Over the past two years, the Aam Aadmi Party has been lauded nationally and internationally for transforming the face of government schools in Delhi. The measures taken by the education ministry under the leadership of Manish Sisodia, with Rhodes scholar Atishi as the advisor, have completely changed the perception about government schools. Where they used to be infamous for bad infrastructure, negligent teachers and breeding grounds of the Indian equivalent of teenage gang wars (the famous viral video from Kendriya Vidyalaya comes to mind), they are now known for their gyms and swimming pools, teachers trained by international professionals and the big parents-teachers meetings announced on radios and televisions.
Even though AAP has not done anything monumentally extraordinary (given it is the job description of a ruling party to ensure quality education and healthcare), they do deserve credit for raising the level of politics in India and shifting the focus to education. In a nation where election campaigns revolve around caste politics and blaming the opposition, AAP has lately borrowed a page from Ambedkar’s school of thought and intends to bring a reformatory change in society through education. Initiatives such as the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ and ‘Entrepreneurship Curriculum’ showcase this will to create ideal citizens who are ‘mindful, aware, awakened, empathetic, and firmly rooted in their identity’ and the future business leaders who develop the society with their private ventures. Other programmes like Mission Buniyad, Chunati and the subsequent reading campaigns under them are aimed to make up for the weak foundational skills. Achievement gaps in the early years often follow the students to middle and secondary school, which remains the main reason behind high dropouts in class 9.
These policies are extremely valid and necessary when evaluating the current education system which works on ‘rote learning’, or just showcasing the school numbers at the end where students are reduced to a number or rank. Bringing out schemes to fill the learning gap among students who despite reaching class 8 are unable to read Hindi/English properly or do basic mathematics is definitely a step in the right direction. It is also crucial to inculcate vocational skills like entrepreneurship among students from a young age to ensure that previously excluded sites like business and technology are not monopolised by some privileged sections or castes. In the long run, these initiatives are expected to bear fruitful results and promote a type of education which seems to be lost amid the race between private and public institutions.
Nonetheless, a major concern arises when analysing the means used by the party to reach this goal. While on a broad analysis these initiatives seem hunky-dory, on closer analysis the steps taken by AAP seem to be recreating the hierarchies in and through education they aim to abolish. To begin with the Chunauti programme, which divides the students into three groups – Pratibha, Nishtha and Vishwas – on the basis of their learning abilities. These initiatives apply a focus-based approach to develop basic skills, like performing simple addition and subtraction and reading basic Hindi and English. Further, an assessment tool tests the students’ reading abilities, while an hour-long reading activities are conducted by teachers for the Reading campaigns using the material provided by the NGO Pratham. This pack included short stories, paragraphs, word cards, and phonetic charts. The NGO also helps the teachers and the department of education in developing supplementary education material for grade 6 to 8 in five subjects – English, Hindi, Maths, Science and Social Science – called the Pragati series. The material was created in accordance with the National Curriculum Framework 2005 but differed in the approach – using a simpler language to strengthen core concepts (as per the details in AAP’s Education Booklet 2018). On a broader level and in terms of numbers the results have been nothing short of awe. About one lakh students from grade 6 to 8 have moved from being a non-reader to reading grade-appropriate text. Even in the annual examinations 2019, the pass percentage for class 8 improved by about 5 percentage points this year increasing from 59.3 per cent in 2017-18 to 64.7 per cent in 2018-19. While 93 per cent of class 5 students secured the minimum prescribed marks in 416 Sarvodaya schools in the 2018-19 session.
The lived realities on these school campuses are, however, quite different compared to the numbers. Education scholars and experts have time and again raised concern over the issue of education remaining to be a site for the struggle for students from economically weaker sections and backward castes as they are the ones towards whom these neo-liberal schemes are targeted. The segregation created in classrooms from 5th to 8th grade is problematic as most students who land up in the Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha sections mostly belong to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and the Muslim community. This has been showcased by the Janaki Rajan, former director of the State Council of Educational Research and Training in Delhi, who claims that this distinction between students can do more harm than benefit as it could be detrimental to their self-esteem. “All studies show us that students in mixed ability group learn better. Why is the government then bent on doing the contrary?” she commented in her interview with Outlook. Her research in a government school in East Delhi demonstrates that this labelling promotes casteism by creating a separate space between students from the upper class and lower class. Her study shows that the Pratibha sections with bright students of class 6 to 8 have only 7-19 per cent children from ‘disadvantaged’ groups (SCs, STs, Muslims and economically weaker), while the Nishtha and Neo-Nishtha sections for students that struggle with studies comprise of about 81-93 per cent children from these sections. When analysing the translation of high pass percentage form class 9 to 10 over last year, the data indicates a disparity here as well. The directorate of education ruled last year that on failing twice in a class, the students should be advised to opt for open schooling options. However, data collected by lawyer Ashok Agarwal proves that in the 2018-19 session, readmission to 1.02 lakh out of 1.55 lakh students who failed in class 9 to 12 was denied by the government.
Based on these schemes, two theories emerge from the field of education and both do not work in AAP’s favour. First, the government has reduced school as a reflection of a society where caste and community hierarchies are reproduced based on cultural capital. This, in turn, produces newer forms of exclusion and inequality in classrooms. Second, which also relates to my first point, it showcases a state agenda or rather a narrative of progress and development by excluding certain sections from this system altogether. If their aim is to create an inclusive space on the basis of exclusion, it portrays their attempts to showcase only the good sides of a nation. Further, it only negates the potential benefits of their ‘Happiness Curriculum’. The current policies have faced flak from the Delhi High Court and other experts on education who believe that such initiatives can potentially exacerbate the already divisive education system of India. If adequate steps are not taken to mend these policies already in action, then it will instead create a society where the students are ‘mindful, aware, awakened’ only about the differences planted by the state for a personal agenda of gaining votes.