Political Change and Education Reforms
Lessons from Delhi under the Aam Aadmi Party Government
V. Santhakumar, Nimrat KD Khandpur, and Shraddha Jain
It is clear that political parties when they come to power, effect educational changes characterized by the opportunities and limitations encountered by them. Needless to mention that the class and ideological character of the political party in power would have a bearing on the nature of educational reforms. For example, the parties that draw strength from the under-class may enhance access to educational institutes and the so-called neoliberal states may focus on efficiency in the delivery of education (even by focusing on privatization as a strategy). However, all forms of political push for educational reforms are characterized by certain contingencies and hence, not all reforms may be congruent with what educationists endorse. It is in this context that we look at the reforms in school education carried out by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the state of Delhi1.
This report is based on discussions with different stakeholders like senior officials of the Directorate of Education; political workers who have a role in the reforms; parents, students and a set of teachers in government schools. We have also consulted a couple of external organisations, including an NGO and a non-profit foundation of a corporate, which work towards improving the quality of teaching in government schools. In addition, we have visited a set of schools both under the Delhi government and those run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) that serves as the feeder school for those run by the Delhi government.
2. Review of literature
There is a long-standing interest among scholars and commentators on the relationship between political change and educational change. This is an important aspect of the history of education2. How different political regimes have contributed to the spread of literacy in different parts of the world has been documented. There is an argument that it is the absence of political will that works against meaningful changes in education (and not the issues in curriculum or processes related to school)3. A poor state of educational affairs and its underlying political factors have also been written about. The ideological and class positions behind specific educational reforms, such as a focus on the privatization of schooling, have also been analysed. So, it would be interesting to look at the package of education reforms introduced fairly vigorously in Delhi by the AAP which came to power in 2014.
3. Introduction to AAP
The Aam Aadmi Party has its origins in the agitation against corruption by several civil society organisations at the beginning of 2010. That was also the time when the ruling regime at the centre was facing a series of allegations of major financial irregularities. The then government in Delhi was also mired in scams involving the organization of the Commonwealth Games. The agitation, led by Anna Hazare (the Gandhian who led this Satyagraha model of agitation) and supported by the current leaders of AAP, like Arvind Kejriwal, at that time, captured the nation’s attention and attracted large sections of the middle-class in the cities (its impact in India’s rural constituencies is uncertain).
Arvind Kejriwal and a set of his associates later broke away from Anna Hazare and founded the Aam Aadmi Party (common man’s party) to contest the assembly election in Delhi in 2013. Though they won a good number of seats, they did not get a majority, which led to instability and its collapse soon thereafter. However, AAP stitched together an election strategy to attract the poorer sections of the society along with its loyal sections among the middle class concerned with the issues of corruption and poor governance and could come back to power in Delhi with a thumping majority in 2015. Improvements in education and healthcare were part of AAP’s election manifesto. This is the political background of the education reforms that have been attempted since 2016.
4. Delhi’s education system
Most of the government secondary schools in Delhi (from grade VI) are controlled by the Delhi government. A subset of these schools, called Sarvodaya Vidyalayas, have primary grades too. However, the majority of the primary schools are under different autonomous local authorities, primarily the MCD, which govern different parts of the city of Delhi. Delivery of early childhood education in the public sector, like in the other parts of India, is in the form of Anganwadis financed by the state and the central governments. However, from 2017 onwards, pre-school has been introduced in all schools, both those managed by the MCD and the Delhi government. Apart from the government schools, there are different categories of private schools (known as public schools here). Of these, the low budget schools generally cater to the children from less privileged backgrounds. Juxtaposed with these are a large number of schools from pre-school to grade XII, a majority catering to children from extremely privileged backgrounds. Table 1 below details the kind and number of schools in Delhi categorized by management.
S.No. Management Number
1 *Government schools 2789
2 *Private schools 2936
3 #Delhi government schools 1017
4 #Municipal Corporation schools 1664
5 #Other schools (aided and unaided – Delhi government & Municipal Corporation; Cantonment Board; run by Department of Social Welfare & Jamia Millia Islamia) 3004
6 #Central Government 46
Source: *DISE 2016-17. Elementary Education. State Report Card
#Praja Foundation. (2017). State of Public (School) Education in Delhi.
