Full disclosure: This column invites pieces from people across political parties. Please check the bio for the author’s political affiliations.
When Class 12 CBSE results were announced this year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government celebrated a 2-point jump (from 88 per cent to 90 per cent) in the pass rate of children who took the exam through Delhi government schools. The results were in line with AAP’s claims that it has improved government schools in the capital since it came to power in 2015.
The euphoria around government schools performing well was followed by valiant attempts by Opposition parties and some sections of the media to poke holes in this success story. The Print’s report by Kritika Sharma has been used by AAP’s critics to deny its claims of transforming government schools.
The report accused the AAP of “filtering” students by failing them in Class 9 to ensure only capable students appeared for Class 12 exams.
The timeline for such a conspiracy theory does not add up. The first time AAP celebrated Delhi’s Class 12 performance was in 2017 when government schools had recorded a pass rate of 88 per cent, six per cent higher than that of private schools. The students who cleared Class 12 in 2017 cleared Class 9 in March 2014, when Delhi was governed by Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, who then reported to the Home Minister of the time, P Chidambaram. Is The Print alleging that Mr Jung, on the orders of Mr Chidambaram, conspired to “filter” children in Class 9 to make AAP look good in 2017?
The students who cleared Class 12 this year cleared Class 9 in March 2015, a month after Arvind Kejriwal took over as Chief Minister. Is The Print alleging that Kejriwal and Sisodia conspired to fail excess Class 9 children for better Class 12 results in 2018?
The conclusion drawn by the report is a result of an unscientific interpretation of data with no reference to context. It is meant to sensationalise, not inform. Such analyses have to be based on fact, and not one’s presumptions. That an alarming number of children have been failing to clear Class 9 examinations is a harsh reality. But this is not a scoop, considering Sisodia had announced this in a press conference in June 2016. After spending a year in government, it was clear to Sisodia and his former advisor Atishi Marlena that merely upgrading infrastructure would not fix the system.
The rot was far deeper and demanded more than just superficial remedies.
Why do so many Class 9 children fail?
The UPA’s Right to Education Act, while attempting to universalise school education up to Class 8, had made the entire machinery complacent and oblivious to reality. It introduced the No-Detention Policy (NDP), which mandated that until Class 8, no child in any school in the country could be held back. While this was a well-meaning intervention, aimed at plugging the dropouts in middle school, it had a crippling impact on schools. Government schools were the most affected because of the neglect they suffer. With children having little incentive to study in order to be promoted to the next class—and teachers having no alternative systems of accountability—the process of learning in government schools came to a grinding halt.
The alarming failure rate in Class 9 was a matter of concern for the AAP from the first year it came to power. In order to diagnose the problem, the government carried out the first-of-its-kind baseline assessment in 2016 to track learning levels among children in its schools. Since a majority of Delhi government schools are from Classes 6 to 12 (the BJP-run MCDs, or Municipal Corporation of Delhi schools, are responsible for primary education in Delhi), the assessment was for Classes 6 to 9. It was found that among Class 6 children, who graduated Class 5 from MCD schools into Delhi government schools, 74 per cent children were unable to read their grade-level textbooks.
Across the country, governments routinely brush such data under the carpet. Instead, the AAP government announced the results and launched the ambitious “Chunauti” reforms in 2016. The government adopted the Jameel-Poverty Action Lab’s (J-PAL) “Teaching at the Right Level” (TaRL) model, a data-backed re-imagination of the classroom as we know it.
School education has always been understood as age-appropriate classes from 1 to 12. But when three-quarters of the children in one class are not able to read their textbooks, our system is not equipped to handle such an anomaly. When children are not able to write their own names in Hindi, how will they learn the Pythagoras theorem?
Under the Chunauti reforms, the government radically altered the structure of classrooms and assessments. Children in Classes 6 to 8 are grouped according to learning levels and are taught from the level at which they are at, instead of presuming an age-appropriate level. The entire teacher training module has been redesigned to suit this method of learning. Principals have been enrolled in programmes at Cambridge and IIM Ahmedabad, and teachers are being trained in Singapore and Harvard, to bring them up to speed in modern pedagogical advancements.
The Print misrepresented the Chunauti reforms as well. The report quotes an unnamed former school teacher who claims that Chunauti is an example of “discrimination against weaker students”. Without saying as much, the implication is the AAP doesn’t just fail weak students in Class 9, it also discriminates against them from Class 6 onwards! A system developed to tackle the problem of Class 9 failures is mischievously represented as evidence of the government’s bias against the very students it has been trying to rescue from being left behind.
Such is the propaganda going around lately that former AAP member and academic Yogendra Yadav tweeted this to me when I was calling out his undue criticism of the government on Twitter. He said, “Explain why a revolutionary govt should force class IX failures to go to Open School board”. He was referring to the fact that the Delhi government offers students who fail Class 9 twice in regular school and Class 10 once through correspondence, an opportunity to attempt Class 10 once more through India’s National Institute of Open School (NiOS).
Before the AAP came to power, it was a common practice in government schools to push out children who had failed Class 9 more than once. The AAP introduced a scheme for such children to appear in Class 10 through correspondence, and avail all the benefits and facilities made available to regular students. For those children who failed once more, the government offered the open school route. Quite to the contrary of what is being suggested by Yadav, the government was acting in the children’s interests.
The AAP’s true achievement appears to have been igniting a debate on public education. Manish Sisodia often says his mission is not just to transform government schools, but to make education a political issue in the country. It is heartening that one of the dominant political discourses in Delhi at the moment is around a government’s school education policy. This cannot be said of most other states in the country today.