Board exams for 5th and 8th standard students
The All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s recent decision to conduct Board examinations for fifth and eighth standard school children from this academic year onward will go down as the most hare-brained decision that could have been taken with regard to school education in the state.
While it is common knowledge that a deep rot has set in the education system in Tamil Nadu for many years now, nobody could have guessed that it would have come to this. The All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s recent decision to conduct Board examinations for fifth and eighth standard school children from this academic year onward will go down as the most hare-brained decision that could have been taken concerning school education in the state. For, there is an almost unanimous opinion that it will traumatise and psychologically scar several lakhs of children studying in fifth and eight standards in government-run, aided and private schools affiliated to the Tamil Nadu State Board of School Education. Instead of making elementary school education a joyous learning exercise, the Board examinations will engender fear and tension in the children, assert school principals.
What is galling is that the State Government did not bother to consult school teachers and educationists before it took this important decision. It was a unilateral move. No debate was had on the issue. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is fighting the AIADMK Government’s decision with a single-minded purpose, has called it an act of “violence unleashed” against school children. It is the CPI(M) which is at the vanguard of the protests against the Government’s decision. There is a genuine fear that children will drop out of school if they do not do well in either fifth or eighth standard Board examinations.
Nobody knows what prompted the AIADMK Government to jump the gun and take this rash decision. For no State Government in the country, including those states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, has made such an announcement. This, despite an amendment brought to Section 16 of the centrally-enacted The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, popularly called the RTE Act. The Lok Sabha passed the Bill relating to the amendment on July 26, 2018, when the BJP was in power at the Centre. The BJP led by Narendra Modi returned to power at the Centre in the Lok Sabha elections held in April/May 2019.
Indeed, the AIADMK Government’s decision goes directly against Section 30 (1) of the RTE Act, 2009, which categorically says, “No child shall be required to pass any Board examination till completion of elementary education.”
The RTE Act, 2009 provided for free and compulsory education for all children from the age of six to 14 years. They should be given admission in a neighbouring school. Section 16 of the Act originally said no child admitted in a school could be detained in a class or expelled from the school until the child completed the elementary education.
The Bill relating to the amendment of Section 16 said State Governments and Union Territories had expressed concern about the adverse impact made on the learning levels of children because Section 16 did not allow any child to be detained in any class till the child completed the elementary education (that is, he or she studied up to 8th standard). The amendment said, “There shall be regular examinations in the fifth class and the eighth class at the end of every academic year.” It added that if a child failed in the examinations in the fifth or eighth class examinations, he should be given additional instruction and allowed to rewrite the examinations within two months of the declaration of the results. The State Governments “may allow schools to hold back” [viz detain] a child in the fifth class or eighth class or in both the classes if the child failed in the re-examination also, the new sub-section said. However, it was silent on whether it is the Board of School Examination of a State that should conduct the examinations for class V and VIII children. It was obvious that the schools themselves would conduct regular examinations in the fifth and eighth standard at the end of the academic year. There was no mention of the academic year from which the examinations would kick in.
The upshot is that, as underscored earlier in this column, no State Government including the BJP-ruled States announced that Board examinations would be held for children studying the fifth standard or eighth standard at the end of every academic year.
Given this background, what is deeply puzzling is why Tamil Nadu School Education Minister, K.A. Sengottaiyan, announced recently that Board examinations would be held for class V and VIII children from the end of this academic year. In other words, it is the Tamil Nadu State Board of School Education, not the schools themselves, that would conduct the examinations for children in the fifth or eighth class.
When strong protests from parents, educationists and political parties, especially the CPI(M) erupted in response to the decision, Sengottaiyan said the Board Examinations would be held, but children failing in them would not be detained. Then the School Education Department officials jumped into the fray, creating confusion. During the coming three years, they said, no child would be detained in the fifth and eighth classes. Three years after this current academic year, after 2022, if the child failed in the re-examination, he or she would be detained.
Furthermore, what angered parents, teachers, and political parties was the announcement that fifth and eighth standard pupils should pay a fee of Rs. 100 and Rs. 200 respectively to write the examinations. Protests arose again. It was clarified that children studying in government-run and aided schools, affiliated to the State Board of School Education, need not pay the examination fees, but children studying in private schools affiliated to the Board should pay the examination fee.
There was yet another faux pas from the State School Education Department. It said children should write their examinations in a common centre, which will be situated one km away for fifth class pupils and three km away for their eighth standard counterparts. A fusillade of protests greeted this decision as well. Sengottaiyan pacified parents that their children could write the examinations in their schools themselves.
Why is the AIADMK Government in such a hurry to conduct Board examinations for children studying in fifth and eighth standards? According to the grapevine, the AIADMK Government wants to impress the Narendra Modi Government that they are the “good boys” of the Centre and it wants to earn a commendation certificate from the Centre over this decision when the BJP Governments in States were themselves reluctant to implement the amendment.