The number of teachers in Delhi (reported in DISE 2016-17) is 138,849, with 76,010 and 64,659 in government and private schools, respectively. Of the teachers in government schools, 20,000 were reported to be ‘guest teachers’ (contract teachers) during our interaction with officials of the Delhi government.
The enrolment in government schools is relatively high. This could be due to the inflow of migrant population which does not belong to the middle or the upper-middle-class and cannot afford private schooling; children from adjacent Noida and Ghaziabad of Uttar Pradesh (not Haryana, which shares its border too) may also be enrolled in schools in Delhi. Also, there is a perception that there are not many low-budget/low-fee private schools beyond the primary level, which could also be the reason for the persistence of higher enrolment in government schools.
Most government schools run two shifts – mornings for one set of children (girls) and afternoon for another set (boys). These ‘shifts’ only share the same premises, for all other purposes, they are two schools with two different set of school leaders and teachers. It is obvious that Delhi has inherited a complex system of school education. Several parents disclosed that they prefer private schools (fee ranging between Rupees 1000-1500) only for the initial years, till grade V, citing two main reasons, first, they want a sound education base for their children and second, they cannot afford a private school for higher standards4.
5. Education reforms in Delhi
The challenges faced by the government schools in Delhi were clearly known before the commencement of reforms. The infrastructure was in poor condition. The operation of two schools in the same premises with minimal coordination between them and the lack of staff were the major contributors to this situation. There was no proper upkeep of the facilities and school Principals did not have enough time to coordinate with different government departments to facilitate the maintenance of buildings. Children, who come from poor and vulnerable backgrounds may not use the facilities (like toilets and fans) appropriately causing frequent wear and tear.
Dropping out in secondary grades was another problem, especially in slums where the urban poor live (Tsujita, 2009). The issue of poor learning achievements was also evident from the National Achievement Surveys and those conducted by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). There were not enough regular teachers, which led to the appointment of ‘guest teachers’ (on contract) who were underpaid. The syllabus was mechanistically divided into parts to be completed each week, stipulated and monitored by the Directorate and the focus of teachers was its completion. This drove them to go ahead at the pace of those students who could achieve the weekly objectives, and a majority of the students got left-behind and did not receive adequate attention. Though the `no detention’ policy would enable them to progress up to grade IX, poor learning in lower grades could lead to failure in higher grades. Thus, the pass percentage in grade X was less than 50% and many children were liable to drop out in these grades. Most of the dropouts were from poor and vulnerable backgrounds.
The failure of the government schools on these accounts further enhanced the aspirational status of parents to use private schools. This is akin to indirect privatization brought about through the neglect of government schools (Mooiji and Jalal, 2009).
This was the depressing state of schooling that the AAP government inherited when it came to power a second time in 2015. The 70-point election manifesto of the party, developed through public consultations held over three months included a commitment to ‘ramp-up government schools to provide quality education’, and to build 500 new schools to focus on secondary and senior secondary education. Hence, the AAP government initiated a number of reforms, aimed at improving several aspects of public schooling. These reforms are driven by a core team comprising members of the Directorate; the Director, State Council for Education Research and Training (SCERT); and, the Education Minister.
While not implemented at the same time, multiple strategies were adopted – refurbishing the infrastructure, school leadership development, strengthening school-community linkages through reviving and empowering School Management Committees (SMCs), teacher support structures, and improving learning outcomes. There is a detailed documentation of these different activities5, we take up briefly, in the following sections, four major reforms – infrastructure development, enhancing school-based teacher support structures, improving learning outcomes through an ability-based grouping of students, and the happiness curriculum.
Before we go into the details of these, a quick mention of some other reforms.
