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The Pratham Column: Social Promotion is Not So Social

The policy of social promotion within the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 takes away the focus from learning to schooling, says Purnima Ramanujan.
BY Purnima Ramanujan |   15-05-2013
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...

The policy of automatic promotion or social promotion, as it is more commonly known, was introduced in India with the passing and implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.

Studies on the effects of retention, or holding a child back in the same grade conclude that the practice does more harm than good. While the stigma associated with failing lowers a child’s self-confidence, these studies also show that countries with retention practices had greater drop-out rates at the end of the elementary school cycle. More importantly, the critique of the retention policy posits an understanding that is child-centric – when a child fails a grade, it is NOT the child who has failed rather it’s the teachers and the school that have failed the child; thereby resting the responsibility of ensuring that the child learns with the teacher, headmaster, parents, and the educational system.

In India there are many reasons to support a no-retention policy. Across rural India, many children attending school come from households where the support for learning may be little or unavailable. Inevitably, these children learn slowly compared to peers from more affluent backgrounds with greater support, either at home or through private tuition. In such a scenario, retaining students would only exacerbate their fragile self-confidence and burden them with high expectations.

Having said this, the policy of social promotion is not bereft of its own set of complexities. Critics argue that such a policy only serves to automate the schooling system – pushing students, class on class, without achieving the desired outcome of learning. It is this question of learning that is at the heart of the social promotion versus retention debate. Given India’s poor record in this context, it is a critical one to consider.

India’s educational sector faces multiple challenges. While enrolment levels are high with over 96% of age 6- 14 children enrolled in school, the shortage of qualified and experienced teachers cripples the system. Where teachers are available, there is teacher absenteeism and/or rent-seeking behaviour. Curriculum revisions are stalled or remain obsolete. Rising private school networks across Indian cities mean that parents are now willing to pay to send their children to school, with the dream of giving them an English-medium education. But the most severe crisis afflicting the school system is the crisis of learning.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) which assesses children in simple reading and basic arithmetic has been providing data on what children in rural India are learning since 2005. ASER tools are simple and test the most basic competencies. In language, the highest level is a short story comparable to a Std 2 text. In Mathematics, the highest level is a 3-digit by 1-digit simple division problem, which children are expected to master by Std 3.

In 2012, more than half (53.2%) of all Std V children tested were unable to read the Std 2 level text. Learning levels in mathematics were worse – three-quarters (75.2%) of all Std V children could not solve the division sum.

The data above translates into the following scenario: In a class of 50 Std V students, 26 will not be able to read text that is three grade levels below and 37 will not be able to solve a simple division sum. Yet, given that we have a policy of social promotion, these children will continue to Std 6, 7 and 8. Will these children be able to cope with syllabi of increasing complexity as grades progress? What will be the impact on their self-esteem when they look at their peers; those who seem to progress with better understanding? How will this unhindered progress through elementary school prepare them for Std 9, when result-based promotion resumes? Also, how do we expect our teachers to teach a class with such diverse learning levels?

Irrespective of whether the practice of social promotion is done away with or not, it is critical that children and their learning be put in the centre of all policy and planning. It is important that children are taught at a pace that is conducive to their own understanding and not at the pace that the textbook demands of them. It is vital that teachers regularly assess their students on measurable learning goals, based on the curriculum, which will provide crucial feedback to teachers for providing immediate remedial help to students who lack grade-level understanding. Such remedial work could be conducted during summer holidays, usually at the beginning of the academic calendar in most Indian states.

All of this will require massive reorganization of resources at the school level and of teachers’ time. It is also possible that governments may have to seek help from NGOs and civil society organisations working on education in the country. But if with these measures learning can be ensured, then such measures are not just required but are critical.

Many countries in the world have experimented with social promotion and retention policies. It would be great if our policy makers and educators could learn from these precious experiences rather than reinvent the wheel. The solution does not lie in policies that promote social inclusivity, if inclusivity comes at the cost of learning. This would be a grave error on our part because this would only bequeath to our children the Right to Schooling, not the Right to Education.


Purnima Ramanujan is a Senior Research Associate at ASER Centre,New Delhi.

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