Last year, photographs of youngsters diving into a swimming pool at a government school in Delhi came as a pleasant surprise to a country where state-run primary education mostly conjure images of unkempt children sitting on broken furniture in dark and dingy classrooms of rundown buildings. For the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government led by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, however, it was just another step in its avowed mission to revolutionise the education sector in the national capital.
For the AAP government, pushing through its agenda of ‘education first’ has been easy with a brute majority of 67 legislators in the 70-member assembly. Critics and political opponents, however, see this as a lack of checks and balances, allegedly leading to questionable decisions that defeat the goal of providing quality education to all. But the good news first. For the fifth consecutive year, the Delhi government allocated the highest funds for the education sector for 2019-20, a highly impressive 26 per cent of the budget, or Rs 13,997 crore. Deputy chief minister and education minister Manish Sisodia tells Outlook that the AAP government has done more for education than any other government in the past (see ‘We introduced the happiness curriculum’). Many agree that the Kejriwal government did bring education into focus and infused energy into a moribund system that ran a thousand-odd schools in Delhi.
Atishi, a Rhodes scholar who was advisor to Sisodia from 2015 to 18 and the brain behind several measures in education, says her first area of focus was infrastructure. “You could smell the stench from the toilets even before you entered the school. The children felt like second-grade citizens,” she says. “We ensured schools get high-quality infrastructure. It was a booster for the child’s self-worth and eventually caused a perspective shift among students as well as teachers.” According to the education department, it added 8,000 new classrooms, revamped school infrastructure, involved parents in school management and remodelled teacher training to address the learning needs of students, among other things.
But there is a flip side to the feel-good story. A survey report by child rights group, CRY, last year says nearly 23 per cent of children in the age group 11-15 years in urban Delhi-NCR region are dropouts while five per cent has never been enrolled in any school. Earlier this month, a selection panel told the Delhi High Court that 77 per cent of ad hoc teachers of Delhi government schools have failed to secure minimum qualification marks for permanent recruitment. Nearly a third of the teaching staff in government schools are guest and contractual teachers who have been teaching in the schools over the past several years. Of a total 64,000 sanctioned posts, permanent teachers work on only about 36,000, while guest teachers number about 22,000. Besides, there are nearly 6,000 posts vacant. Moreover, the government has also failed to ensure 100 per cent implementation of admission of students under the economically weaker section (EWS) quota in private schools. Critics say that these “failures” have cast a shadow on the government’s boasts on the education sector.
A gym in a government school
Some statistics are, however, undeniable. The 2018 CBSE class 12 results showed a pass percentage of 90.68 in government schools, better than the 88.35 per cent of private institutions and even the national average of 83.01 per cent. Ensuring participation of parents is what Atishi, an AAP candidate for the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, calls the second major reform. School management committees (SMCs) were revived and given teeth. The committee now prepares the school development plan and decides how the contingency fund (Rs 5 lakh to Rs 7 lakh annually) is to be spent. Empowerment of parents kindled their interest in the schools and helped get rid of the myth that parents of government school students are less concerned about their children’s education than those who pay more at private schools. “Parents who could not even enter the schools earlier now found themselves in management roles,” says Atishi, whose tenure as Delhi education advisor ended last April.
Then came training of teachers, earlier conducted in classrooms with undersized furniture. Besides raising the logistical standards of the training sessions, the methodology was also changed. Shailendra Sharma, associated with educational NGO Pratham and who works as an advisor to the Delhi government’s education director, says 200 teachers were pulled out of duty and prepared as mentor teachers. Their ground-level knowledge was used to prepare the new training modules; they were sent to the National Institute of Education in Singapore for training. The idea behind this move was to chuck the old model where retired teachers were hired for training—he feels it was a box-ticking approach—and replace them with mentors who shall be given exposure to the new and advanced education methods.
But in its revolutionary zeal, the AAP government may have floundered on a basic principle when it decided to regroup, or segregate as critics call it, students from class 6 to class 8 according to their learning abilities. Under a programme called Chunauti 2018, students from classes 6 to 8 were divided into three sections—Pratibha, Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha—according to their learning levels. They were tested for arithmetic, reading in language that was the medium of instruction, and in English.
Janaki Rajan, professor of education at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, says this segregation of students is extremely detrimental to children and has not only crushed their self-esteem and exterminated peer learning in class, but also eroded social diversity of the class. “All studies show us that students in mixed abilities group learn better. Why is the government then bent on doing the contrary? In addition, it is mostly the students from scheduled class, scheduled tribes and the Muslim community who land up in the Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha sections,” says Rajan, who was a former director of the State Council of Educational Research and Training, Delhi.
Another educationist, R. Govinda, who was vice chancellor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, says segregation of students does permanent damage to the self-esteem of students. “Branding of children and meddling with curriculum won’t work. Continuous professional development of teachers is the only way forward,” he says. The different sections also have different exams, and the Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha sections are taught with the help of special study material called Pragati Books.