- A small set of schools are being developed as ‘Model Schools’ in terms of infrastructure, with five being promoted as ‘Schools of Excellence’. The latter are being provided with greater support and carefully selected teachers and school leaders from among a group of highly motivated volunteers. The quality of these schools is evidenced from the decision of a university academic to withdraw his child from a private school and admit her to a Delhi government-managed School of Excellence. The reason for his choice was primarily the difference in perspectives on education between the school leader and teachers of the School of Excellence and those of the private schools he had engaged with. While initial admission to the Schools of Excellence is based on criteria such as proximity of residence, followed by a lottery, if necessary; admission to classes IX and XI is through a merit list based on a screening/entrance examination, followed again by a lottery, if necessary.
- Summer camps for the children were organized by the government during the summer vacation of 2018. Such summer programs are usually only available to those who can afford to pay.
- A time-bound campaign, called, Mission Buniyaad, was launched to teach reading and numeracy to all the children in grades III to IX in Delhi government and MCD-managed schools who were found to be weak in this regard.
- An online capacity-building program for teachers has been implemented by SCERT with the intent of reaching large numbers of teachers.
5.1 Infrastructure Development
The Delhi government has increased the allocation of public resources for education to around 25% of the state expenditure. A major part is of it reported to have been used for infrastructure development. The key aspects of infrastructure development include the construction of 21 new school buildings and the addition of 8000 classrooms, with the plan to add 10,000 more sanctioned in 2017. A substantial allocation of the financial resources has been for a library in each school with a small collection of books for each age-group; an effort to upgrade the infrastructure in 54 model schools and also a provision for creating laboratories with modern facilities.
Since Principals had to spend a substantial amount of time in following up with different government departments for obtaining and maintaining school infrastructure, which affected their other duties as school heads, the government has authorized them to appoint an estate manager to take care of these duties.
Infrastructure facilities for sports have been developed in different parts of the city and students are encouraged to participate in sports. We discussed the plans for infrastructure development and the actual implementation with all the stakeholders. Even those who are critical of certain other aspects of the educational reforms, acknowledge the improvement in the quality of infrastructure. We also saw these in the schools we visited. Classrooms are clean with adequate tables and chairs and functioning fans. The focus on maintenance of infrastructure and the appointment of estate managers are important steps, given the large number of children who attend the schools and the use of the same premises for two schools (shifts).
5.2 Enhancing school-based teacher support structures
The Delhi government has attempted to put in place a structure which facilitates linkages across all levels, in an attempt to decentralize teacher support from being located in the SCERT or the DIET to being an ongoing school-based process. Along with the existing modes of teacher support provided by the SCERT, DIET, Block and Cluster Resource Coordinators, the government appointed ‘Mentor Teachers’ and ‘Teacher Development Coordinators’ (TDCs) to further facilitate the processes of teacher support and professional development.
The concept of the ‘Mentor Teacher’ constitutes the selection of teachers among peers to provide on-site support to teachers, with each Mentor being responsible for five to six schools. Mentor Teachers, who are Trained Graduate Teachers (TGT) teaching at the secondary level, are appointed for a period of two years. No incentives are offered to them, except opportunities for further exposure and professional growth. While they are fulfilling these responsibilities, a guest teacher is sanctioned to fill-in at the school from which the Mentor has been pulled out. Around 200 teachers were selected from the 1000 teachers who volunteered, through a day-long process involving psychometric testing, interviews by psychologists, group discussions and interviews. Geographical matching, in terms of proximity of mentors’ residence to schools, was also a criterion.
From the initial batch of mentors, about half have been replaced by a new set and the older mentors have gone back to teaching in their schools. While in the first batch of mentors, contract teachers were included, the current batch has only regular teachers. The current set of mentors includes teachers from both the first and second batch.
The role of each mentor teacher evolved in response to their experiences with schools since there was no set mandate given to them. The broad expectation was to visit schools, facilitate and attend meetings, observe classrooms, talk to teachers, understand the teaching-learning processes and offer suggestions where needed, determine teacher needs, and facilitate access to support material. The Mentors also facilitate the workshops organized for teachers by the SCERT.
