After decades of neglect, Delhi’s government schools are finally turning the page with much-needed improvements to facilities and teaching methods. But problems such as staff shortage and a broken primary education system refuse to go away easily
Delhi’s bustling IP Extension has a familiar skyline — a linear arrangement of ageing residential complexes. A gleaming new building in their midst catches the eye. Until recently, the Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in West Vinod Nagar was, much like the other 1,000-odd Delhi government schools, characterised only by its unremarkableness. The sprawling new brown-and-cream building in its place is as a pleasant revelation.
Tell her that, and principal Manju Shammi straightens up a wee bit more in her chair. The school’s metamorphosis is a matter of special pride for her. It was, in fact, her vision that saw the school being picked for a pilot project along with 53 others in Delhi. Within two years, the infrastructure has been overhauled and there have been systemic interventions as well. The existing 87 classrooms are in various stages of renovation. Seventy-six new rooms have been sanctioned, of which 49 are already functional in the new primary block.
‘World class’ is a term Shammi frequently uses while giving a tour of the building. Physical education classes are underway for senior girls in the new covered courtyard. Some pause to wish the principal. Shammi points to the panelled false ceiling, diffused lights, clean and tiled washrooms, large cans of handwash, water coolers — all newly added at the school. All classrooms have new blue desks and seats. The fans and lights work. But the school’s overarching pride is the 25m swimming pool still under construction. “Can you imagine a government school with a swimming pool?” asks Birender Gupta, the school’s estate manager, who recently moved his children to this school from the private institution they were attending in Bihar. Parents like him are on the rise, says Shammi. “This year we’ve received more enquiries from parents whose children are in private schools,” she says. Education is free in government schools up to Std VIII and the fee is ₹20 a month thereafter.
Stressing that the changes are not just cosmetic, Shammi says the appointment of the estate manager, for instance, is an unprecedented one for government schools. “Earlier, from getting leaky taps fixed to checking cleanliness, everything was the principal’s job,” she says. An estate manager, hired on contract, will allow the teachers to focus on teaching. “He arrives an hour before schooltime and ensures that electricity and water supply are in order, the classrooms and washrooms are clean.”
The school started nursery classes this year. The specially designed classroom is twice the size of a regular one. It’s crafts hour when we enter. Perched on the shiny new blue benches, the nursery kids are hunched over mounds of dough, engrossed in pressing them into shapes. A few days ahead of Diwali, teacher Noorjehan is telling her KG class to steer clear of crackers.
The changes in the school are not lost on its students. “My school was not very good,” Shivani Dhyani, a Std II student, does not mince words. “But now we drink chilled water. There are good desks. In fact, I don’t feel like leaving school,” she adds. Her classmate Phoolbanu chimes in, “Teachers are taking special effort. I never used the washrooms earlier, but now they are clean. Earlier, we stood in the sun for the assembly, now we have a covered auditorium.”
Students in the higher classes remark happily that from sitting on durries in barely clean classrooms, they have moved into well-ventilated spaces. Ritika of Std X says, “Teachers were not very serious earlier. But now they are, and classes happen on time.”
As construction work is still underway, Shammi is anxious about the children’s personal safety and security. All visitors are duly registered and the workers carry identity cards. Outside the school’s gates, hordes of parents, mostly from West Vinod Nagar, wait to fetch nursery and KG children. Three of Reshma Khatun’s grandchildren study here. As she awaits the youngest, she says, “What was this school earlier… a dumpyard… A lot has changed, of late.”
After decades of neglect, Delhi’s government schools are finally turning the page. The Delhi government has, for three years running, allocated a large chunk of its budget to education. Driving in this point, education minister Manish Sisodia said about the budget for 2017-18, “The allocation of 24 per cent… is the highest among all States.” An expenditure of ₹11,300 crore has been proposed for the education sector in the current financial year.
The rejig, which began with the infrastructure, subsequently spread to teacher training and pedagogy. The physical fixes, relatively easier, are beginning to show. It all began over two years ago with a few schools getting selected for a pilot project initiated by the Delhi government. The selections were based on the vision spelt out for each school by its principal. Apart from infrastructure, teacher shortage and quality of education figured among the top concerns.
Two years on, the pilot projects have served as a blueprint. Atishi Marlena, advisor to the education minister, says all the 1,029 government schools in Delhi are now being overhauled.
The biggest struggle so far has been in bringing about changes in the teaching methods. As a large segment of the secondary school students were found to be non-readers, the government launched its Chunauti (Challenge) programme. With the stated aim of teaching children according to their learning level, students from Std VI to VIII were categorised as non-readers, slow readers and proficient readers (neo nishtha, nishtha and pratibha, respectively). However, this move to label children swiftly provoked criticism.
