s move could sound admirable, it massively oversimplifies the complex challenges that afflict the education system in Maharashtra. It assumes that the lack of examinations and a detention mechanism is the sole cause of poor performance in elementary education. This perspective is extremely flawed, not only because there exists no adequate evidence to stipulate this assumption, but it also overlooks several structural, systemic issues in the state. This is particularly important because Maharashtra continues to have a web of intricate challenges in its education system, which, if left unattended, could render the scrapping of NDP ineffective and detrimental to the state’s education landscape. 

Firstly, there is a pressing issue of teacher vacancies in Maharashtra. While the Education Minister confirmed that about 30,000 posts will be filled by April, 2023, this process has still not been completed. While the education department has launched a “Pavitra Portal” to recruit teachers and fill vacancies in the state, registered teachers still await recruitment. To make this worse, in a system that is already understaffed,  teachers across the state have also been protesting against their overburdening with non-teaching duties such as census work for non-literate population, administration and audit verification of Mid-Day Meal schemes as well as election duties. These inevitably affect the performance of their core duties in schools, thus impacting students. 

Second, dropout rates are already a matter of key concern in Maharashtra. Reports have also suggested that around 25,000 students dropped out of schools in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. This alarming rate also led to the Maharashtra government launching ‘Mission Zero Dropout’ mission in 2022. At this juncture where dropout rates are already a concern, a detention mechanism without addressing the causes and complex challenges behind such dropouts will only lead to the numbers further increasing.

A study of 122 schools in Maharashtra in 2018 revealed that in 69% of the schools, teachers, and students were cleaning toilets, and 57% of schools operated without a head. Facilities like adequate water filters, toilets for children with special needs are still a distant dream in several schools. 

Considering private schools in the state, in July this year, the Maharashtra English Medium School Trustees’ Association also raised a concern over the government’s pending reimbursement of 1,800 crore rupees to private schools for the implementation of 25% reservation under the RTE Act. This lack of reimbursement, as schools have claimed, has drastically affected their finances and the ability to provide education to disadvantaged and weaker sections, despite the same being mandated by the act. 

The conduct of traditional examinations in itself could be a matter of high stress and pressure, particularly for elementary students. While the National Education Policy, 2020 (“NEP”) does recommend examinations at these stages, the purpose of this, as mentioned, is to evaluate, monitor, and develop the education system. However, it is important to note that in a system with lack of adequate infrastructure in government schools, overburdening of teachers, understaffed schools, increasing dropout rates, and private schools not being reimbursed, it is the most marginal sections of the state that remain affected. 

At this juncture, when examinations and detention are coupled with the above-mentioned problems, in the event that the problems are left uncatered to, it is going to be the poor and vulnerable students, minorities, and children with special needs who will continue to be detained and eventually fall out of the education system for no fault of their own. These are the very same children that the RTE seeks to protect most.

Bridging the Gap: The Way Forward

The debate on whether the No Detention Policy does more harm or good is complex and incredibly nuanced. This is true because this policy in isolation does not change much, more so in a state with numerous challenges that already disallow children from performing well. However, it is sufficiently clear that for the scrapping of the No Detention Policy to be of any use, the state now faces an urgent call to do more.

In light of this, the following recommendations are paramount: 

  1. Maharashtra needs to adequately invest in developing the infrastructure of government schools, prioritize inclusion, and create better facilities for children with special needs. 
  2. The process of teacher recruitment on the Pavitra Portal must be completed on a priority basis, as thousands of vacancies remain in the state. 
  3. The state needs to ensure that non-teaching duties such as census and administration of mid-day meals should not be made the burden of teachers.
  4. It is pertinent for the government to ensure timely reimbursement of funds to private schools to enable the implementation of 25% reservation under the RTE Act. 

Vaishnavi R. is a 5th year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune and was an intern with Vidhi Maharashtra.

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