By Apoorv Pathak:
India is a nation which likes to lament about how it’s destined glory eludes it due to a rotten polity which fails to live up to the aspirations of the ‘youngest’ nation. One such essential shortcoming has been the failure to realise the vital role of education in social change and prosperity. Too often our politicians ignore education as education is not seen as a vote winner. In any case, the system is considered to be rotten beyond redemption.
But at the heart of India, in its capital Delhi, an altogether different story with deep ramifications is unfolding. It is the story of one of the most comprehensive overhauls of education system anywhere in the world. It is a change we all should pay more attention to. Sadly, few even know about it. Perhaps it’s because transformation in the education system, though fundamental, is not glamorous enough to replace the Saas-bahu soap operas and astrology programmes. Still, it is a story that deserves to be told!
The story of what is happening in Delhi must be first situated in what the current state of the education system is in India. It is a picture of despair. We have far fewer schools than required especially in rural, remote and less prosperous regions. Thus, education is literally out of reach for a significant section of our population. We all remember tales of how our grandparents’ generation crossed rivers, walked long distances and braved unsafe paths to reach schools. Sadly, a disconcertingly large number of children of this generation also face the same grim reality!
The absence of schools in the vicinity is just the beginning of the travails for our less privileged countrymen. Their schools don’t have enough toilets and water taps (24.4% and 34.8% of schools didn’t have drinking water and usable toilets according to the ASER 2014 report); have a shortage of teachers (with only 49.3% schools complying with pupil-teacher ratio norms!); the teachers there are, are forced to do clerical work, have little autonomy and are lorded over by education department babus; teachers are poorly qualified and schools have neither a sufficient number of rooms nor enough basic amenities like desks, chairs, fans, blackboards, light, etc.
The focus of the crumbling system remains on somehow finishing the prescribed syllabus rather than initiating a process of discovery where our inherent curiosity is unleashed. No wonder there is an abject scarcity of a skilled workforce despite our huge population. There is very little innovation and even much smaller nations like Australia, whose population roughly equals that of Mumbai, outdo us in artistic, scientific and sporting achievements!
This situation of utter hopelessness is a result of constant under-investment in the public education system, faulty accountability mechanisms, lack of political will and deliberate undermining of the public education system for private vested interests of the political class that is growing rich by running its own private education institutes!
While even during the election campaign education featured high in the speeches of Kejriwal and other AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) leaders, one can’t be blamed for having taken the promises of transforming education with a pinch of salt. Politicians have a poor record of keeping election promises! But the AAP government’s actions since assuming power are heartening. The Delhi government has proceeded to completely overhaul the education system and initiated a slew of measures to transform the education system. Let’s dwell on these in some detail:
Firstly, in its very first budget, AAP doubled the budget for education to 9,836 crores, making education its topmost priority accounting for a whopping 25% of the total budget. By putting its money where its mouth is the Kejriwal government showed early in the day that it meant business insofar as its promise of fixing Delhi’s education system was concerned. While there are multiple steps needed and raising allocation is not a sufficient condition, it certainly is a necessary condition. Nothing can happen without the adequate availability of funds.
Secondly, generally, education is left to the care of bureaucrats to run in a lackadaisical manner with politicians only interfering to get their proxies appointed or to promote their ideological agendas. But AAP stands out for having placed education in the hands of young, passionate, competent and dedicated teams.
At its top is Dy. CM Manish Sisodia who is the education minister apart from handling many other crucial portfolios. Despite having several portfolios, he often concedes that education where his heart lies. He is ably assisted by Oxford Rhodes Scholar and activist Atishi Marlena who is education adviser to the government. On the policy input side, education is being handled by IIM B alumnus and Career Launcher founder Satya Narayanan who is taking time out from his renowned enterprise to advise the government on the various policy steps it should take to realise the aim of transforming education. This trio is assisted by over a dozen volunteers, whose passion again is unmissable (I have personally seen them logging in till late on the weekends too). Because of this team having been education activists in the past they find it easier to connect with the parents and children and foil the babudom’s scheme to stall any change in the status quo.
Thirdly, to address the infrastructure deficit over 8,000 classrooms have been added and will come into use from the upcoming season. This will significantly improve learning outcomes as students of different classes will have separate and spacious classes. The government also carried out a survey of all its 1,000 schools and assessed necessary amenities like water taps, toilets, blackboards, fans, etc. and made a grant to schools to ensure these amenities are made available. Now, if these are not available, school administration is liable to face action. The government has also emphasised adding auditoriums and sporting facilities to schools where they are not present. Opening up school grounds for children from the locality during evenings is also on the cards. The government has also initiated a project to build Mohalla libraries in different localities.
Fourthly, the government has taken a series of measures to empower teachers to be partners in this process of change. To address the problem of overworked teachers not being able to pay sufficient attention to the needs of children the government has initiated recruitment of over 10,000 teachers. It has also barred the use of teachers in non-teaching duties and recruited clerical staff to free teachers from such non-core duties. Furthermore, it has raised the allocation for teachers training from 9 crores to over 100 crores in the latest budget. This is crucial as in a world of rapid changes it is important that our teachers are trained adequately to grasp the changing nature of the society for which they have to prepare their students.
Also, the government is working to create a system where promising teachers can be groomed for leadership of schools. This will have the twin benefits of providing motivation to teachers to be better at their job so as to make it big and also creating an inspired school leadership which is really passionate about the role of schools in shaping society rather than ‘principalship’ being reduced to the last step of a teacher’s career. Underlying all the above steps regarding teacher management and empowerment lies a clear recognition that teachers are the irreplaceable centre of a well-functioning education system. The joy of being taught by a motivated teacher conscious of his/her role is indescribable. The value of teachers in creating a worthy society can rarely be overstated but is rarely understood in our current system. The Delhi government, by breaking out of this tradition of undermining teachers has made its aim of transforming the education system far more achievable!
