Schools Can Change: Manish Sisodia and Anjuli Bhargava

A society cannot progress unless it offers equal opportunities to all and to do that, education provided by the state school system must be on a par with the best on offer privately. Quality education has so far been the privilege of a few in India.

Delhi’s education sector in 2015 – when his party came to power - resembled a giant black hole. Barring the odd exceptions - a few Kendra Vidyalaya and Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya - the city’s public school system (1029 schools under Delhi government) was broken mainly, and schools were in pathetic shape. Cobwebs in classrooms and crumbling infrastructure were only one part of the story. Demotivated teachers and low morale of students added to the gloom and doom. It was not uncommon to find teachers spending their time knitting, eating peanuts, playing cards or even absent, filling their day with paid home tuitions also as they drew their monthly salary,

Almost as soon as it took charge, AAP set itself the task of filling the hole. It began by fixing broken fans, desks, chairs and classrooms, building toilets, adding blackboards, removing cobwebs and making the space more habitable. School after the school was examined and painstakingly refurbished. Before asking the teachers to perform, the semblance of a school had to be established.

In the second phase, it started to tackle some of the deeper malaise. Government schools have teachers who are high on skill but low on will. In a system that fails to reward merit, how does one ensure performance? Moreover, parents who are often illiterate or barely literate see little value in the education received in the state schools. How does one change that? These were some of the aspects of focus in the next phase of reform.

Deputy chief minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia elaborated on his government’s efforts so far, the results and plans for the future in a detailed conversation with Anjuli Bhargava

Q: What did you set out to achieve and how far have you reached?

A: We are not the first party to talk about education in the country, but the problem we see in the approach so far is that quality education has been made available to only 5 or 10 per cent of the country’s population. There can be no economic progress or development unless quality education is inclusive and for all.

In Delhi, the same situation prevailed in 2015. Of the 44 lakh students studying in Delhi, perhaps one or two lakh were getting a high quality of education. The more significant segment was getting very mediocre education, including in private schools.

Government schools have been emptying out because what they offer is so poor that even the poorest prefer to pay for private alternatives. In many places, private schools are owned by local politicians and bureaucrats, so they are benefitting and have no incentive to improve the quality of government schools. We need to tackle the root of the problem, not merge and consolidate schools as we see it.

When we took charge, we found the Delhi schools in very poor shape but before asking the teachers to do their bit, we felt we must do our bit. Otherwise, the teachers would turn around and ask us to do our job first.

So, we started with allocating more funds and improving infrastructure in schools. Every year anywhere between 24-26 per cent of the state’s budget has been invested. The entire first year we focused only on infrastructure and such matters.

Once there was some semblance in schools, we asked teachers to do their bit. Here again, we found teacher training was limited to seminars during the summer. The government would invite some expert to come and speak to a group of teachers and teachers were forced to attend these lectures. It served no purpose. Teachers looked at it as something they had no choice but to attend. Marking attendance so to speak.

That’s when I spoke to the IIMs and instead of asking them to send their professors to come and lecture our principals, we asked them to design a training programme on their campus for which we began sending our principals. In the last few years, over 600 school heads have attended these, mainly at Ahemdabad. The exposure has helped immensely as staying there also helps imbibe the culture. I was clear that they must go there for the training.

We are also using the best national resources for exposure as best as possible. Be it Rishi Valley, Pratham, the Agastya Foundation, Sonam Wangchuk’s initiatives, we are exposing our Delhi teachers to whatever national bandwidth there is.

To give our teachers and principals some international exposure, we have sent them to Finland and Cambridge. We sent over 400 teachers for training to an institute in Singapore, considered one of the best in the field. We have also put the onus on them: you explore the world and tell us where you’d like to go for training and we will do our best to send you. For instance, some teachers suggested an online Harvard course and we financed these as well.

We find this has borne results. Obviously, I can’t speak for all 65,000 teachers but we see a huge change in attitude. Last three years, our teachers have started applying on their own steam and going for the Fullbright, Chevening and other similar scholarships, something they had never attempted before. They are more motivated all around and this is showing in the school atmosphere. The air of hopelessness is gone. I find energy in schools that were never there previously.

Q: How do these parent-teacher meetings help since in many cases the parents themselves are illiterate or barely literate?

A: One, the whole attitude in government schools towards parents has changed. Earlier, even the parents who wanted to interact with the school could not get in through the school gates. Now, this has reversed. Parents are made to feel welcome.

A lot of girls tell us that their parents who used to earlier threaten to withdraw them or would try and pull them into household work have stopped doing this once they realize that their wards are actually learning or in some cases are excelling at academics. The same is true with boys. The tendency of parents to pull their children into working to support family earnings is reduced as they are beginning to see some value in education.

In general, a level of awareness is developing among parents who earlier had to fight their way into the school, if at all they took the trouble. I think it’s helping change the environment at homes and reiterating the value of education that sometimes parents are unable to appreciate.

Q: Many argue the happiness classes and curriculum is more of a gimmick than anything else. Do you see this bearing any real results?

