As AAP Turns Government Schools Around, Questions about Learning Linger

In its effort to revolutionise the quality and promise of government schools, some critics say the AAP is privileging numbers over inclusion.

New Delhi: The Kanya Vidyalaya No 2 in Mandawali has for its neighbour the municipal garbage dump. The road outside the school is littered with spillover rubbish, and a fetid odour hangs in the air. But that does not deter the hundreds of students streaming into the school’s main gate. A striking change greets them when they step inside.

The premises are clean and the lawns are green. After assembly, held on the basketball court, teachers herd the students into the large and airy classrooms of the old building. In India, where the term “government school” conjures images of crumbling infrastructure, students seated on the floor, broken benches and blackboards and missing teachers, the Kanya Vidyalaya No. 2 belies expectations. But the school is not an exception.

A number of schools in Delhi now debunk the myth of the government school in perpetual decay.

Since coming to power in Delhi in 2015, the education ministry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, headed by deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, has tried to turn Delhi’s public schools around. To that end, it has increased their budget allocation (by over 33%), launched summer programs and sent administrators on research trips to schools and universities in the UK, Singapore and Finland.

Some critics, however, say that the government’s reforms rely on a pedagogical model that is non-inclusive, and which violates the egalitarian ideals outlined by the National Curricular Framework (NCF) of 2005. The segregation of ‘model schools’ from other schools is the most glaring example.

What teachers and students think

The Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya, Rouse Avenue, was Delhi’s first ‘model government school’. Its building is new and modern. It has a large playground and a new auditorium, taps for drinking water and toilets in good, working order. The classrooms have sturdy, freshly painted benches; some even have projectors and audio-visual teaching equipment. It could easily be mistaken for a private school.

According to RN Singh, a post-graduate chemistry teacher, and Rajnikanth, a post-graduate Hindi teacher, the school was in a “bad shape” until changes began in 2015.

In the past, committees called Vidyalaya Kalyan Samitis (VKS) were in charge of school maintenance. These have been completely overhauled. They are now called School Management Committees (SMC) – each consisting of 12 elected parents, the school principal, a teacher, an elected representative and a social worker.

Also Read: How Delhi Government Schools Are Revamping Their Approach to Education

The inclusion of parents is new, and according to teachers, very successful.

The SMCs appoint an “estate manager” responsible for school premises and facilities. Naresh Kumar, the estate manager at Kanya Vidyalaya No. 2 in Mandawali, said, “I make sure the school is clean and the toilets properly functioning. The creation of my position has reduced the principal’s burden.”

These changes have not gone unnoticed by the students. Class IX students Rajnish, Aman, Ravi and Piyush at the Kanya Vidyalaya No. 2 told The Wire that a new building was constructed last year, that the campus was cleaner than before, but that the toilets did still sometimes stink.

They added that the school’s attendance policy had become more strict. “The guards do not let us leave before classes are over,” they said.

Shripal, whose son and daughter attend the school, said this was entirely new: “My son’s classes start at 1 pm and are supposed to go until 6:30 pm. In the past, I would sometimes find him returning from school around 3 pm or 4 pm. This does not happen any more. The first few times he started staying at school the entire time, we were almost worried. But it is a very good thing – the teachers and principal ensure that the students cannot leave before classes are over. Now I wish to have my younger son, who is in a private school, is admitted here.”

Shripal’s daughter Sneha studies in the Class VIII. Asked how the school has changed, she said, “The infrastructure has improved. But not just that, the teaching style has also changed. Teachers care more about whether the students are learning and less about finishing the syllabus.”

Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia at a government school. Credit: PTI

Changes in pedagogy

Part of this push towards better learning is the result of dividing students by academic ability. The Delhi government initiated two extra-classes programs, Mission Chunauti and Mission Buniyad, in the summers of 2016 and 2018. The aim was to remedy the lack of basic reading and arithmetic skills in students up to the ninth grade.

In the Mission Chunauti extra classes, students are divided into two groups – Pratibha (‘talent’) and Nishtha (‘determination’) – and their classes held separately. The children in the Nishtha group were singled out for extra attention and monitored to ensure that their abilities were improving.

Another group – Neo-Nishtha – was created under Mission Buniyaad. This circular from the directorate of education on April 5, 2018 explained that officials “should also randomly verify the level of students during their school visits.. and match it with those recorded by the school.”

The segregation of students by ability is deemed so necessary that officials are supposed to conduct random checks simply to verify that they are being placed in the “correct” group.

