‘Chunauti 2018’ will lead to a structural change in Delhi’s education system

Shibu Kumar Tripathi

Atishi Marlena, Adviser to Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, talks about the lacunae in Delhi’s education system and how to bridge them

Nearly 59 percent of students in Classes VI, VII and VIII have started reading and learning their own grade textbooks following an intervention that started in September 2016. Chunauti 2018, the interventional initiative to improve the reading and learning abilities of students in Delhi’s government primary schools, was taken after reports showed that just 25 percent students in Class V could read and learn advance stories. Atishi Marlena, adviser to Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, has been pioneering the drive with the Department of Education. Hardnews sat down with her to get a closer look at the problems in Delhi’s education system and how the government plans to solve them.

There has been a major change in government education in Delhi. What problems were assessed in Delhi’s education system vis-à-vis the national education system?

The problem in Delhi’s school education system is not very different from the problems being faced in the national education system. The crises are manifold, there is a problem of shortage of infrastructure, shortage of teachers and shortage of clerical staff in schools. The government system as a whole has the least mechanism of accountability and, most important, there is a serious crisis in terms of learning levels of children in government schools. For something like education there will never be a silver bullet solution; each of these problems has to be solved the hard way.

Nationally, in 2013-14, it was found that 44 percent of students in primary schools were unable to read their textbooks; in 2014-15 this figure went up to 48 percent and in 2015-16 it was 49 percent. What is Chunauti 2018 doing to reduce these figures?

The state of learning levels across the country is abysmal. We did a survey in government schools of Delhi in Classes VI, VII and VIII and the results are deeply worrying – mostly similar to what the national survey portrays. So, 46 percent children in Class VI could not read a Class II text, 74 percent children in Class VI couldn’t read their own textbook. Apart from being a massive learning crisis, this is something which has deeper roots that comes from the continuous neglect of government schools for the past two decades. Under the ‘no detention’ policy children keep graduating to the next class every year. The problem arises only in Class IX when they face exams. Under Chunauti 2018 we tried to change it, we divided them into level-wise groups based on their learning and reading capabilities. We then did ongoing assessments and transitions based on the performance of the students. 

What is the next stage for these students once they successfully complete the level-wise assessment, and their reading and learning capabilities are improved?

We have divided Class VI into two groups, Nistha and Pratibha. Pratibha comprises those students who are at their grade level while Nistha comprises students who are not at their grade level. In our recent assessment we have found that most of the students in Nistha can now read fluently and have acquired basic mathematical abilities. But they cannot be sent straight to their Class VI textbooks immediately, so another intermediary level has been set where these students are being taught some foundation topics so that they can transition into their syllabus in Class VII. We have to realise that these children are not stupid but we as a system have not been able to teach them at their proper level.

How is the government coordinating with Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) bodies to train the teachers and improve the ongoing educational scenario in Delhi?

Two things. First, the problem is not just with the teachers. It is a systemic problem given the fact that there is no pre-school education, the schools are inadequately funded, we don’t have adequate teachers, and the syllabus is not designed for first-generation learners. Second, in terms of building their capacity there is very poor coordination between the state government and the MCD. Unfortunately, in Delhi, due to political circumstances there is not much dialogue between the two bodies. Several times we wanted to call them for meetings but they didn’t come. Ideally, collaboration should take place. 

What problems were faced by the government in conveying the true aim of Chunauti 2018 to parents who don’t want to see their children taking drops?

Initially, there were some concerns from both parents and students, but there was an active dialogue between the schools and parents. In the past year we activated the School Management Committee (SMC) system and in July we had a mega Parent Teacher Meeting in which we communicated the idea and the reason behind it. We have given the assessment tools to the parents as well to check the development of their children. In the government school system there has been little effort towards engaging with the parents. If you don’t engage with them the crisis erupts. If you have dialogue with them from the beginning, things can be changed. Every parent is interested in the development of their child. 

What major steps have been taken to improve the poor state of infrastructure in Delhi schools?