Marlena argues that they had little choice in the matter. A majority of the students in Delhi’s government schools come from an underprivileged background. “More than 50 per cent are first-generation learners,” claims Marlena. But the education system — books, syllabus and teaching methods — is not tailored to meet the needs of first-generation learners. “They will need to be taught differently. By pretending that this reality does not exist we’re just widening the gap further,” she contends.
Delhi’s distinct governance structure adds to the complexity. Primary education is under the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). Government schoolteachers grumble that children arriving from MCD schools in Std VI are mostly non-readers. “Most cannot read, write or add. Catching up with that gap at that level is difficult,” Marlena explains. Instead of benignly neglecting weak students in a heterogeneous classroom, Chunauti engages with them upfront, she declares.
Despite the initial misgivings of many parents, Shammi too backs the initiative. “We have to identify children who are facing problems.” A year into the programme now, she says it is bearing results. “When children see that other students in class have similar problems, they become more confident. The teacher takes special care to teach at their level. Neo-nishtha gets the best teacher.”
At the Government Girls’ Senior Secondary School in Shakarpur, commonly called the School Block, students of Std VI B flock around their teacher with papers in hand. Rajani Baluni, the teacher development coordinator(TDC), explains that weekly tests are underway for neo-nishtha students. Attentive tending has helped the children move to the next level.
Located bang in the middle of Shakarpur’s narrow market lane, the school was known by a different moniker until recently. As Rehana of Std XI tells it, “It was just the subzi mandi wala (vegetable market) school.” She and her friends used to be embarrassed about it, but not any more. Principal Reeta Kathuria, who admits she hadn’t heard much about the school before joining it four years ago, describes its transformation from the dumping ground it had turned into for the nearby vegetable market to what it is now. To end encroachments, the first thing she did on taking charge was to firm up the compound wall and clear the compound of waste. “Eight trucks of waste were removed. We refilled with soil and raised a garden,” she says. They called it Radhika Kunj.
Another of the chosen pilot schools, today it is coated with the grime and dust of renovation. Inherent disadvantages — high-tension wire passing nearby and severe space constraints — mean the school cannot expand. But it now has a new look and new equipment. Rehana’s class has new desks, and is brightly lit and clean. “Ever since it became a pilot school, the impression about it has changed,” she says.
Classes in creative writing, dance, theatre and fine arts have been introduced in the pilot schools. For this, the Delhi government’s cultural wing, Sahitya Kala Parishad has engaged with multiple organisations. When we visit, the cultural hour is in full swing at School Block. Music auditions are on for the upcoming annual day. Supriya of Std VIII coyly sings “Tum mere humsafar” as her teacher tunes the harmonium. She halts after a few lines and declares she does not remember the rest. In the class next door, the furniture has been pushed to the corners. Girls are standing in line and their theatre instructor is testing them with a few mind games. In the third room, girls draw immaculate Warli figures on cards.
At the creative writing class, Jaishree Sethi is reading a piece written by a small group of students. Baluni has put Sethi in charge of some of the most challenging students. “I had children who had trouble reading and writing even in Std VIII and IX,” Sethi says. Children who could manage to write had difficulty imbibing concepts. “If I was talking to them about theatre, it would take me two hours to explain the concept of theatre, the director etc.” She was introducing them to a world they were not familiar with. “Most of them are first-generation learners.”
She goads them to work on ideas and put them into words. Baluni recalls a breakthrough they made last year. Five children wrote poems in Hindi and recited them on stage. Unused to any kind of cultural activity before this, this was a big leap for them. “They were overwhelmed, so was I,” remembers Baluni.
Sethi has her task cut out when it comes to building the children’s confidence. “I cannot change them overnight, I get to work with them for six months, four hours a week.” She hopes that a child who has learned to think and express herself, will also fare better in an exam. Most of all, she is thrilled that creative writing, long seen as an activity exclusive to private schools, is available to students of government schools.
Baluni’s role as a TDC — a link between teachers, students, the principal and the department — is again a new feature. A teacher for the past 25 years, she had often felt that the system had failed committed teachers earlier. Not anymore. “The platform we get for capacity-building never existed before,” she says. She documents her interactions with teachers on their teaching practices, the difficulties they encounter, as well as their suggestions. She and her peers in other schools later discuss their experiences and feedback at the workshops held for them.
Much like School Block, the Government Girls Senior Secondary School Shakti Nagar 2 is short on space. The school’s reception area opens into a busy lane in north Delhi. “But we’ve had 100 per cent result for class XII,” says its principal, Indu Kaushik. As a pilot school, it now has a new second floor. “We’ll have laboratories and an audiovisual room on the top floor,” adds Kaushik.
Kaushik and Meera Sharma, a senior teacher, say the new system has facilitated greater interaction with parents.“Response to the parent-teacher meetings has improved.” Both Kaushik and Sharma agree that the process will take time to bear results. Chunauti, they believe, is putting too much on a teacher’s already full plate. They suggest hiring specialised teachers for the neo-nishtha segment. They blame the no-detention policy, which forces schools to promote all students to the next higher class until Std VIII, for bringing a lot of non-readers into the senior level. They want systemic changes initiated at the primary level.
