Written by Karan Deep Singh
Pradeep Paswan used to skip school for weeks, sometimes months. His classrooms with tin ceilings were baking hot in the summer. The bathrooms were filthy.
Now, he gets dressed by 7 am, in a blue shirt and trousers, eager to go to school, in a new building where the toilets are clean. “I come to school because I know that I can become something,” said Paswan, 20, who is in the 12th grade and dreams of becoming a top officer in India’s elite bureaucracy.
In India, where millions of families look to education to break the cycle of poverty, public schools have long had a reputation for decrepit buildings, mismanagement, poor instruction, even tainted lunches. Paswan’s school, in a working-class Delhi neighbourhood, was known as “the red school,” for the regular brawls on campus and the colour of its uniforms.
Today, it is a highly sought-after school, a beneficiary of the broader transformation of Delhi’s education system. Last year, 100% of students in the school who took the standardised examinations for grades 10 and 12 passed, compared to 89% and 82% in 2014. The red uniforms have been swapped for navy blue and lavender.
The Aam Aadmi Party rose to power in Delhi on the promise to improve basic services: health, electricity, water and education. The party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who became Delhi’s chief minister in 2015, said he wanted to “revamp” the system to a point where government ministers would feel comfortable sending their children to public schools.
Kejriwal committed billions of additional dollars to overhaul schools, some of which until recently had no drinking water or had been invaded by snakes. The school system partnered with top experts and universities to design new curriculums, while working with parents, students and teachers to improve day-to-day operations.
“The first strong thing that Delhi has signalled is that our children are worth it, our schools are worth it and our teachers are worth it,” said Padma Sarangapani, a professor of education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
The school system is still a work in progress, with student-to-teacher ratios high in some schools and many buildings still in need of basic upgrades. But Kejriwal is finding success, announcing in December that 250,000 students had left private schools in the last five years to attend government schools. (Some of those moved to public schools because of pandemic-related losses in family income.)
Almost 100% of students who appeared for their final high school examinations last year passed, compared to 87% who appeared in 2012, according to data from the Delhi government. And other state governments, including Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are now pushing to adopt “the Delhi model.”
The work on education has helped generate solid political wins for the party, which in March gained control of a second state in India, Punjab. The party is taking its approach countrywide, campaigning on an education and basic-services platform in state elections this year in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
The transformation of Delhi’s schools started in 2015 with surprise visits by Manish Sisodia, Kejriwal’s education minister, and his chief adviser on education at the time, Atishi. The two would question school officials, pointing to rundown classrooms, misleading records and leaky taps.
“You would enter a school and you could smell the toilets from 50 meters away,” said Atishi, who goes by one name. “The message was that if the government can’t even clean schools, how is the government serious about education?”
The government enlisted private companies to clean hundreds of schools. It hired retired defense personnel as “estate managers” who oversaw repairs. The estate managers freed up school principals to focus on academic work.
Between 2015-21, the Delhi government spent about $10 billion (769 billion rupees) on the 1,037 schools it runs, which serve about 1.8 million students. That was more than double what the previous governments, which did not see education as an election-winning issue, spent in the previous seven years, according to data from the Delhi government.
The new money was used to build new classrooms, laboratories and running tracks, as well as to develop curriculums and create a new board of education.
Officials also tried to address a fundamental problem: a lack of trust between students, teachers and parents.
In 2016, the Delhi government set up school management committees, groups of parents, teachers and local officials that provided a platform for airing concerns and holding the government accountable.
In monthly meetings, school heads and teachers discussed achievements and problems, and sought consent for new purchases or repairs. The government allowed the committees to hire teachers on an interim basis during the long process to fill the posts permanently.
It also invested in the teaching staff. Some had been absent or left school in the middle of the day, or were even found knitting sweaters during classes, according to government officials.
Changing attitudes in a long-stagnant system required a different approach, said Sisodia, the education minister.
In the summer of 2016, the government held training sessions with more than 25,000 teachers. In addition to the usual subject-matter training, it selected teachers from within the public school system to offer training on the basics of teaching.
Those sessions focused on building a personal connection with students. For instance, teachers were encouraged to talk to students about their family backgrounds to understand if it impeded their ability to focus on class work.
“I felt empowered,” said Anita Singh, a teacher who took the course and went to a public school herself. “There was a realisation that, as a teacher, if I think about this carefully and make it a part of daily learning, the students will get the actual learning.”
A year later, the government sent one teacher from almost every school in the city for further training at world-class institutions, including the University of Cambridge and the National Institute of Education in Singapore.
“We got exposure, and I got more confidence,” said Atul Kumar, who attended a weeklong training session in London.
Until six months ago, Kumar was the head of Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, the public school where Paswan studies. Kumar said the school is now rejecting applications. Applicants far exceed the school’s capacity of 3,500 students, said Zennet Lakra, the vice principal.
One recent afternoon, Indu Devi, a parent, dropped by Lakra’s office to get her 17-year-old son, Sanjay Kumar, readmitted after nearly two years out of school. Devi, who works as a house cleaner, explained that the family had needed him to work during the pandemic.
“I want him to study in this school because it has a name,” she said. “I want him to do better than me.”
Aside from regular subjects, the students learn gardening and how to be happy and mindful, part of an effort to promote “humane values” and de-emphasise rote learning.
Delhi’s education system seems to be working, experts say. The city’s students achieved significantly better scores than their peers countrywide in English, science, mathematics and social sciences in 2017 and 2021, according to surveys by the Ministry of Education.
Still, challenges remain. Teachers and staff members complain about salaries and benefits that haven’t been increased in years. It’s also been tough to bring children back to school after two pandemic years.
At Paswan’s school, about 150 students have dropped out. Many who returned have “forgotten how to write their names,” Lakra said.
Around 1 am on a school night, Paswan, who works part-time as a garbage collector to earn money for his family, hauled his cycle cart filled with cardboard and plastic to the tiny shack where his family lives. He had been collecting and sifting through garbage bins at subway stations, salons and gyms for about six hours.
His body was tired and his eyes bloodshot, but instead of crawling into his hard bed, he opened his Sanskrit notebook to start reading.
“My school is helping me,” said Paswan, who at 20 is older than most of his classmates because he started school late and repeated a year. “I can dream of doing something big, a job of respect.”