Even before we started working on Chunauti, infrastructure development was the first thing we initiated when we came into the government. We are already in the process of building 8,000 new classrooms which will be completed soon. Some have already been handed over to the schools. In the second phase we have planned for the development of 8,000 more classrooms and by the coming academic year we will have 15 new school buildings ready. We have also identified 28 new locations across the city where we are planning to build new schools. We want our infrastructure to be more than the existing capacity because, as conditions improve, there will be more people who would like to send their children to government schools.

There is a growing push towards adoption of technology in teaching, like smart class. Is there a transition towards technology in Delhi’s government schools as well?

I think technology is being looked at as a replacement for teachers. You cannot replace teachers. Some of the best education systems in the world focus on their teachers. Technology will be introduced and it should be accessible to children as we live in an IT age, but the basic teaching process has to be focused on teacher-student engagement, and the capacity of teachers needs to be strengthened.

What is the government doing to tackle the continuous problem of shortage of teaching staff in schools?

This is a historical legacy we have inherited. For 10-12 years there had been no exams for recruitment of teachers. We initiated these exams in our 49-day government. In the new academic year we will have 5,000 new regular teachers. We have also created over 9,000 vacancies to improve the student-teacher ratio, but they are yet to be filled. The government wanted to give weightage to existing contractual teachers, we want to regularise the good teachers among them but the policy has not been approved by the Lieutenant Governor (LG). The LG does not want any weightage to be given to guest teachers, but we believe that these teachers do deserve some extra opportunity for having taught in our schools. Until this legal battle gets resolved these 9,000 positions are on hold.

Numerous principals have been regularly complaining about teachers being sent on non-teaching duties like registration of Aadhaar cards, election duties. What is being done to end this practice? 

We have virtually ended all such non-teaching duties. There are certain duties during elections or natural disasters which are mandatory under the Right to Education Act. We cancelled the order which called for deploying teachers for registration for Aadhaar cards, instead we sent civil defence volunteers. The government made the decision to not waste a teacher’s time. Another issue is that, due to lack of clerical staff, the teachers end up doing their additional work as well. We are conducting a survey of schools to find out which schools have low clerical staff and how we can provide them staff.

The Finland trip ended up being a big political controversy. Why was Finland selected by the education minister for his trip to study their educational system?

Finland is regarded as having one of the best education systems in the world. It is also known to be one of the most humane systems. Finland always stands out on the prestigious PISA test, in their system the pre-school lasts until six years of age and then children join proper syllabus-oriented schooling. Meanwhile, our current conception of education consists of increasing the syllabus, having more tests, more stress and then we see the harsh consequences when the board results come out. We have children who have high blood pressure due to the stress.

The circumstances of the Delhi and Finnish education systems differ, how can a synergy be established?

Of course the situations and circumstances are completely different. But we can adopt some of their principles that focus on how children learn. Finland invests largely in teacher education which can be adopted. In Finland teaching is a respected job and people aspire to be teachers. Teachers shape society and that is where greater investment is needed.

What sort of collaboration is likely to take place between Finland and the Delhi education department?

We are looking at how we can collaborate with Finland on teacher education. We are also planning to send selected teachers and principals to Finland to let them experience how Finland runs their system.

Both nationally and in Delhi’s higher education, the research aspect seems to be missing. Nearly 25 percent of Delhi’s general budget was sanctioned for education, how is that money being utilised to boost research in Delhi?

There is, of course, a need to focus on primary and secondary education. Also, there is a need to focus on skill education. There is high-quality higher education available in Delhi and we have been supporting them. For instance, we have promised that any research grant that IIIT Delhi raises will be matched by the Delhi government. We are also looking to expand Ambedkar University so that we can increase the scope for children to have access to higher education. Right now 2.5 lakh children pass out from Class XII, but Delhi’s higher education has an absorbing capacity of just one lakh students. We want to increase this through new campuses.    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2016 - JANUARY 2017