Data collected as part of Rajan’s research, focusing on social inclusion and equity in education, shows that in a government school in the Kalkaji area, children of ‘disadvantaged’ groups (SCs, STs, Muslims and economically weaker) made up only 7-19 per cent of the Pratibha sections from class 6 to 8, while they made up 81-93 per cent of the Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha sections. Rajan argues it is the casteist mindset of the government that wants to create a separate space in schools for the children of upper castes and privileged among the lower middle class.
Students queue up for the mid-day meal.
“Till the 1970s, government schools were doing great. But when children from poor households started coming into those schools, the privileged class grew worried. The government gave them policy space in the form of public schools—there was nothing public about the public schools. They withdrew their kids from the government schools and put them in the public schools. Now, the Delhi government is perpetuating the same mindset. It is de facto caste system,” Rajan says.
The government contends that a majority of the students who enter class 6 are from municipal corporation schools and already have a major learning lag. Except 200-odd Sarvodaya schools out of 1,028, most of the Delhi government schools have classes from the sixth standard onwards. Shailendra Sharma says some students were so weak that they did not understand a thing in class. “The teacher was rushing to complete the syllabus and only the front benchers were abreast with what was being taught. Those at the back had no idea what was going on,” he says, adding that the chasm in learning levels was so massive that peer learning was actually not happening in class.
Sisodia also defends the move, saying it was done with the right intention. “How can you teach literature to a student who is struggling with letters? Those who are criticising the move are theoretical people with no classroom experience,” says the education minister. Atishi says that either the government can be in denial and pretend that the problem does not exist or work to resolve it. As for Pragati Books, they simplify the texts and teachers played a pivotal role in its design. “Questions such as ‘Hum bhojan grahan kyun karte hain?’ have been replaced with ‘Hum khana kyun khate hain?’” says Sharma.
The Delhi government did an experiment in the 2016-17 session and made a group of 62,277 students who failed to pass class 9. The group, named Vishwas, was coached separately, and made to appear for class 10 through Patrachar Vidyalaya, a CBSE open school. When the results came, 98 per cent of the students from the group failed. The government claims that it improved pass percentage of class 9 from 52 per cent to 57 per cent between the sessions 2015-16 and 2017-18, but critics say it has been achieved by pushing the weak students out of the school.
The directorate of education ruled last year that if a student fails twice in a class he or she should be counseled to opt for open schooling options. Information obtained by lawyer Ashok Agarwal, who is part of the civil rights group Social Jurist, shows that in the 2018-19 session, the Delhi government denied readmission to 1.02 lakh students out of 1.55 lakh who failed in classes 9 to 12. The government, however, claims that the students who fail would anyway drop out and the government was doing them a service by telling them about legit options and even holding classes for them. The government has also been cornered for slashing down the syllabus by 25 per cent and in a manner that the critics find ‘arbitrary’. Atishi says that it’s the age of the Internet and Google and the amount of textbook information one needs now is less. The idea has caught on with Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar as well, and he announced that half of the syllabus in CBSE schools will be cut from 2019.
In addition, there is the accusation on Delhi government of collecting voter ID details of students and their family members. The president of the Delhi Parents’ Association, Aparajita, says parents are receiving calls asking them if they are happy with the work done by Delhi government and argues it is a breach of privacy.
There are others who are unhappy with the changes brought by the government. C.P. Singh, president of the Government School Teachers’ Association, Delhi, says it was unwise to make the school management committees all-powerful entities. “Ab anpadh aadmi aake class check karenge ke padhai ho rahi hai ke nahin? (Now even the illiterate can check whether classes are being held or not)” he seethes.
Furthermore, the Delhi government’s plan to install CCTV cameras in classrooms attracts more angry remarks from Singh. “If there is a camera in class, the natural teaching style of the teacher will be affected. And then there are lady teachers. Now, males sitting on streets will watch them on their mobile phones through apps! This is shocking.”
Four-Year Report Card
- Budgetary allocation Rs 13,997 crore for 2019-20; highest funding for fifth straight year
- Infrastructure 8,000 classrooms built; new school buildings constructed; gymnasiums and swimming pools in select schools; a university for teacher training
- CBSE Class 12 pass percentage up to 90.68, better than the 88.35 of private institutions and even the national average of 83.01
- Community involvement Brought parents into school management; revived school management committees and gave them more teeth
- Segregation Students of class 6 to 8 divided into three sections—Pratibha, Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha—according to their learning levels, which experts say crushes self-esteem of kids
- Dropouts CRY survey finds 23 per cent children (11-15 years) in urban Delhi-NCR region are dropouts; five per cent never went to school
- Vacancies One-third teaching staff temporary; 77 per cent of the ad hoc teachers failed to get pass marks for permanent recruitment