A key plank of the AAP strategy in the poll-bound states of Punjab, Gujarat and Goa has been to showcase its work in the education sector of Delhi. Ever since Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal doubled the budgetary allocation for education, there is a widespread perception that the education sector is being transformed. The basis of this perception is unclear. Is it the multiple full-page advertisements by the Delhi government publicising routine events like parent-teacher meetings or the glowing news reports on summer camps, held in a fraction of Delhi government schools, with mixed success?
The changes in education in Delhi can be roughly categorised into four areas: Infrastructure; administrative reforms; curriculum; and teachers. Building new schools and classrooms is a good thing and the AAP deserves credit for whatever has been done in this area. However, the other three areas are fraught with arbitrary heavy-handedness. Take, for instance, the much publicised “reform”, Chunauti 2016, in which students are segregated into groups based on their “basic learning skill”.
One group for failed students called vishwaas, another for likely failures nishtha, and the “good kids”in pratibha. Educationists agree that creating this sort of hierarchy among students is discriminatory, damages their psyche and harms the learning environment. Teachers speak of how students, even if they did not understand the purpose of this division, were aware that one group is better and pleaded to be put in that section. One teacher spoke of how some teachers used the permission to segregate students by deciding to send the “naughty” ones to the failing group. Imagine the repercussions for girls being put in the failed group if their parents are disinclined to continue their education in the first place.
Another “reform” is the supplanting of official textbooks for class VI-IX by a new set of books called Pragati brought out in conjunction with the NGO Pratham. These books are significantly shorn of progressive content required to shape young minds. While Shailendra Sharma of Pratham who is advising Delhi government has held that these books are supplementary in nature, a circular issued by the Directorate of Education in March makes it clear that “in place of the regular curriculum … revision as per booklets to be provided by DoE … will be done in the month of April and May”. Following this directive did not leave time to cover the regular text, so the directorate dispatched another circular on “focused syllabus” which picked a few topics in each subject from the official text to be covered in the remaining time. It is clear that the Delhi government, with schools affiliated to CBSE, cannot unilaterally change the curriculum but it has done so.
Teacher training has also been overhauled under the tutelage of Pratham and Creatnet. Two hundred mentor teachers were selected and sent for life skills training called “jeevan vidya” which describes its philosophy as an “excellent combination of psychology, parapsychology and metaphysics”. Another publicised promise by the Delhi government was that teachers would not be given administrative duties.
However, in the recently held municipal by-elections in Delhi, teachers were enlisted for election-related work. While it is true they were enlisted by the Election Commission, it does not appear that the Delhi government either demurred or provided alternatives. The one area of reform which is much needed is to fill teacher vacancies — approximately 12000 as per Shailendra Sharma — but it appears to be sputtering so far.
Reform such as putting CCTV cameras in all classrooms treats teachers like assembly line workers and strengthens the perception of an antagonistic relationship between teachers and students. Hundred-odd principals have also been sent to Harvard and Cambridge for leadership training, indicating a disembodied conception of “leadership”, in which structural issues and context are irrelevant. There are other initiatives which jar: Schools have large flexes of the Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia smiling benignly alongside an anodyne quote on education. The purpose of the flexes is clear and militates against critical thinking, which is the purpose of education.
It is possible to take different views on the above changes. However, many of these changes run counter to legislative (RTE) and policy (NCF 2005) frameworks arrived at after widespread consultations. It was incumbent on the Delhi government to at least put out a white paper on its approach to education to allow for informed and participatory public opinion. Moreover, the Delhi government appears to have outsourced large parts of the education department to private organisations. Thousands of new positions have been created; yet their job description, salaries etc have not been made public. Some have conjectured that many of these positions are an exercise in cadre creation.
All of these worries can be allayed with proactive transparency, a cause one presumes is dear to the chief minister, a former RTI activist. The last two years have shown that changes in education are political in nature. The rhetoric of good intentions alone cannot give a government carte blanche to overhaul the education sector. Transparency and a consultative approach remain non-negotiable.