When asked whether students were divided on the basis of ability at the Rouse Avenue school, R.N. Singh and Rajnikanth said that they were not. Both teachers affirmed that the school was committed to inclusive education and would not permit such a practice.

The Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Darya Ganj does divide students by ability – for summer programs, but also for the regular academic year.

Class IX students at the Kanya Vidyalaya No. 2 reported that their sections had been shuffled twice, for reasons they weren’t told.

Division of students by ability

Anita Rampal, professor of elementary and social education at the University of Delhi, criticised the Delhi government for letting certain non-profits dictate its pedagogical reforms. For example, its appointment of Shailendra Sharma, the head of operations at the Pratham Education Foundation, as the principal advisor at Delhi’s directorate of education.

According to Pratham’s website: “The effectiveness of the Pratham approach stems from grouping children by level. This is very different from classes organized by age and driven by the prescribed curriculum for that grade.”

This is meant to allow teachers to focus on the needs of the group of students. In a mixed-ability classroom, certain students may be unable to keep up, while others may find the material too easy and lose interest.

According to Rampal, however, this division of children by academic ability is harmful pedagogy.

“Pratham pushes a corporate-NGO model of education, which is fundamentally inequitable,” she said. “Research has shown that children learn better in mixed-ability groups. Children learn more from each other in the classroom than they learn from their teachers.”

In any classroom, students who are slower at reading or arithmetic will learn, in part, from their peers. They are less intimidated by friends than teachers and therefore ask questions more freely. Students whose skills are more developed, meanwhile, learn from teaching their peers.

This sort of learning is largely precluded when students are divided on the basis of academic ability, Rampal suggests.

One of the schools The Wire visited. Credit: Ketan Krishna

A Sarvodaya Co-Ed school in Delhi. Credit: Ketan Krishna

Criticism from teachers

A teacher of Classes I-VI from a Delhi government school said, on the condition of anonymity, “It is true that division of students on the basis of ‘ability’ hurts their learning. I have noticed that with my students. Children learn more from their peers than from anyone else. It is wrong to deprive them of that opportunity.”

During the summer programs, teachers were asked to divide students on the basis of their mathematical ability into three categories – students who can recognise numbers 0-9, students who can recognise numbers 10-99 (in addition to 0-9), students who can also recognise numbers greater than 99.

“That betrays a very flawed grasp of how numbers are learned,” the teacher said. “Students do not learn to recognise numbers in a linear fashion. A student might recognise the number 15, for example, because her birthday is on the 15th, but might not recognise 0 or 9. In general, students learn 0 later than other numbers. It’s neither feasible nor desirable to try to neatly sort students into such categories.”

Mission Buniyad’s primary aim was to increase the number of readers in primary school. Yet its implementation was marred, the teacher said, by the government’s desire for results that could be shown off.

Also Read: Neither Private Schools nor Technology Will Solve India’s Learning Crisis

Teachers were asked to track the number of students up to Class VI who could read, and given rising monthly targets for that number. But the means of evaluation were inadequate.

“Children who could just sound the words out when faced with a sentence were classified as readers,” the teacher said. “The government did not lay any emphasis on genuine comprehension, which is much harder to teach.”

Something similar has occurred with parent-teacher meetings. Their attendance has risen (largely due to radio and other advertising), but the focus on numbers and data has partially backfired, the teacher said.

Because teachers are tasked with ensuring, say, that they meet ten parents every hour (while simultaneously recording who and how many), they are unable to pay as much attention to what’s being discussed in the meetings.

One of the schools The Wire visited. Credit: Ketan Krishna

A government school in Delhi. Credit: Ketan Krishna

Genuine progress or fetish for data?

“We only separate children because there’s an absolute need to,” said Atishi, the AAP Lok Sabha candidate for East Delhi, and former education advisor to Manish Sisodia. “A child who cannot do basic addition cannot be expected to flourish in a classroom where the material is much further beyond addition. That child must be taken aside and taught how to add first. That is all we did with Mission Chunauti and Mission Buniyad.”

Even so, this is at odds with the ‘inclusive education’ principles of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, which said:

Labelling an individual student or a group of students as learning disabled etc. creates a sense of helplessness, inferiority and stigmatisation . . . Differences between students must be viewed as resources for supporting learning rather than as a problem.

In its effort to revolutionise the quality and promise of government schools, the AAP is compelled to push for numbers – better numbers of children who can read or add, of parents attending parent-teacher meetings, of teachers who have been sent abroad for training, and so on.

The thrust of the criticism of these measures is that numbers can become a fetish – and may not faithfully reflect what is learned or lost in more inclusive, less efficient classrooms.