School principals – past and present – say that no homework seems to have gone behind the Tamil Nadu Government’s decision. Journalists, who specialise in writing on education, have also taken a stand against the decision. “It is not a well thought out move. It is a rash decision,” said a journalist, who specialises in writing on education. Journalists pointed to two contradictions. When the State abolished the entrance test for admission to professional courses in 2006, how could it insist on Board examinations for fifth and eighth class pupils now, a journalist asked. Again, all the parties in Tamil Nadu, including the ruling AIADMK, are vociferously opposed to National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical courses. So is it not cruel on the part of the AIADMK government to insist on Board examinations for 10-year old and 13-year old children, another journalist asked.
P.S. Subramanian, former Principal, St. Mary’s Matriculation Boys’ Higher Secondary School, Perambur, Chennai, said, “Children will be children. They are not mature enough to write Board examinations. The minute you say that fifth and eighth class pupils should write the Board examinations, both the children and their parents will panic.” He pointed out that the State Education Minister had gone on record that children who failed in these examinations would not be detained. “Then why conduct the examinations at all?” Subramanian asked.
Indeed, both school principals and journalists contested Sengottaiyan’s claim that Board examinations were being introduced in these classes to assess children’s learning levels. “Are examinations the only method by which you can assess a child’s learning outcome?” a journalist asked. “Is rote learning a learning at all?” another asked.
Subramanian argued that the standard of school education could not be ramped up without improving the quality of teachers and the infrastructure in schools.
Another retired headmaster, who is in his late 80s and keenly watching the developments in education in the State, said Board examinations in fifth and eight standards would be a terrible burden on pupils who would be facing three Board examinations in 10th, 11th and 12th standards. Besides, they would have to write the NEET if they wanted to become a medico or an entrance examination conducted by deemed-to-be universities if they wanted to become a graduate engineer. If a child in a rural area or from a poor family failed in the Board examination, the chances of his not returning to school were high, the retired headmaster said. The child would drop out. If the Government insisted on a Board examination, it could be done at each education district’s level. The District Education Officer (DEO) could prepare the question papers and the invigilators could be the children’s teachers themselves. However, the retired headmaster made it clear that no child could be detained up to the eighth standard. Insistence on mere attendance would not only stem the drop-out rate but make the child learn something, the veteran teacher said.
The CPI(M) has made no bones about its strong opposition to the Tamil Nadu Government’s decision. K. Balakrishnan, State Secretary, CPI(M), T.K. Rengarajan, its Rajya Sabha member and R. Badri, State Committee member, met Sengottaiyan in Chennai on January 28 and presented a memorandum to him, urging him to rescind the decision on holding Board examinations for fifth and eighth class children. The memorandum pointed out that there was a “fundamental” difference between the examinations conducted by the State Board for School Education for fifth and eighth standards, and the usual school annual examinations. The latter was conducted by the class teachers. The former was comparable to the common Board examinations conducted for 10th and 12th standard students. Thrusting a common examination system on fifth and eighth class children would instil fear in them and make them panic, it said.
From the academic year 2019-2020, the State Board had introduced quarterly, half-yearly, and annual examination systems from the first standard to the eighth standard. (It is akin to a trimester system). For each of the trimesters, text-books had been given to children and it was enough that children learnt only those books given for each of these trimesters. However, in the Board examinations for fifth and eighth classes, children would be tested on what they learnt all through the year. This would lead to mental agony in children, the memorandum said. Thus, it would violate Sections 29 and 30 of the RTE Act, the memorandum argued. For Section 29 (g) of the RTE Act aimed at “making the child free of fear, trauma and anxiety and helping the child to express views freely.”
On January 24, 2020, Balakrishnan issued a sharply-worded statement, calling the Government’s decision an act of “violence unleashed” against children of fifth and eighth classes. While there were many child-friendly methods to assess their learning levels, it was regrettable that the Tamil Nadu government was harking back to the “ancient examination system” to assess the children, the statement said. The Tamil Nadu Government should improve the infrastructure in schools and use modern methods to estimate the children’s learning levels, it added. Even advanced countries, which had an excellent education system, did not advocate public examinations for fifth and eighth standard children. These public examinations would only help in the failure of many children and their exiting from schools, Balakrishnan said in his statement. The decision would affect poor children and girls coming from rural areas.
T. Padmanabhan, the retired headmaster of Pennathur Subramanian Higher Secondary School, Mylapore, Chennai, had a different view. He called the State Government’s decision a “good” initiative, which would give “a feedback” on the learning ability of children. The public examinations would give “a good exposure” to children before they wrote their Board examinations in the 10th, 11th and 12th standards, he said. “It is a welcome step”, Padmanabhan added.
An editorial in “Daily Thanthi”, dated January 30, 2020, the largest circulated Tamil newspaper which does not normally take an anti-State government stance, spoke for the majority opinion. Titled, “Public examinations will make the kids panic”, the editorial argued against the Board examinations for fifth and eighth class children, how the initiative would engender drop-outs in the rural areas, how the children who had failed would not have the motivation to continue their studies, the somersaults on the issue by the State Government and so on.