Fifteen years ago, I moved to the government school system from teaching English in one of Delhi’s leading, private trust-run schools. Looking back, despite some changes, the government school context remains largely uninspiring, except for the children who bring to the job the excitement of discovery and the moments of joy in learning. Even discounting the obvious differences that are bound to exist between the relatively affluent school I was affiliated to, and the government school in a resettlement colony, the state of infrastructure was appalling. In the latter, two toilets, defective and without running water, were meant to serve the needs of 1500 girls between the ages of 10 to 18, at least a fourth of whom would be menstruating on any given day. On most days, the drinking water taps would remain dry, there was no electricity to power fans or lights and students were crammed into makeshift classrooms in corridors and verandas.
Today, thanks to the efforts of parent bodies, NGOs, legal campaigns and a growing awareness of these issues, facilities have improved in a very basic sense in government schools all over. But much more remains to be done. Overcrowding remains a reality, and leads to many kinds of tragedies, the most serious of which is the proclivity towards stampedes. The most recent example was the September 2009 stampede in a government school in a poorer locality of east Delhi, in which five girl students were killed and 27 injured in a melee following rumours of a short circuit after heavy rains.
It is not surprising that the term ‘government school’ brings to mind the image of a dilapidated structure with a ragged bunch of children, and uninterested teachers lazily sitting around, if they are at all present. But the 30,000 teachers and one million children in the 927 government schools in Delhi present a more complex reality. Even though the schools are centrally administered and managed by the Directorate of Education the infrastructure of the schools vary in different parts of the national capital region. There are glaring differences, on the one hand, between the facilities in schools serving students from the marginal sections, the lower classes, castes and minority religions; and, on the other, schools for children of daily wagers and those located in middle-class residential areas.
Of the three kinds of schools under the Directorate of Education, at the top are the 19 prestigious English-medium Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas. In between are the Sarvodaya schools with one English medium section, many of them running a morning shift for girls and an afternoon shift for boys. Then there are the general government schools, also often running in two shifts. These last cannot refuse admission to any child residing within the locality.
But regardless of the different categories, in school after school a single teacher can still be found teaching 60 to 70 students class after class, day after day. Schools usually have an eight period timetable of which a teacher takes an average of six to seven periods a day.
In addition to curricular tasks such as planning, assessing, evaluating and grading, the teacher has to perform numerous administrative tasks such as implementing all the welfare schemes, maintaining records, even, at times, cooking and distributing the mid-day meal. Not least, government school teachers are also called upon to monitor polling booths during elections, and carry out other non-school activities like collecting census data, verifying electoral rolls, preparing electoral photo identity cards, administering polio drops, conducting surveys for and administering several other government welfare schemes and programmes. The sheer volume of mindless clerical work and weight of numbers dampens any enthusiasm for innovative and child-centred pedagogical practices.
It is not as though changes have not taken place, however. Enrolment in government schools has gone up, and pass percentages of important examinations like the matriculation in Class 10 and higher secondary in Class 12 have improved dramatically. The significance of these two examinations are that they are both conducted by the Central Board for Secondary Education, and students from government schools sit for these along with students from private-run schools, thus competing with even the most elite schools.
In terms of the education content, textbooks have changed thrice, once when the right-wing BJP-led NDA government at the Centre changed the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks in what has been described as their bid to ‘saffronise’ education. Statements in history textbooks not in line with the Hindutva agenda of the party then in power were changed or deleted from the textbooks. Then, as a means to escape these ‘tainted’ texts the Congress-led Delhi government hastily developed their own set of textbooks through the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT). And then finally when the Congress-led UPA government came to power at the Centre, they published a new set of NCERT textbooks. While much of the furore about ‘saffronisaton’ was levelled at social science texts books, as far as language textbooks are concerned none of the changes have really succeeded in qualitatively improving the books or addressing the pressing issues of pedagogy of language teaching. No doubt the writing is marginally more interesting, but the exercises remain much the same. Every change remains unsupported with adequate and effective teacher training.
With the drive toward universal education, and enough money available through the government-funded Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA), teacher training has been intensified in recent years. At least twice every year, teachers are herded into numerous workshops on topics that range from subject areas to life skills to English speaking and mental maths. The modus operandi varies from ten-day classroom lectures to groups of 50 teachers on life skills, to two-day subject affairs, with 300 to 400 teachers being seated in large auditoriums and subjected to one text-heavy PowerPoint presentation after another by resource persons from private schools, colleges and universities. The shorter training programmes are held during term time, and the longer ones during the vacations – a factor increasing teachers’ resistance to training. The effectiveness of the content and method of this kind of teacher training rarely seems to be assessed.