The capacity-building of mentors involved an orientation to life skills (Jeevan Vidya), and training in communication and facilitation, observation, giving feedback sensitively and constructively. All the mentors in the first batch, who were regular teachers, have been on exposure visits to at least one of the following – the National Institute of Education in Singapore, Harvard and Cambridge Universities, and also to notable centres of learning in India, including the Indian Institutes of Management.
In order to facilitate this process of teacher support further, in each school, a teacher is designated as the TDC, who functions as a link between teachers and the mentor, DIETs and the SCERT. The core idea behind this is that the ‘facilitation should be local’ as far as possible. Since the Mentor could only visit the school once a week, the TDC would be a more immediate anchor for academic matters. However, the TDCs are not directly involved in capacity-building but are facilitators for academic meetings, the work of the Principal and the dissemination of communication.
We saw the work of mentors and teacher coordinators in schools. Our detailed interview with one of them (randomly chosen) indicates that she is highly motivated; she clearly articulated the challenges encountered in schooling in Delhi, and also seemed sensitive to the need for facilitating better educational practices in schools without hurting the ego and sentiments of teachers. Her exposure visits (Singapore and USA, as a Fulbright scholar) have broadened her vision and enhanced her motivation, and we could see her emerging as a remarkable education practitioner. The other five Mentor Teachers we interacted with also reported that their professional growth was greatly enhanced by the experience. Although processes are now ‘smooth’, they shared that it took time to establish the mechanism that is in place now. There are also social media networks (Google groups and predominantly, WhatsApp groups) comprising Mentor Teachers, TDCs and officials involved in monitoring and resolving issues.
5.3 Grouping and teaching based on learning achievements
Given the fact that only 50% of students passed grade IX when AAP came to power, a major part of the education reforms was aimed at bridging the gap in terms of learning for those children who lag behind. Many students in grade VI did not have basic literacy and numeracy. A circular of the Delhi Directorate attributes the reasons based on discussions with stakeholders, as, ‘no detention policy’; years of accumulated learning deficit; pressure on teachers to complete the syllabi leading to inability to bring weaker children to the desired level; and above all, huge variance in basic skills like reading and writing within a single classroom.
Although reading interventions were implemented initially by setting aside periods specifically for it during the school day, a baseline assessment carried out as part of the reforms showed that only 56% of children could read the texts appropriate for their grades. The government decided to group children according to their ability in August 2016; the program was termed ‘Chunauti’.
The students of grades VI, VII and VIII were grouped into three categories (Pratibha, Nishtha, and Neo-Nishtha) based on their proficiency in foundational learning skills, like reading and doing basic mathematical operations. The objective was to support their learning by addressing the learning deficit in either/both reading and mathematics. This initiative was limited to schools managed by the Delhi government; the MCD schools were not included in these efforts at improving foundational skills until this year.
The criteria for grouping and difference in exposure to the set curriculum were: (i) Pratibha – children who had grade-appropriate competencies in reading and mathematics, in which case the full curriculum was implemented; (ii) Nishtha – children who demonstrated some of the grade-appropriate competencies; part of the curriculum was reduced with the focus on fundamentals; and (iii) Neo-Nishtha – the remaining children, for who the focus was only on reading, writing and mathematics.
Different types of question papers were used to assess the progress of the three categories of students throughout the academic year. A separate paper was developed for the Neo-Nishtha group; the Nishtha and Pratibha groups had a common section, with the latter having an additional section. A child in the lower groups was required to move to the next group after meeting the pre-defined criteria for each. This process is online and each child has been assigned a unique identification number based on his/her school, class and group.
While teachers are trained to meet the needs of the different categories of children, specialized content was also developed to meet this differential learning system. A set of supplementary learning materials called, the Pragati series, was developed to facilitate this process. Although we have not analysed the materials, relevant stakeholders, including developers, shared that these materials have tried to avoid the ‘overlap in concepts’ in the conventional textbooks and have also used a simpler language and context-specific examples. The Pragati series was frequently revised, and the fifth edition is in use currently, prepared largely by Mentor Teachers. Even in the implementation of the ability grouping, the coordination by the Mentor Teachers was important as they could convey the purpose clearly.