A: Two clear benefits are already visible through our happiness initiative. Teachers say that they have seen a diminishing in the clashes between students. Students seem to be more in harmony with each other and their surroundings. Second, meditation and mindfulness are helping student concentration. Teachers say that the students seem more focused on the task at hand.

But above this, it is parents who tell us they are seeing the difference. They say that their children seem more emotionally connected with them. One mother told me that her son actually came into the kitchen to check if there was enough food for her too after the family had eaten, something he’d never done before. So, there is a sensitization that is seeping into children. Another working mother said that she came home to find a big painted board saying welcome home one day. Her child said that the school had explained that the home must be a welcoming space! These are small but heart-warming instances. The idea is to enhance a child’s emotional understanding and empathy.

Q: What is the thinking behind the new entrepreneurship mindset curriculum that you are now working to introduce?

A: Every year 2.5 lakh students enter the job market in Delhi alone from both private and government schools and colleges and almost all of them are job seekers. How and where will so many jobs be generated? This is an issue countrywide but let me speak of Delhi.

By the time a student reaches Class 10 or 11, he’s already thinking of studying for the IITs or some other entrance. Many enrol from the ninth onwards. It is at this early stage that we want to target the students to bring about a change in mindset. We want them to think entrepreneurial or to be self-employed. Skills can be developed even later but the mindset develops much earlier. There’s no reason why this cannot change. A student from an ITI can set up a company and hire students from IIT. There are many such examples already. As you can imagine, the ITI entrepreneur would feel really good about himself hiring IITs!

To do this, we have developed a curriculum that will be taught by our teachers. We are asking our students to study ten people in their own surroundings – five in jobs and five self-employed or running some sort of business to help them understand the differences in both trajectories. A job may offer more security but a business or self-employment may offer more liberty. Every individual is differently built and suited for different things. But our existing system produces mainly job seekers. We are helping them do guided interviews to understand both the ecosystems better. We are also setting aside a small amount for students to invest – seed money if you will - to give them a real-life experience. They can try to invest it either individually or in a group.

We have enlisted 2000 entrepreneurs who will be coming to our schools to speak about their experiences and to interact with students. This will open their minds to become entrepreneurs and to be able to ask relevant questions.

This is one of the biggest interventions we want to attempt. We started this last year. We have created teacher manuals and a curriculum for this. We think once a student goes through this kind of exposure, it may help change his or her thinking.

Q: What about students who don’t want to go in for higher studies or who need to begin earning and can’t afford higher education?

A: Here again we have examined the issue in some detail before formulating what needs to be done. ITIs, polytechnics and many other skill development institutes in India don’t give the student any kind of degree. But students and parents are quite hung up on a degree. They want a degree or to be attached to some university. We have therefore decided to set up a skill and entrepreneurship university for which the Bill has just been passed. We will ensure this is professionally driven and not department driven.

Too many of the skills and courses are set in stone. There is no up-gradation to keep up with the changing requirements. We want to focus on market integration. We intend to introduce new courses after studying in some depth the new skills needed and upgrading old courses to keep up with the times.

But the university will offer the stamp of a degree too even for those who are acquiring skills and not taking an academic path as such. We have been working on this idea for just over a year but we will develop it in the coming years.

Q: Many government school students and parents are disappointed with the teaching of English, something they perceive as essential for a better future; they say the teachers teach English in Hindi…how can this be addressed?

A: There is a huge mindset issue with English. Students and even parents feel that if the child is not conversant with English, he hasn’t learnt anything. This is actually not true. Learning is language-agnostic. Language skills can be acquired at any stage. After all, if I decide to do business with the Russians or Japanese, I probably won’t know the language but I will either pick up enough to get by or look for some help in translation but I will manage. What students need is a confidence that they can get over whatever they need to whenever required. A mindset change is required here again.

But, yes, the stage at which our country is currently, I do see that a facility with English is considered an essential skill. Again, here we first need to upgrade the language skills of our teachers before we ask them to teach in English. Our teachers have started going for courses in English run by the British Council and the American Embassy. A cohort of mentor teachers – around 50 – has gone through a very intensive programme and these, in turn, have been working with close to 8000-10,000 of our teachers. This is an on-going exercise.

A new initiative we will be introducing will be daily evening classes for English speaking and personality development over three months instead of them paying for private courses that may or may not deliver. These will be open to those who have left school as well with a certain age limit.

Q: How much of your work is still left to be done? Some allege that it is only the five schools of excellence that stand out but these are few and far between…

A: Have we filled the hole completely and reached the ideal…the way education ought to be for all…not at all. The deeper we plunge, the more we find needs to be done. At the schools of excellence, there are now many students who have left private schools and opted for the government school. That’s the change we want to see. I am only saying we have made a beginning. We still have a long way to go.

It’s hard to put a number on it. But let me say once we plunged in, we realized how deep the roots of the problem are. We are still working on the roots of the tree. The trunk as yet remains untouched.

Originally published in Business Standard and shared with us by Anjuli Bhargava

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