Delhi’s Schools Need Quality Upgrade, Not a Hasty Cut in Syllabus

Is education a bureaucratic realm, Kejriwal? Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is education a bureaucratic realm, Kejriwal? Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi, acting through its Directorate of Education (DoE), has decided to cut 25% of the syllabus taught in classes VI to X. This decision will directly influence over 900 DoE schools in the city. While the notice comes from a bureaucratic agency, it needs examination from a curricular and pedagogic lens – something that is often overlooked in bureaucratic haste. The idea of reducing the syllabus may not appear to be problematic as the move is backed by the rationale of reducing “curricular load” on students so as to provide “quality time” for “vocational skills and arts”. However, a closer look reveals that there are other issues involved that bear consideration.

Curricular nuances

In the past decade, the school curriculum and textbooks across the country have been revised based on the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 developed by the National Council of Educational Research in Training (NCERT). The Yashpal Committee Report of 1993, Learning without Burden, was the basis of the NCF and the NCERT’s textbooks, adopted in Delhi as well. It is worth asking if the DoE has taken this curricular policy into account and consulted the curriculum framers before amending the syllabus.

According to a recent PTI report (September 27, 2015), taking stock of the sharp critique by academics, the government is constituting a committee with members from NCERT and other institutions to review the deletions within a month’s time. The curriculum, syllabus and textbooks that were overhauled and reformed over a period of more than 3 years will be re-cast hastily within 30 days. Through these ex post facto “reviews”, the government is crafting its bureaucratic defences. However, it will be quite difficult to engineer considered pedagogical and curricular rationales.

Deleting topics from the syllabus and adding areas is not a mechanical exercise. In principle, a curriculum design precedes the specific topics in the syllabus and chapters in textbooks. This design is deliberated on to ensure balance across academic and other goals. One such balance concerns the representation of various social groups and perspectives while keeping an eye on the larger curricular goals. NCF 2005 devoted considerable time and expertise in ensuring these equilibria. Tampering with the syllabi without deliberations on the larger design could therefore derail the broader educational objectives, as is evident from the proposed cuts and the ‘rationales’ stated in the DoE notice.

In the social science syllabus, 26 deletions have been listed. These include at least six topics that aim at critical engagement with marginalisation in the Indian social context (and several others that critically appreciate Indian democracy). Teaching social sciences with the perspective of the marginalised is one of the major recommendations of NCF 2005. The DoE notice declares most of these topics listed for deletion as “vague” and “unclear”. It is worth asking from whose perspective these topics appear vague and from whose lens is clarity to be defined. The proposed deletions in mathematics (9 in all) indicate that the entire logic of the subject pedagogy has been jumbled-up. Repetition of content is the only logic cited for their removal. But is repetition of content always undesirable? Or is it at times pedagogically essential? It seems that the DoE did not thoroughly study how the subject contents and difficulty levels are pitched in the junior and senior classes, before suggesting the changes.

The defence being offered by officials is that the contents thus deleted will be fitted in “some form or the other” in higher grades. But are curricular decisions so simplistic and bureaucratic? Would crunching topics in senior/junior grades not increase the burden on children and teachers? Would it not substantively alter the curricular aims and design? On the one hand, such “fitting” in of topics is likely to create pedagogical misbalances. On the other hand, it will lead to imbalances with respect to the constitutional values of democracy, equity and justice. On the whole it will influence the curricular quality in substantive ways. 

Curricular load vs. Curricular quality

The decision to make curricular cuts cannot be seen in isolation from the Delhi government’s stand on the no-detention provision of the Right to Education Act. This provision is essentially geared towards reducing the ‘burden of failure’ on children to ensure that they complete elementary education. The Delhi government has strongly opposed the no-detention policy on the ground that in the absence of fear of failure, children are not studying and teachers not teaching either. It would appear, therefore, that the Delhi’s government’s response to the situation is to reduce the “curricular burden” instead – and thus ensure better learning rates. But is the matter of curricular load separable from that of curricular quality?

An examination of media reports brings out how the DoE’s definition of “skills” is primarily constrained to the 3Rs. PTI has quoted an official saying that the decision has emerged from a concern “that half of the students can’t even read and write properly. Class 6 students do not know basic mathematics.” Thus, it is quite unlikely that the “quality time” made available from the syllabus cut will be used for any creative arts and vocational skills. It will be used “to make space for basic skills programme” that focuses on the most narrowly defined basic learning outcomes that Delhi schools are failing to ensure.

In this scenario, it is not unreasonable to wonder if the cuts are designed to fit the low levels of provisioning in government schools – especially as it relates to the availability of qualified and trained teachers – rather than fulfilment of larger educational goals. The changes might even serve to bring down the already low expectations from the government system and what is delivered by the state. While the shift in emphasis to “vocational skills and arts” might sound like a good idea, little is known about how the government proposes to integrate this element into the larger curricular design and even less about how it will fulfil the accompanying teacher requirements.

Bypassing the RtE mandate

It also worth stressing that in addition to pedagogical concerns, questions arise about the procedural aspects of the decision.

Section 29 of the Right to Education Act 2009, mandates that decisions pertaining to the school curriculum [upto class VIII] shall be made by the academic authority notified by the appropriate government. The Delhi government notified the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) as the academic authority. Why then is the DoE (and not the SCERT) making the decision for classes VI-VIII? In fact, to maintain curricular continuity, it would be logical for the SCERT to take academic decisions for classes above VIII as well. In what way, if any, has the SCERT assessed the curricular load and identified the need for the cut? Would it not have been advisable to route the process of teacher consultations itself through the SCERT to obtain a more comprehensive and considered opinion, and in keeping with RtE requirements? Instead the government has sought the opinions of schoolteachers through a format sent out to schools with the DoE notice.

A close reading of the format reveals that the decision for the cut has already been made. Seeking opinions is a therefore a mere formality. Schoolteachers are expected to comment on which topics they think should be deleted – and not on whether the 25% cut is desirable in the first place. Who decided that 25%, not more not less, is the desired level of cut? And then, why have only six days been given to teachers to “thoroughly” discuss the proposed cuts, pen-down their “opinions” and compile these in the formats provided? All this in the midst of their regular teaching schedules and in a situation where it is not clear how their opinions will be used, if at all.

Finally, it must be also pointed out that this mandate will affect the DoE schools only. It does not apply to private schools in Delhi unless the private school managements decide to comply, of their own volition. The MCD and NDMC schools are not affected by the cut either as they are not governed by the DoE. Given this context, it is worth pondering on the bearing this lop-sided decision will have on the already existing divide between government and private schools and even between the different kinds of government schools.

Politics over pedagogy?

Governments, and the politicians who run them, must understand that curricular decisions need to be mediated by an understanding of the contexts within which educational practice operates. They must not be dictated by political expediency alone. The impact of curricular changes is long lasting and decisions taken in haste can affect a whole generation of learners. While the budgetary increases proposed by the Delhi government are a step in the right direction, they will not by themselves lead to desirable changes in quality without considered and deliberated curricular decisions. Unfortunately, the proposed move on that front does not match the government’s stated commitment to focus on improving the quality of education.

Gunjan Sharma is on the faculty of the School of Education Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.

  • Akha

    I do agree with the author of the article. The government seems to have jumped
    the gun. It is best that they keep away from indulging hastily on matters
    which is not their area of expertise including curricula issues in education.

  • Preeti Prasad

    Absolutely agree with the points made. Curricular decisions can’t be based on political whims.

  • argentinum

    Too complex to understand what specific problem does the author have with the proposed syllabus changes or the process? Is the real problem that it is being done fast?