In April 2018, Mission Buniyaad (which focused on the foundational competencies in Hindi and mathematics) was launched, which lasted till September in most schools – it was initially planned for three months but some children did not come back from their vacations on time, despite the program being widely publicized through the media. The MCD schools were also included in the Mission Buniyaad. A number of children have transitioned to higher proficiency through these processes; the Neo-Nishtha group has been done away with. However, there are debates on the appropriateness of this method, which we will discuss later.
5.4 The Happiness curriculum
One of the key stakeholders we spoke to stressed that the main objective of the ‘happiness curriculum’ is to help children become mindful – ‘fully here’ – through developing grasping power and perception. The assumption is that this, in turn, will reinforce their learning. Happiness is seen as a separate curricular area with its own content. The curriculum has been developed by teachers with support from the DIET and select NGOs. One of the DIETs in Delhi has a cell for Human Values/Critical Thinking and Transformation, which has developed a course to prepare students of the D El Ed program to implement this curriculum (the SCERT too has a cell for Human Values and Transformative Learning).
The happiness curriculum is implemented from nursery to grade VIII. Although no text has been created for children, teachers’ manuals have been prepared, and are being distributed in 1800 schools. A ‘Happiness Coordinator’ has been appointed in each school; and, regular teachers are expected to transact the curriculum after an orientation. The MCD schools are not a part of this. The capacity of teachers was built through participation in the Jeevan Vidya (life skills) training held at Madhyasth Darshan- Jeevan Vidya in Durg, Chhattisgarh.
A member of the core team working on the curriculum explained that the Happiness Curriculum is not connected to any other subject content, and its pedagogy is reflection. The content is different from anything tried before and the focus is on mindfulness, stories, reflection, activities and expression.
The implementation has challenges as evidenced by the entirely different interpretations of the curriculum by teachers we interacted with in two different schools. A team is closely observing the implementation and providing support to ensure the curriculum is implemented as intended. We have not undertaken an analysis of this curriculum, but a brief look during one of the school visits reveals that three sets of teachers’ manuals have been developed – for Nursery to grade II, grades III to V, and grades VI to VIII.
Based on our observations and interactions with different stakeholders, we highlight certain persisting challenges in improving school education in Delhi in the following sections.
6. Challenges in terms of infrastructure and pupil-teacher ratio
Though there is a visible improvement in the quality of infrastructure, there are persisting challenges in this regard. In general, the land in this metropolitan area is scarce, which limits the availability of space in schools and the expansion possibilities. This is also the main reason for using the same premises for running two schools. We have noted that the demand for government schools is very high in Delhi and hence, the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) is very high and we could see classrooms with 60-65 children. The statistics also note higher PTR in Delhi compared to Kerala, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. There is a scarcity of teachers even after considering the number of guest teachers available. Though the AAP government has increased the salary of guest teachers, there are procedural hurdles in recruiting more regular teachers. Hence, the scarcity of teachers and the difficulty in making more space available for schools may continue to be the crucial challenges. This problem will intensify if, in future, these schools continue to improve prompting sections of the middle-class who currently use private schools, as well as, those from the adjoining cities of Uttar Pradesh like Noida and Ghaziabad to move to these schools.
7. Challenges in the teacher mentoring process
It is our observation that the teacher mentoring and connected processes do work well on certain counts and encounter challenges in others. As noted earlier, most of the Mentor Teachers have developed a positive attitude and are trying to bring about a change in the system without following an `inspector raj’ or a top-down monitoring culture. Many teachers have also appreciated the efforts of mentors and the trainings. There are other teachers who think that the focus should not be on the learning and change in teachers, since the problems in school education are due to other factors, such as high PTR, no detention policy and so on. However, the majority does not seem to share this pessimistic view.
