NEW DELHI: Given their vastly transformative intent, it is difficult to understate the potential impact of the education reform policies enacted by the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi.

A multifaceted program that has supposedly flourished under the nurturing hand of an immense education budget, AAP’s policy platform has targeted the content and method of instruction in government schools across the national capital. It has also placed considerable emphasis on areas such as student facilities, parental involvement, and teacher training.

Investigating these widely acclaimed changes, however, The Citizen received a very mixed response: from school principals, teachers, and parents. These illustrate the discrepancies between those in charge of formulating and implementing policies, and those on the receiving end of what is called reform.

A Caring Environment in Schools

In the course of the past few years, the Delhi government has committed substantial sections of its greatly enlarged education budget to ensuring that the burgeoning number of students enrolled in Delhi government schools is adequately accommodated.

Not only has the construction of many new schools taken place (21, as of 2017) but tens of thousands of classrooms, all with immaculate modern design, have also been constructed.

And many schools under the government’s 54-institution pilot programme have been equipped with smart classrooms that have projectors and screens installed. Benches, desks, and the entire interiors of schools have seen significant makeovers, meant to contribute to the creation of environments that are comfortable, and encouraging, for children to study in.

According to Davin Dera, principal of the Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya on Rouse Avenue, these infrastructural modifications have rendered some schools unrecognisable, in comparison with their dire condition just a few years earlier. “If the school fails to provide the right environment, nothing will motivate children to attend classes regularly. That’s why having basic things like fans, lights, and comfortable benches is very important – students now want to come to school,” he told The Citizen.

Dera added that a better learning environment has meant that a far larger proportion of students managed to achieve the CBSE-stipulated 75 percent attendance rate at his school. And the number of students has increased from 900 in 2015, to 1400 today.

Dera identified sanitation as another area that has encouraged a significant increase in student attendance, with the appointment of estate managers to take charge of sanitation, maintenance, and repair allowing teaching staff to focus on their primary responsibilities.

The provision of mechanised cleaning equipment to schools, and regular grievance redressal, are areas where some government schools have achieved significant advance.

Most teachers and parents attested to the effectivity of these changes. A consensus is visible, that infrastructural improvements on campuses, especially within classrooms, have created environments that encourage more children to attend school.

Mixed Response to the Curriculum

While progress in school infrastructure is a subject of common agreement between administrative higher-ups and teachers and parents on the ground, convergences are far less evident with respect to curricular changes, teaching methods, and learning assistance.

The school principals interviewed were largely commendatory of the changes in curricula. It is a well-documented problem that a large proportion of students, in both private and government schools, make it all the way to middle school without having acquired the ability to read basic sentences.

To address this alarming situation, the government introduced Pragati (Progress) Textbooks, a series of supplementary materials aimed at enabling students who struggle to read the prescribed NCERT books, to gain a firmer grasp over their course material.

A fundamental problem with the Pragati initiative, highlighted on multiple occasions, had to do not with its content, but with the way in which it has been applied.

The head of a government-administered girls’ school in North Delhi, who did not wish to be identified by name, argued that the temporary application of Pragati textbooks creates problems for the students they are intended to benefit.

Having focused for the entire year on the basic formative material contained in the Pragati textbooks, students are subsequently forced to revert to studying NCERT books, on which their exams are based.

Teachers or Expensive Tutors?

Other stakeholders locate the primary problem elsewhere. According to Suresh Kumar, the father of two children studying at the Sohan Ganj School (an MCD school administered under the supervision of the Delhi Government) the most pressing issue is the standard of teaching.

“These teachers are all great talkers. They do attempt to understand the specific issues of each child, and provide decent advice. However, when it comes to teaching, they’re rather substandard.

“The school provides good books, because my children keep looking at the pictures, and try their best to read. The reason they can’t is that the teachers never provide adequate work, and never actually show them how to understand words and sentences,” Kumar told The Citizen.

How have his children coped? Kumar said he spends a sizeable proportion of his monthly salary on sending his kids to private tutors. “At least their tuition teacher gives them appropriate attention. Without these extra classes they’d know almost nothing.”

