India is fortunate to have a robust and varied school education system wherein numerous types of schools cater to the needs of the society that they serve. However, it is commonly witnessed that many schools in India are often driven by the singular urge to maximize test scores in standardised public examinations. Such practices are most often motivated by the demands of an aspirational middle-class society which perceives test scores as the key to opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility as well as the creation of an objective benchmark for the assessment of school performance and efficacy. While it cannot be ignored that test scores do help in that regard the process does present with the potential to extract a steep price from students.
The practice of prioritizing test scores as the sole objective of the school education process essentially harbours the capability to make the school system unforgiving, unempathetic and impatient with those who might not perform to the required exacting levels. The unforgiving system often conveniently ignores and even disowns those with mediocre performances or less while the scores of the top performers are displayed in public forums and newspapers as a proof of the school’s efficacy. The ignominy of mediocre test scores often weighs heavily on the minds of the students leading to a plethora of stress related psychological problems. Consequently, school students in India, especially the older students often present with anxiety disorders (Deb et al, 2010; Khemka & Rathod, 2016; Karanda et al, 2018). The system is especially unempathic towards children with specific learning disabilities thus such children present with higher instances of anxiety disorders (Thakkar et al, 2016). The consequences have been disastrous and The National Crimes Record Bureau of India has reported a steady increase in suicides among students in India over the years (Sharma, 2020), in fact it has been reported that a student commits suicide in India every hour (Garai, 2020). It might be surmised with some rationale that at least some of the students’ suicides are related to low scores in examinations.
The unforgiving nature of the school education system in India has been further augmented by the scrapping of a no-detention policy that was introduced by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE). Detention loaded systems tend to transfer the blame of non-performance to the student in entirety without any empathic understanding of the reasons for such non-performance, which in many cases might lie with the adults. Detentions have led to a significant increase in high school dropout rates in states like Tamil Nadu (Raman, 2020). Further it has been reported that more than 33% of students who belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes drop out of state government schools in India in class 10 (Krishna, 2021). Such alarmingly high drop outs might lead to an increase in social problems like juvenile delinquency, childhood depression or substance abuse. Moreover, high rates of school dropouts might cause a dysfunctional class divide among the haves and the have-nots leading to a fractured and inegalitarian society.
A significant section of Indian schools implements the system of test-score maximization and examination-oriented education through a strict and uncompromising system of harsh control. In this aspect, many schools are driven by mechanistic systems which seek to maximize control over students thus prioritizing conformity to a set of arbitrary rules and regulations; many of which find their roots within dogmas. Such schools do not allow for free expression; consequently, critical feedback loops within the communication networks, which are essential in in the management of complex systems like schools are obliterated leading to long term psychological problems among students.
Psychological Safety in Indian Schools
William Kahn (1990) had defined psychological safety as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” (p.708). In simplistic terms psychological safety allows individuals to make mistakes without the fear of ridicule, insults or worse. The term acquires special significance when placed within the context of schools; especially those in post-colonial societies like India and other countries of South Asia.
Schools might be physically safe for students but they may not encourage students to feel safe. This essential difference between being safe and feeling safe is explained by psychological safety. Psychological safety allows children to feel safe in schools by normalising mistakes and failures as a part of life. The diverse nature of the Indian school system thus leads to the justification and necessity to study, even if within limited boundaries, whether the existing Indian education system allows children to feel safe in schools.
The Field Study
In the course of my work in school education, I have been fortunate enough to interact closely with parents, teachers, school authorities and most importantly students for many years. Over the past several years I have conducted limited informal interview sessions with several parents and their children with a view to learn about psychological safety in Indian schools through their experiences. The parents and children who were interviewed within this study belonged to upper-middle-class families and the children went to reputed English medium schools in their town or cities.
Parents overwhelmingly complained about the system of tests in many forms; it was emphasised that some of the schools practised a system of tests in primary school even when such tests were not legal according to the RTE act; many times these tests were requested by the parents themselves. In fact, a system of detentions was also followed in many schools coupled with a rule that if a child consecutively failed twice in a class, he/she was asked to leave the school. Evidently, the school system revolved around tests and scores, often actively encouraged by parents.