In a meeting of teachers, where a couple of them expressed strong reservations about mentoring, there were others who made appreciative remarks. As university academics, our impression is that school teachers as a group are more open to peer-based learning. This is the experience of other education practitioners including those in the Azim Premji Foundation which is facilitating the creation of different kinds of platforms for peer-learning among teachers.
The kind of challenges the mentors have faced are varied across schools and a few of them have reportedly dropped out. The half-a-dozen mentors we interacted with had different narratives around the relationships they negotiated with schools and the modality of support they could offer. Though the mentors do not get any additional financial assistance, the exposure visits and other opportunities available not only to them but also to nearly one thousand school Principals and another thousand TDCs can create certain aspirations among the teaching community as a whole – to be a Mentor Teacher. However, the long-term sustainability and the impact of the exposure visits are uncertain.
8. Ability-based grouping and differential curriculum
This is the most contested part of the education reforms pursued in Delhi6. Though there is a history of using such ability-based groupings in countries such as the UK7, this is an issue which has attracted the attention of researchers at the international level8. The ability-based grouping has been criticized by a number of academic educationists. This was conveyed to us in our discussion with a few education researchers and those who lead these reforms. The lower learning achievements of a substantial (if not the majority) number of children is a reality. That there is a dire need to improve the learning achievements of these children is accepted by everybody but this method is contested by most. The government of Delhi has gone ahead with the ability-based grouping and the use of a differential curriculum.
Though we have heard that a section of students seems to have acquired basic proficiencies through this process, our impression is that (a) it may have created certain negative impacts through the labelling of children which persist outside the school; and (b) there could have been other better strategies to improve the learning achievements of the children who lag behind. Whether those who have passed through the `diluted’ curriculum and `simplified’ tests will be able to meet the learning requirements of grade IX (when all students have to write the same test) is a major concern too.
We interacted with a set of teachers who note that there could have been better strategies to support students who start secondary grades with a lower proficiency. Mixed-ability grouping and peer-based support where both highly and not-so proficient children are put in the same group is cited by a set of teachers as one alternative. This view is supported by other academics and practitioners of education. This is also the view of scholars who criticize the strategy of `Teaching at the Right Level’ – a strategy advocated by a number of organizations.
9. Stakeholders view of the reforms
There are mixed responses from teachers, and our impression is that the majority is not against the overall focus of reforms. We have been told that the increase in the salary of guest/contract teachers implemented by the AAP government has created a support base among them. Most teachers whom we spoke to expressed the need to improve the status of school education in Delhi and have supported one or the other steps taken by the government. This seems to be the case with the officers of the Directorate of Education too who have been serving in the state for many years. But there are dissenting voices too. As noted earlier, some have not liked the idea of mentoring saying it is not the teachers who have to be `taught’ but the students. There are others who are critical of the ability-based grouping and differential curriculum. A few others are sceptical of the role that is assigned to and expected from, parents and forums, such as the SMCs. However, we see teachers, by and large, cooperating with the education reforms that are being carried out in Delhi. When asked what has changed since the reforms started, a group of otherwise critical teachers pointed to a 30-40% improvement in those students who attend school regularly and the positive effect of the Mission Buniyaad program during the summer vacation. Parental involvement is greater, and networking (between peers, with officials, etc) has increased greatly. The discourse around schools has started and mechanisms for personal involvement, for academic involvement, have increased.
Our limited interactions with parents and students indicate that there is an overwhelming appreciation of the overall effort and focus of the reforms. The effort to bring in parents to schools through mega PTMs also may have played an important role in enhancing their stake in government schools. The ground-level workers of AAP play an important role in enabling this parent-school connection. Most parents appreciate the investments in infrastructure and other facilities (though they may want to have further improvements). Infrastructural development in the government schools has, in a way, created popularity for the AAP government. One parent remarked that the government schools look like ‘five-star hotels’. However, there are a set of parents, children and other stakeholders who seemed anxious about the ability-based grouping and differential curriculum.
We noticed two major changes, there is a greater concern about education even among poor parents, and there is a higher level of hope and optimism in government schools. These could be the most notable achievements of education reforms in Delhi.