Kumar recently decided to withdraw his children from school, and enrol them instead at a boarding school in Darbanga, in his home state of Bihar.

Under-Recruiting Permanent Teachers

Problems with regard to teaching do not stop here, however, as many employed in the profession themselves willingly admitted. The mentor-teacher program, a scheme undertaken ostensibly to expose teachers to new methods of instruction, came under severe attack.

While principals at some schools stated that the intentions behind the programme were good, a pair of teachers at a government school in Central Delhi deeply admonished the scheme, arguing that the appointees often shirked their responsibilities, and displayed dismal levels of commitment.

Given that only 40 percent of permanent teaching positions in government schools are occupied, it is unsurprising that many teachers, including M.Sani, a lecturer in political science at the Sarvodaya Co-ed Senior Secondary School in Patparganj, expressed their disagreements with the programme.

“There aren’t enough permanent staff, and then over and above that, recruitments for the mentor-teacher programme are made, further diminishing our already dwindling numbers,” Sani observed.

Segregating Students

Perhaps what best highlights the seriousness of the contentions encountered, is the controversial Project Buniyaad (Foundation). This divides students of the same age into three sections – Pratibha, Nishtha, and Neo-Nishtha – based on their ‘skill’.

The arguments in favour of categorising children in this way, came largely from school principals, who argued that it allowed ‘weaker’ students to be taught together at a level they found more comfortable, enabling them to catch up to those with superior skills.

Most teachers, however, across multiple schools in various parts of the city, emphasised that the scheme had crystallised an already existing nexus of inferiority-superiority complexes among their students.

Two teachers told The Citizen that the programme “alienated weaker students from their peers, and only led to the growth of negative sentiments about themselves.”

The principal of a North Delhi school suggested that it might be beneficial to allow such divisions to continue between Classes 3 and 5, allowing weaker students to catch up, and then phasing them back in to a randomised system of section allocation.

Teacher Training Workshops

Teacher training was another area where the government’s schemes were found wanting. While some teachers did mention that the resource-persons who conducted the sessions were adequately qualified, a teacher at a Central Delhi school criticised the workshops severely.

“These workshops could be conducted in half the number of days they actually take, and are essentially just social gatherings where teachers come and listen to a bunch of uninterested officials talking about generic subjects. Essentially, nothing new is taught,” the teacher said requesting anonymity.

Poor Parent-Teacher Communication

Given that on average, the families of government school students have less wealth than those enrolled in private schools, many relatively wealthy teachers argued that many parents lacked awareness about the importance of formal education.

This was perceived as a major problem by the Delhi government, which instituted a Mega Parent-Teacher Meeting Scheme, and strengthened and regularised the School Management Committees or SMCs.

The mother of a Class 3 student of Sarvodaya Co-ed Senior Secondary, Patparganj, said she had benefited from the advice she received at PTMs, and that meetings were held regularly.

“They tell us how to make sure our children gain an interest in reading, and their work. They’re very helpful,” she told The Citizen.

However, SMCs did not receive such positive feedback. The head of one North Delhi school said that SMCs were largely a front for actors such as local politicians to interfere in school functioning.

She also remarked that most parents who participated in SMC meetings attended with the objective of finding out how the money paid in fees was spent, rather than in improving the functioning of the school itself.

Further, the turnout at such meetings are still unimpressive, according to most accounts, with less than half of the total number of parent members attending regularly.

All of this has meant that while some progress has been achieved in terms of awareness and involvement of parents, much ground remains to be covered.

Mixed Results on the Ground

This comment, in fact, would seem to befit the Delhi government’s education policies in general. While many of the schemes are definitely motivated by the correct concerns, it is not difficult to discern that their consequences have by and large been skewed.

Perhaps their implementation has varied on the basis of region.

The lack of teacher involvement in formulating crucial reforms such as Project Buniyaad may also be a factor.

“Policies must be formed on the basis of ground realities. Who knows ground realities better than teachers, when it comes to schools? But no, these ministers and experts never even think of involving us. Why would they, it seems like they think they know everything!” one particularly aggrieved teacher told The Citizen.

Given the mixed response in evidence, perhaps those spearheading blind reform, must first educate themselves.

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