While visiting a government school last year, I met a 65-year-old man, who had come to pick up his granddaughter. On asking him about the condition of the school, he expressed his unhappiness and said, “School to bahut bure haal mein hai. Kamre kam hain, teacher kam hain, jo teacher hain bhi woh padhate nahin hain. Pehle itna kharab nahin tha.” (The school is in bad shape. There are too few classrooms and teachers. The ones that are present don’t teach. It wasn’t this bad earlier.) When I asked him why this decline happened, he said bitterly, “Madam, saare netaon ne private school khol rakhe hain. Agar sarkari school theek honge, to unka dhanda kaise chalega?” (The politicians run private schools. If the government schools function well, how will their business flourish?)
While uttered in frustration, the words of this old man capture a deep reality of the state of our public education system: In the last two decades it has been left to decay by a political class, that at its best, doesn’t care and its worst, has deliberately let it decline due to their vested interests in private schools. This is precisely the case in Delhi, where in February 2015, the AAP government inherited a system that was in a shambles. There was a shortage of rooms, insufficient teachers as no recruitments had been done for a decade; even where teachers were present they would not go to classrooms; schools were filthy and most importantly, the learning levels were abysmal. The Congress supervised this decay as it ruled Delhi for 15 years. Therefore, irony dies a thousand deaths when Ajay Maken and Ruchi Gupta decide to critique — with misinformation and half-truths — the AAP government’s attempts to resuscitate the system destroyed by their very own party. (‘Why AAP needs to go back to school’, IE, August 22)
Improving government schools was a complex problem that faced the AAP government, as changes were needed at so many levels. For bringing these changes, the government doubled its education budget, a first. The first year was spent in addressing, what can be called “lower order problems” — improving the basic infrastructure and upkeep of schools. More than 8,000 new rooms were constructed, land was identified for building new schools, new sanitation contractors were brought in for cleaning, and estate managers were deployed in every school to supervise the maintenance and upkeep.
To sustain these changes, systems of accountability needed improvement. To this end, the government decided to involve parents in the decision-making process by empowering school management committees (SMCs). SMCs were parent-led bodies created by the Right to Education Act, but were defunct in Delhi, as well as other parts of India. The AAP government started activating and empowering SMCs and got parents involved in the supervision and monitoring of schools. A year-and-a-half later, the overall ambience of the school stands transformed, a fact that all students and parents testify to.
Yet, the core of the education system is learning by the students. Year after year, ASER reports have told us that children in our schools are not learning even the basics of language and arithmetic, that there is a crisis of learning. Combine these worryingly low learning levels with the “no detention policy” and we have reached a situation where a large number of students in Class IX cannot read and write a few sentences in Hindi or do three-digit addition. This is the reason why more than 50 per cent students are “failing” in class IX. The government’s own learning assessment of Class VI students showed that 74 per cent of them could not even read a passage from their textbooks.
The AAP government — like governments throughout the country — could have turned a blind eye to the learning deficit of lakhs of students who come from some of the poorest sections of society. But instead it chose to take proactive measures to ensure that no child is left behind. Children were organised into groups according to their learning levels, so that every child could get the support she needs. Children could learn at their own pace and not at a pace decided by the “syllabus”. Teachers prepared — and continue to prepare — learning material (called Pragati) in addition to existing textbooks. This was essential since assessments had shown that children couldn’t even read their textbooks. Five hundred and fifty schools organised summer camps for students of Class VI to reduce their learning gaps. Teachers were given the flexibility to teach at their own pace keeping in mind the learning needs of the children. “Mentor teachers” were selected to work on creative teaching methods and teacher development. This was the implementation of the very spirit of the Right to Education Act and the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, which have unfortunately remained only words in policy documents so far.
The AAP government has also taken a strong stand to curb malpractices by private schools: Ending the management quota in nursery admissions, bringing transparency in EWS admissions and making private schools roll back arbitrary fee hikes.
AAP has heeded the advice of ordinary citizens and is working to transform education in Delhi, and bring every child access to high quality education. Mr Maken, maybe your time would be better spent in improving school education in the few states where your party still has a government, rather than criticising one of the only governments working on the same.