10. The readiness to reform education
It is important to note that the AAP government has demonstrated a strong interest in providing better-quality education and healthcare in a manner accessible to the majority of its population. This has not been the case with all political parties that have been in power in India if we take a historical view. Although, now almost all political parties are focussing on enhancing the access to and quality of education and healthcare, which is an outcome of a political process where not only the enhancement of economic activities but also the improvement in the social sector has become an important part of the political and electoral agenda. This is part of the democratization process whereby the issues of human development too capture the attention of political parties and governments along with that of economic growth. In that sense, AAP’s agenda reflects the current status in terms of the overall political transition in India.
11. The ideological commitment to strengthen government schools
There are different views regarding the role of government schools in the discourse on education reforms9. There is a strong view among centrist political parties, economists and a set of education reformers that it would be difficult to improve the effectiveness of government schools, which is reflected in the exodus to private schools. They advocate different mechanisms to enhance the competition to government schools, say, by enhancing the choice available to parents through school vouchers. The clause in the Right to Education (RTE) Act in India which seeks to reserve 25% of seats in private schools for children from the economically weaker sections can also be interpreted as part of the strategy to use private schools to provide quality schooling for the poor. (Delhi had this provision in private schools even before the passing of the RTE Act since these schools got their land from the government at concessional rates of leasing.) The AAP government has made provisions to ease the implementation of this particular clause in the RTE Act.
However, AAP has gone beyond its political position and has shown a clear commitment to strengthen government schools. This is evident from the substantial investment in improving the infrastructure and the other attempts to improve the quality of schooling. A key stakeholder in the Directorate has also noted this commitment. Some of the NGOs which support the education reforms have an ambivalent view on the role of the government versus private schools, but this does not seem to have influenced the approach of the AAP government. Another state in India where such an interest to strengthen government schools exists is Kerala, but there the power and influence of teacher trade unions on left-of-centre political parties have played an important role in this regard. The AAP does not have this kind of connection with organized teacher trade unions, although some teachers reportedly backlashed initially particularly with regard to the enhanced participation of the SMCs.
Though the origin of AAP is rooted in anti-corruption agitations, which may have been shaped initially by the interests of the middle-class, it has also made a conscious choice to align with the lower-middle class and the (urban) poor during the last elections. This may have contributed to its focus on issues of education and healthcare, and also to the need to strengthen government schools which the majority of the poor (and the lower middle class) use in Delhi. In that sense, the nature of education reforms that AAP has attempted is quite in tune with the class character of its constituencies.
12. Enabling and disabling factors in Delhi
It is important to note that there are specific advantages and disadvantages in Delhi being a ‘city-state’ with a concise geographical area. It has only around one thousand schools, which enables monitoring by the Minister and other government functionaries. We were told that the Minister of Education visits a number of schools on his own and has interacted with parents (or local party workers) and through this process, he gets information even without the help of the Directorate of Education. Given the specific nature of the Delhi government, it does not have to spend public resources for many sectors or schemes. For example, it does not have a significant rural area, agricultural sector or farming community so unlike other state governments, it does not have to spend a substantial share of resources for programs like writing off loans. Hence, Delhi can devote resources to education and healthcare. Also, the central government takes care of many other activities like policing, because of which the financial burden on the Delhi state is reduced. Moreover, the citizens of the Delhi state also, on an average, have higher levels of income (compared to many other states of India), which too may enhance the availability of resources.
The disadvantages are well-known too. The state government does not enjoy complete autonomy as is the case of other state governments in India. (The conflict between the current Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor has been much publicized). This creates procedural hurdles in many activities, including the appointment of teachers. Given the urban nature and geographical location, Delhi attracts migrants from all over India (especially from the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh which is not performing well in terms of human development). This increases the demand for education in Delhi, which in turn, can add to the burden on the Delhi government. Ironically, a betterment of the status of schools here through education reforms and the investment by Delhi government may add to this demand from the neighbouring states. In summary, the education reforms which have taken place in Delhi are facilitated and constrained by these advantages and disadvantages.