Fifthly, our public education system is in shambles for no small fault of the over-centralised functioning of the apparatus. The schools have very little financial powers to solve their problem on their own without running to the education department for every small issue. This results in delayed decision-making. It creates an incentive against taking any proactive steps to fix pressing problems and demoralises the educationalists who are treated as inferiors by every sundry education department babu. Also, parents have very little say in the present system and they often keep complaining till the cows come home without any effect.
Here again, the Delhi government has initiated welcome changes. The powers of principals to take administrative and financial decisions without rushing to the education department have been enhanced. The principals are being sent on training programmes to Cambridge and IIM‘s to bring them to terms with the latest developments in education management and parental oversight and control of public schools have been enhanced. This last bit is critical and needs more elaboration. To improve transparency and accountability of schools, the government has reconstituted School Management Committees (comprising mainly of parents). By holding elections on an unprecedented scale, it is conducting their training and has enhanced their powers of oversight!
While we may be tempted in our elitist disdain to dismiss this as inconsequential, studies of most well-performing education systems bring out the vital role empowered and active SMC’s can play in ensuring that the functioning of schools is accountable. Every parent, literate or otherwise, cares more than anyone else whether their children are being taught properly or not. If they are given a voice in the management of schools, things like absent/missing teachers, fake expenditures and misappropriation of funds can be significantly curbed.
Last but not the least, the AAP government has repeatedly expressed its will to change the nature of our public education. According to it, education must not just be seen as a utilitarian necessity but in a broader sense, as an activity to be enjoyed which brings out our diverse interests and abilities and gives wings to our curiosity. In this regard, it is reducing the syllabus by 25% to give children more time for learning outside books. It is increasing the time and facilities for cultural, sporting and other extra-curricular activities and organising these extra-curricular activities at different levels much more frequently than ever before.
So, one can see that there is a comprehensive effort underway to fix the public education system in Delhi. There are certain lacunas which if addressed can make the transformation much more effective.
First, the teachers’ interface with technology and its use along with the dynamic nature of knowledge in the present ever changing world can be factored in their efforts.
Secondly, the tie-ups with young social entrepreneurs who are working in the same direction is much less than desirable. Take for example Unacademy, led by Roman Saini (a doctor from AIIMS who left the IAS), a platform for free video lessons on wide-ranging topics. It has over a crore views and has been among the biggest hits in the online education space. But, sadly, the government and Unacademy continue to work separately. If the government can tie up with more such private efforts, the aim of quality affordable education can be better attained.
Thirdly, in the government schools, graffiti, and other art forms should be deployed to make schools more attractive and a less dull place for children. Also, this will give a boost to artists who will get better platforms and also inspire our future generation to turn more towards creative work.
Fourthly, teaching in schools should pay more attention to freeing children of the prejudices and stereotypes regarding gender, caste, regions, etc. Perhaps the Delhi government can learn from the Telangana government which has initiated a course on gender sensitivity to sensitise people on gender-related issues. These are just four of the dozen suggestions that come to mind.
The point is, there can be many such suggestions from different people which the government should keep evaluating and adding to its agenda to make the whole process of education reform a dynamic process. Fortunately, the government’s interface with people outside it appears much more dynamic than previous governments. With more efforts, this aspect of interactive governance can also become another aspect for others to emulate.
Fine, Delhi may be on the cusp of fixing its education system, but why should we care? Aren’t things like Make in India, building highways and Swachh Bharat the kind of actions India really needs?
Many other nations that have escaped poverty have done so on the strength of a strong public education system demonstrating the wisdom that educating the society is the surest way to prosperity. The logic in favour of prioritising education is clear and multifold. Among the most important determinant of growth of nations is the productivity of its population. Education increases the productivity as it is a prerequisite for a well trained and adaptable workforce and is essential for innovation. If a critical attitude embracing our innate curiosity is not promoted from the start then we kill the future innovators and thinkers in our children during their childhood.
A sound public education system is also the greatest instrument to ensure that inequality doesn’t become persistent and hereditary where children of poor people are destined to remain poor as they seldom receive the quality education that unleashes their potential and makes available to them opportunities of advancement present in the ‘white collar’ economy. Education is also important for creating socially conscious citizens and instilling in them virtues civic and otherwise.
Today, as a result of our third rate public education system, quality education has become a privilege of the rich. A majority of Indians are deprived of quality education while also being fleeced for it by private schools. Today, only a fraction of our population’s potential is being fully realised and used for the nation’s development and yet we remain among the world’s fastest economy. Imagine what can happen if the potential of our entire population is provided the platform of education to groom and contribute to the nation’s growth. We can far outgrow other economies.
The rhetoric of social mobility, social change, and social justice will also be significantly realised if quality education is available to all through a functioning public education system. Then, aspirations will no longer remain the reserve of those who were lucky in the ovarian lottery and a republic saddled by despair will turn into a republic of hope.
If Delhi’s endeavour to fix it’s education system succeeds then all the above benefits will materialise in Delhi’s case. It will create a powerful example which will be hard for others to ignore. Thus, tremors will be felt beyond Delhi! It will create an important model, counter the sense of despair regarding reviving our education system, show that the excuses for our inability to fix the education system are just that – excuses. Thus, the whole public discourse around education will be transformed opening up the sea of possibilities discussed above.
So, it would not be an overstatement to say that a spring of hope awaits us if the novel, courageous and far-sighted movement to transform education succeeds as it appears set to. Delhi and India may never be the same again. And Kejriwal’s promise of change may come true albeit in a very different form than the what his followers had imagined.