No metro city is doing well in school education, but Mumbai and Delhi are easily the worst. One had expected that Delhi would turn the bend when a young political party came to power a year ago. It was anticipated that mistakes would be made before sense and sanity could be established. It now seems that Delhi’s road to learning will remain bumpy like the city’s real roads. We can extend the metaphor, covering the capital’s flyovers. Many of them were completed in a rush to meet the deadline for the Commonwealth Games. In its hurry to improve schools, the new government is ticking one arcane move after another. First it wanted to delete portions from textbooks in order to reduce the curriculum. Now it wants CCTV cameras installed in classrooms and some 90 principals sent to Cambridge for a 10-day training in leadership. Though politically correct, both ideas show desperation to show that something is being done. One didn’t expect that from a young party that has wide, if not deep, social roots.
If CCTVs could improve teaching standards, we would have seen a revolution by now in many schools which invested in this technology more than a decade ago. All they can lend is what we already have in plenty in our schools, namely control. The principals who will visit Cambridge will learn that their British counterparts have greater autonomy and freedom. And that message can’t be a pleasant surprise even if it is received in a cooler climate. Every principal in Delhi knows it already. Not just those serving in government schools, even private school principals are constantly controlled by the Directorate.
The idea that a school head has a mind and should therefore be given the space to exercise it is alien to the Indian system. Our system is based on the importance of controlling others who are placed below you. The hierarchy that puts the principal on top at school offers the right to be cussed and little else. A British principal selects her own teachers; a Delhi principal can’t select the cushion on her chair. No matter how prestigious a private school in Delhi is, its principal cannot choose to keep her school open on a day the Directorate wants it closed for political reasons. In government schools, you become a principal by seniority. No special criteria are used to decide who can serve as a principal. School administration is regarded as a generalised role associated with a rank attained through age. You attain the rank by ageing as a teacher, implying that when you become a principal, you will stop teaching. This trajectory has a symbolic meaning quite alien to Western schools. Administration is regarded there as a professional job, and so is teaching. And every level is equally respected, both in the system and the wider society. When our principals tell their hosts in Cambridge how the system works in Delhi, perhaps some of the hosts will hear an echo of history. They will realise that little has changed in India since colonial days in the organisation of teaching in schools.
According to news reports, our principals are being sent to Cambridge for “training”. The idea that senior hands can be trained to look at their job or role differently is quite problematic. An 8-10 day visit to Britain can at best give exposure to a different system, but it can hardly impart training. If the exposure arouses interest in how the British system works, that will be nice; but a greater outcome will be achieved if the visit lets our principals notice the problems Britain is facing in managing its schools. Such an outcome might encourage critical reflection, something we just don’t allow. Assuming that the British
system is better, an opportunity to examine the factors that make it better can be useful. But a week-long systemic comparison of this kind can hardly be called training in leadership. For that to occur, the participants would need the space to ask questions like these: “What space do I have to take decisions?” “How am I using that space?” “How do my colleagues perceive my role?”
You need leisure to reflect on such matters. You also need to be in your own setting. That’s why one wonders whether the Delhi government first considered an Indian institution for training its principals before choosing to send them to Britain. The decision to opt for offshore trainers is hardly puzzling in our age when patriotism is high but confidence is low. Apart from a lack of trust in our own institutions, there is blind faith in foreign institutions, especially the ones with names like Cambridge and Oxford.
It might have made more sense to send Delhi’s principals to London. A few of the problems that London faces looking after its vast and varied population of children are somewhat similar to those we face in Delhi. Aggressive behaviour is one such problem. British teachers are trained not to use physical force to contain aggression. This will surely intrigue our principals. So will the considerable autonomy British teachers enjoy in shaping the curriculum despite the changes that have made Britain’s broadly child-centred system increasingly test-driven.
It will be sad indeed if our principals return with mixed feelings about progressive practices that have barely begun to find space in our system. That space is already under threat from CCTV cameras. The Delhi government wants to install them in every classroom.
The writer, professor of education at University of Delhi, was director of NCERT from 2004 to 2010