13. Political and other contingencies shaping reforms
There are political factors that influence the nature of reforms. In the Indian democracy, where each party in power has to face election every five years, it may not get more than three years of ‘political window’ to try out reforms. The first year goes by in understanding and planning activities, and the last year in creating attractive communication strategies to win the next elections. This limited timeframe may influence the choice of strategies to be used as part of reforms. It is important for it to have visible results in a relatively short period. In our view, the use of certain strategies like a ‘simplified’ package to teach all children literacy and numeracy or the ability-based grouping and the use of a differential curriculum could have been driven by the concerns about political constraints. Such political compulsions may also determine the choice of people who are consulted and invited to participate in the planning and implementation of reforms.
Our impression is that the members of AAP who have started the reforms have reached out to set of academics and NGOs that have been working in the domain of education for a long time. Some of them may have involved themselves in the reform process for reasons such as the influence of ideology or the eagerness to associate with political and governmental processes. These processes have their own dynamics, twists, ups and downs, which many academics in liberal universities may not be inclined to be part of. In general, these reforms have depended on a set of ‘insiders’ (who have formal qualifications or longer years of experience in school education). It appears that these reforms have also assimilated the experience and knowledge of a particular organization, which has been measuring the learning achievements of children in different parts of India for a number of years and has also developed packages to improve the reading and numeracy skills of children in a fairly short time. Though there were attempts by them to get feedback of well-known educationists, these were not very successful.
Also, a set of non-governmental organizations have contributed to specific activities. There are different kinds of organizations in this set, including foundations which have been using their money to carry out specific interventions in selected schools, not necessarily as part of the reforms. This is the impression that we have got regarding the work of a non-profit foundation of a corporate. There are others who carry out specific activities as part of reforms (say the training of teachers/mentors on social science or mathematics education) by receiving financial compensation from the government. These organizations report bureaucratic and other hurdles in dealing with the government. The government officers in the education department seem to be open but not overly enthusiastic of the contribution of these external organizations.
It appears that the relationship between the party and the reformers on the one hand, and the academics, in general, is shaped by the political contingencies of the former, and the inability of the latter to understand and respond to the needs of such contingencies. Our impression is that reforms would have gained significantly from a wider consultation with academics on at least one issue, that is, on the ways to bridge the gap between the learning achievements of children with different levels of proficiencies. Instead, there is a divide between the perceptions of the reformers and independent academics (even those who appreciate the overall effort or focus of AAP on education) on this issue.
Overall, the education reforms initiated by AAP in Delhi are notable on various accounts. The commitment to improve public education by strengthening government schools is laudable and this is so especially since it is not driven or influenced by teacher trade unions. There have been significant improvements in infrastructure though there could be unresolved problems due to the specific features of Delhi. There is a substantial increase in the allocation of public resources for education, and there are enabling factors for Delhi in this regard.
The creation of Model Schools and Schools of Excellence may create certain inequality in terms of schools. This strategy could be useful if it is seen as a step by step process to improve the quality of all schools. Otherwise, there are model schools in the country (like the Navodaya Vidyalayas) and their presence has not improved the quality of schooling in the region as a whole.
The use of ability-based grouping and differential curriculum is an issue that requires critical analysis. One argument is that there are issues of significant duplication and clumsy use of language in the conventional textbooks, and the newer ones (the Pragati series) developed for children with lower learning achievements, have only overcome these. This needs to be verified through a content analysis of the new textbooks. If that were the case, the new textbooks should be used for all children (and there is already a move by the central government to reduce the academic burden on school students). The issue of labelling and disaggregation of students remains. Our impression is that better alternatives in this regard could have been explored, and it is possibly the political contingencies and inadequate consultations with different stakeholders (including academic educationists) that has led to this hasty, astigmatic decision.
V. Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.
Nimrat KD Khandpur, Associate Professor, School of Continuing Education and University Research Centre, Azim Premji University. Nimrat has been working in the area of education policy, teacher education and assessment, and has also contributed to teacher education curriculum development.
Shraddha Jain is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvanthpuram, Kerala.
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