One parent had a child with a specific learning disability who could not perform well in class tests during the primary school years; the parents were summoned by the school and asked to take the child away to a school for ‘special’ children; however, after an intervention from statutory authorities at that stage things were managed satisfactorily. Some parents explained that tests were a part of the process even in the preschool section; in fact, in one school a test was conducted on the first day of the preschool class for children of ages 3-4 years to test their level of existing knowledge. A child from that class developed a long-term fear of tests. It was understood that many schools require parents to sign declaration forms for their children before promotions to higher classes explicitly stating that if the child does not perform to satisfactory standards, he/she would be demoted again to the lower class. Some parents confided that their children’s schools had led to a feeling of fear among them, so much so that they deferred or even cancelled family outings and holidays to make time for their children to study in order to perform well in tests. One parent recalled that his child would carry her school books on holiday trips. Several parents encouraged that feeling of fear, arguing that children would not study at all if they did not fear punishments or detention for low test scores.
However, some parents did convey that their children’s schools did not have any form of tests and promoted a very relaxed and friendly system of learning. The fact that these schools were highly sought after for admissions conveys that a section of parents do prefer a system that is devoid of standardised testing and academic pressure.
The overwhelming majority of the parents confirmed that their children were scared of examinations and of making mistakes; however, a significant number of parents found that fear functional and conducive to enhanced effort and performance. Most parents supported the examination system arguing that such systems allowed an objective assessment of the child’s learning. When asked about their future plans the children were very specific about their goals and they were not ready to dwell on alternative career choices. The reason given for this was that they were not sure about the alternatives and would rather go with a sure choice. When asked specifically if they were scared of making mistakes and failing in their work they overwhelming answered yes. Most of the students who were interviewed seemed to believe in stiff competition, according to them the world belonged to winners and there was no place for losers. I asked the students about their opinion on the objectives of school education; the majority referred to high scores in the school-leaving examinations. Such high scores would provide them with an opportunity to pursue higher education of their own choice in an institution of their liking. Subsequently when queried about their alternate plans in the eventuality that they couldn’t get admitted to an institution of their choice the general reply conveyed was that they had not factored in the possibility of failure at all. I ended my interviews with the fundamental question on whether parents would prefer schools that promoted tests (over those that did not) for their children; the majority answered that they preferred those with tests even if the tests caused stress and performance anxiety in their children (which in many cases was perceived to be functional and led to better test scores).
While reasons provided for such opinions were sketchy, I would attempt to explain it as a behaviour conforming to the norm; tests have been a part of the normative school system in India from its formal inception in the current avatar. Consequently, test scores are presented and perceived as representations of one’s intelligence and capabilities; conversely an absence of tests would lead to a perception that a child was mediocre and was thus avoiding examinations. The perception that an overwhelming majority of parents and their children seemed to nurture projected test-score based assessments as the promotion of meritocracy.
The teaching-learning process in an overwhelming majority of schools in India is designed for an efficient attempt to score the highest marks in standardised examinations. In that attempt tests and assessments seem to begin early in school life thus promoting an unforgiving system which has no space or patience for laggards. The essential psychological safety to absorb defeat, failure and mistakes seem compromised which might be the cause for the heightened anxiety levels among school children. The enhanced levels of anxiety and stress are perceived to be functional by a section of parents who view it as a prerequisite for enhanced effort and better consequent performance in standardised examinations. The concept of psychological safety is thus ignored and not viewed as a priority in this approach.
A wider and detailed study might help in a better understanding of the existing situation.
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Krishna, A. (2021). Over 33% of SC, ST, OBC students drop out in Class 10: UDISE+ Report. Retrieved October, 9, 2021 from https://news.careers360.com/udise-plus-education-minister-ramesh-pokhriy....
Raman, R. (2020). 100% jump in dropout rate in Classes IX and X in Tamil Nadu. Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/100-jump-in-dropout-rat....
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Thakkar, A. N.,et al (2016). Is anxiety more common in school students with newly diagnosed specific learning disabilities? A cross-sectional questionnaire-based study in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Journal of Postgraduate Medicine, 62(1):12-19.
Author Information: Dr. Debarshi Roy is an independent researcher and author on school organizational behaviour. His current research interests include complex adaptive behavioural systems, psychological safety and empathy in school behavioural systems and their relation to school outcomes and student motivation. His book Skinned Knees and ABCs – The complex world of schools (Routledge) was released in 2020.His forthcoming book Empathy driven school systems: Nature Concept and Evolution (Routledge) is due to be released in January 2022.
Suggested Citation: Debarshi Roy. 2021. 'Encouraging an Intolerance to Failure: Psychological Safety in Indian School Systems', Think Pieces Series No. 25. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).