At the Government Boys’ Senior Secondary School, Shakti Nagar 1, principal Rakesh Kumar Sorot happens to be helming his alma mater, which is also one of the older schools in the State. Inaugurated in 1957, the building is now undergoing its first-ever renovation on this scale.
It has a large compound and an eco garden occupies a prominent space in front. After being selected as a pilot school, it has added 32 new rooms. The refurbished multipurpose hall has over a dozen air-conditioners and other state-of-the-art facilities. Of the six smart classes sanctioned, two are already functional.
The renovated school has instilled a sense of ownership among the boys, says Sorot, who often catches them standing and staring at it in admiration. Some of them wanted to bring their parents and show them around. “Most of the students come from resettlement colonies and slums. Frankly, though, the gap between government and private schools is closing. I would say we’re getting better than private schools,” says Sorot.
A year ago, he and other heads of pilot schools were sent to Cambridge University. There they acquainted themselves with the popular activity-based teaching methods. On returning, he discussed it with his teachers and they now try to incorporate it in their interactions with students. The principals of government schools also meet every month to share best teaching practices. The meetings, earlier restricted to the principals of pilot schools, have now expanded to include heads of all schools. “We also share common problems and try to find solutions,” says Sorot. “Earlier, we had no incentives. So sincerity was missing. Now we have the infrastructure, smart classes and outcome-based workshops. Some school heads have been sent to the Indian Institute of Management for training.” An added boost for him is the interest shown by the local legislator, who participates in all of the school’s activities, including the student management committee (SMC) meetings.
That attention, in turn, means a demand for greater accountability from the teachers. They are watched hawk-eyed by the department of education. They receive a handful of circulars almost every day. “It takes days to implement those. At times, we end up taking work home,” says Sorot.
A recent circular cancelling leave for teachers of senior classes until end-February had raised quite a furore. News reports said the move was prompted by the need to help students prepare well for the upcoming examinations. However, the general secretary of Delhi Government School Teachers Association, Ajay Veer Yadav, says such measures smack of dictatorship. “Teachers are eligible for eight casual leave and 10 earned leave,” he points out. The preoccupation with exam results is putting too much pressure on teachers, he adds. “As it is, each teacher is doing the work of two.”
Marlena concedes the circular is “draconian”, but lays the blame on Delhi’s massive shortage of teachers. “The biggest crisis in the education system are the 9,500 vacancies,” she says.
According to Yadav, regular staff make up only about half of the State’s school teaching force. Of the over 60,000 teaching posts in schools, 15,000 are handled by guest lecturers, and close to 10,000 are lying vacant. “Nothing has been done to fix this. New guest lecturers have not been chosen,” he says.
The row over teacher recruitment has reached the Delhi High Court. The Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board examinations, the recruitment test for teachers, have been stalled since 2014, as the State government and Lieutenant-Governor (L-G) differ on the issue of regularising existing guest lecturers. “If we conduct recruitment now, those guest teachers will never get regularised. The L-G has been refusing our proposals,” says Marlena. In September, the Delhi HC stayed the appointment of new guest teachers.
Any call to overhaul Delhi’s education system frequently comes up against the tussle over the no-detention policy — a vital part of the Right to Education Act.
Says Kiran Bhatty, senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, “The no-detention policy exists for a very good reason, and raising questions about it is unfair.” She further argues that it is short-sighted to blame the policy for all the ills in the education system. Corrective measures, she suggests, should instead focus on improving the quality of education in MCD schools.
Contending that teachers are the least-empowered players in the system, she warns against the dangers of threatening them with punitive measures. “Punitive measures should be effected from the administrative level — the top,” she says. She lauds the ongoing infrastructural makeover efforts as an exercise in instilling self-worth among students. Agrees Marlena, “I realise how important it is. Children had also so far considered swanky schools the privilege of the rich.”
Countering Yadav’s assertion that many schools in the Capital still function out of tin sheds, Marlena says the efforts will soon cover even those schools. “Eight thousand new classrooms were made in the first phase. We are in the process of sanctioning 13,000 more rooms in the second,” she says, adding that 29 new schools are also being constructed. That still leaves a huge deficit from the promised 500 new schools. “Land belongs to the Delhi Development Authority. They were willing to provide us land for ₹4 crore per acre,” Marlena says. Consequently, the government was forced to scrape out land from its own properties and that was enough for just 29 new schools across the Capital.
As a system churns, its key players — teachers and students — pray that there should be no dire reversals. For teachers such as Seema Varma who have experienced the apathy that had hitherto characterised the system, a relapse would be nothing short of heartbreak. “Frankly, I fear it is going back to what it was. It is important to sustain the motivation and energy that’s now part of the system,” the teacher pleads.