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Tackling the School Apartheid

Delhi has been at forefront of making school education more accessible to children from economically weaker sections of society

Nirupama Sekhri
Publish Date: May 13 2016 3:48PM | Updated Date: May 13 2016 4:28PM

Tackling the School Apartheid

Delhi has been at the forefront of making school education more accessible to children from economically weaker sections of society, the effort more robust than that of the other States. The AAP Government, since coming to power in Delhi last year, has also allocated the maximum budget and focus on school education compared to any other State in the country. Nirupama Sekhri finds out what has been done and what is still in the offing

I was in for a pleasant surprise when I visited five Government schools in South and Central Delhi. They were all clean, neat and tidy. A rather big difference from the days, in the past one decade, when I used to drop in occasionally into three of the five schools.  
The Delhi Government has put the improvement of school education, especially for the poor, high on their list of priority actions since coming to power in 2015. This year a whopping 22 percent -- over Rs. 10,000 crore - of the Delhi Budget has been earmarked for education.
The Right to Education or RTE Bill was passed in 2009, sixty-two years after independence and nine years after the UN’s Millennium Development Goals included universal primary education as one of its eight-points. Yet, most states in the country have continued to drag their feet over implementing this Act in its true spirit. Government schools, by and large, remain dirty, shabby and far from the inspiring institutions of learning that they should be.  
However, the Delhi Government that swept into power in Delhi in 2015 on the votes of the poor and the middle-classes has purportedly taken education and health as their first and foremost agenda for development. 
One of the things they have done over the past year is cleaning up the schools, upgrading toilets and ensuring safe drinking water supply and deploying ‘estate managers’ to ensure upkeep and maintenance.  
Keeping a close watch has resulted into improved teacher attendance. This was corroborated by the chowkidars of some of the schools. “This past year we have seen the children behaving better while coming to and going from school. While earlier they tended to be really rowdy, a better school environment and regular teacher attendance has had a calming effect on the children,” said one of the chowkidars.
And this check is being exercised not just on Government schools. Private schools are also feeling the heat with the Government insisting on greater accountability. Manju, resident of an RK Puram slum, was highly disturbed when she was arbitrarily told one day that the fee in the private school her granddaughter was studying in had been doubled – from Rs 500 to Rs 1000. 
“This throws our monthly budget totally off; we begged and pleaded with the school but they were firm and told us to remove our wards from the school if it didn’t suit us,” Manju said.
Fortunately, for people like her a few days later almost every newspaper in the city carried a one-page advertisement by the Delhi Government clearly stating that hiking of fees by private schools, especially for children from economically weaker sections, was illegal.
Manju’s granddaughter, along with the others who had been affected, were all taken back by the school. “They asked us to pay just an additional Rs 100 as exam fees, and told us that the fee would not be increased.” 
“In fact,” Manju added, beaming, “one of the school teachers also asked my granddaughter to bring her brother back to school. He had dropped out some time ago.”   
However, this is simply not enough. Says Lata, a cook living in another slum of RK Puram - “My children studied in the local Delhi Government-aided school 10-15 years ago. The teachers then were more tuned in to how the children were studying. However, neither I nor the children at the time realised the importance of education. Today we understand the critical role of education but the environment in the schools has changed. My grandson is studying in the same school and I can see that unlike those earlier years, the teachers now just don’t care. Cleanliness and all that are important, but if the teachers and the teaching don’t improve, it is of no use. What will my grandson grow up to do? I don’t want him to do domestic work.”
The Delhi Government seems to have noticed the disgruntlement as it has made the enhancement of teaching and teachers the main objective this year. Thirty principals from Delhi Government schools were taken for a five-day training programme to the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow, to learn leadership and strategic management skills. Another 90 principals will be taken to the Cambridge University in batches of 30 for exposure to the management and teaching practices there. 
Many agree these are fruitful exercises. While salary, terms and conditions are important, recognition too is a significant part of any job. This is a positive way of acknowledging and appreciating the educators’ role and contribution. Another positive aspect of such exposure trips is that most Government school teachers have also come from Government school background and have extremely limited exposure to alternate and modern techniques of teaching. 
Happy over these recent developments a Government school teacher, requesting anonymity, said, “politicians take so many exposure trips abroad, surely we teachers deserve the same sometimes. Except I am sure we will use our learning more effectively than our politicians seem to.”
Additionally, it is not just academics that the Delhi Government is focusing on. Music, art and sports are also being promoted. Jagannath Roy, a professional tabla player and teacher, is one of the many who have been empanelled as teacher-mentors. He enthusiastically recounts the experience of conducting workshops with music teachers from the 54 schools that have been taken up for pilot projects. 
“We got the teachers to work with whatever tools at their disposal. Beat, rhythm and singing are innate to us. We say, don’t wait to receive instruments and tools, just start playing and composing with the children with whatever you have at hand.”
“It’s just a matter of being sensitive and committed to igniting passions in children,” Roy adds. In one of the videos of the workshops, teachers can be seen using plastic buckets, helmets, spoons, key chains, etc. to work together to create patterns of sound. This programme is devised to include all of Delhi Government’s thousand schools by the end of the year. 
For the development of sports too, the Delhi Government had floated a proposal in January this year, inviting accredited coaches to run programmes in Government schools during off-hours and weekends. Under this scheme, the Government will provide the field, court, etc. free of cost. Fifty percent of the seats in every such camp run by the accredited coaches will be without any charges for children from low income families.  
“This is a great scheme if it takes off the way as intended,” says Arup Das of India Youth Soccer Association, who had initiated a similar project under the former Congress Government in one Government school in Vasant Vihar. “We have had great success with the programme running for the past three years.”
The biggest challenge though will remain tackling the not-so-subtle apartheid-like attitude that exists in Indian schools today. Poor parents’ children study in Government schools and rich kids go to elite private schools and the middleclass children to good-to-mediocre private schools.
While other cities, particularly Bengaluru and Chennai, may offer far more choices for parents who can pay hefty school fees, Delhi is probably the State where education for the poor has been most transformative. It began in 2005 with the successful PIL filed by Social Jurist, a Delhi-based NGO led by lawyer Ashok Agarwal. 
Social Jusrist’s PIL made it mandatory for schools enjoying Government subsidies or tax exemptions to take in children from economically weaker sections. The socio-economic integration though has not been an easy one.
Principals and teachers of most elite schools grumble about the “falling standards as a result of such an assimilation.” Two teachers I met in one of the Government schools also aired similar sentiments, “You know mostly children from the labour class come to study here, they are not interested in studies, their parents send them just to be safe and get a meal.” Another Government school teacher complained, “Children go off to their village for weeks together, on their return, they don’t rejoin school, what can we do?”
The answer to this probably lies in treating those children not as pariah but as they would treat their own. Will the Delhi Government be able to penetrate this deeply entrenched class divide? This, of course, is something that remains to be seen.