Government schools in Delhi are now within the ambit of e-governance. All circulars and notifications are featured on the official website, which each teacher is meant to regularly visit to be updated. IT has enabled a greater amount of scrutiny, and teachers are now subjected to heavy-handed control that goes under the name of ‘education management’. The weekly syllabus is now provided by the Directorate of Education and teachers are expected to follow it almost down to being told what they must teach in every class. This is followed by centralised term tests, unit tests and the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation Programme (CSEP) which are multiple choice questions that test rote learning. Performance of students in these tests is used as a measure of a teacher’s performance. In such a system, a ‘good’ teacher is one whose students score well in the board exam.
A teacher who attempts to impart the real ‘values’ of education is now considered outdated. When there is any talk of professional development or building teachers’ capacities the training imparted is to ensure that students do better in exams, thus enhancing their employability. Since the performance of students in exams seems to be the only criterion by which education is declared a success or failure today, is it any wonder that teachers only want to ‘teach to the test’? It is not surprising then that my colleagues remain largely uninterested in creating learning situations in the classroom that would arouse the curiosity and interest and sense of wonder that education should have.
Paradoxically, alongside increasing centralised control is a trend towards Public Private Partnerships (PPP). A pilot of the ‘school voucher program’ was launched in Delhi in March 2007 to extend ‘school choice’ to poor parents as well. This controversial program, a first in India, has been in operational in other parts of the world. It allows parents to send their children to the school of their choice, whether government or private, with costs being directly paid to the school by the government. The ambassadors for this system in India are corporate honchos like Narayana Murthy, Anu Aga, Jerry Rao and Nandan Nilekani. The ‘market’ credentials of these people speak volumes as to their perspective on education as a service that can be bought. The system is based on the underlying belief that government schools are not capable of providing ‘quality education’ and there is no point in spending funds or wasting time on trying to improve them.
Today, the winds of liberalisation and globalisation blowing through India are increasingly defining the aspirations of parents. The changes in the field of education are a reflection of these aspirations. Under this materialistic and careerist perspective, short shrift is given to the humanising and democratising functions of education and its role in helping fashion tolerant, sensitive and imaginative young people. The government wants a workforce which can meet the needs of an economic growth rate that is the envy of the world. Parents and students want an education that will enable them to carve out a larger share of the pie so far accessible to only a small percentage of what constitutes the ruling classes. It is therefore assumed that private schools can best churn out students suited to a liberalised India.
The private sector, then, is where all parents who can afford it would want to send their children. Yet, the hypocrisy of the private sector schools, taken as a whole, is evident in their teachers’ salaries, which are much lower in comparison to what government school teachers earn. Unlike government schools, where most of the fees are channelled into salaries, even though private school fees are higher, most of the revenue is channelled into infrastructure and appearances. But, while all agree that the teacher is the pillar on whose shoulders rests the edifice of a successful education, they balk at teachers being properly recompensed. Teaching as a profession should attract the best people, the most committed and ‘morally upright’, but they are required to be prepared to work for a pittance. The dedication and passion expected of teachers are not expected from members of any other profession in present day society, where these qualities are fast becoming obsolete.
Far from being active agents in education reform, teachers are rarely consulted before major policy changes are made. The very people who implement policies in the classroom are forced to wait on the side-lines to see how the latest, much-hyped move to do away with the tenth standard board examination will pan out. A review of the inadequately implemented policy changes that have taken place so far tell the story of how teachers remain a disenfranchised and disempowered lot. This is the state of affairs when the entire edifice of education actually rests on the shoulders of the teacher and the magic s/he creates in the classroom. Besides the forced passivity of teachers, another reoccurring issue through the time I have been a government school teacher, is the touch of the pejorative that accompanies the term ‘government school’. Administrators, principals and sometimes even colleagues constantly (and unfairly) compare government schools to private-run schools. Students of government schools are seen somehow as lacking something that students studying in private schools have and which they must aspire to. The ‘missing’ attribute(s) ostensibly coming from the education imparted at these private-run schools, by eyes unable to see the advantage that an elite background gives students.
One of my bright students who, having done well in her school-leaving examination, found a seat in a leading Delhi University college, told me of the taunts flung at her because she came from a government school. Her accent, her bearing, and style were simply not ‘right’. Why is it that when students from deprived backgrounds do well they still have to face humiliation? What is it about our education system that cannot allow students to draw on an individual viewpoint and perspective which, because each individual is unique, would void any advantage gained by a more elite background?
~Snehlata Gupta is a teacher in Delhi.