As I sat on the assembly hall floor of Delhi government's Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, Jor Bagh, with a mixed group of children from Classes 6 to 8, a visibly motivated young Hindi teacher was conducting his school's "reading hour." Every government school has been organizing this hour-long session for non-readers every day since the beginning of this month. One could have easily taken that class as one comprising the most sincere students of the school, given how dutifully they were following directions from their teacher. However, these children were, until recently, the "nalayaks" of their class who couldn't even read. And as some teachers swore, they had stubbornly refused to learn how to read. But here they were, watching educational videos, drawing pictures, tracing words from a photo-story worksheet, rapidly progressing from being able to recognize letters to reading words and sentences. There was a quiet determination one could sense in the room, which was powering children to complete their journey from being non-readers to readers.
These children were, until recently, the "nalayaks" of their class who couldn't even read. But here they were... rapidly progressing from being able to recognize letters to reading.
The Delhi government's Baseline Assessment in the month of July had some shocking results. Of all children studying in Class 6 of government schools, 74% could not read grade level textbooks. These only confirmed NGO Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) figures. Even the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development's (MHRD) National Assessment Survey has repeatedly released similar findings. It is important to note here that despite the red flags raised by both ASER and the HRD Ministry, state governments refuse to even acknowledge the elephant in the room, let alone find solutions.
In line with Delhi government's unprecedented commitment to transforming public education, Delhi's Education Minister Manish Sisodia announced on 5 September, Teacher's Day, that his government pledged to ensure all children from Classes 6 to 8 would be able to read their grade-level textbooks by 14 November, Children's Day. Despite being dismissed by most educationists as an unrealistic target, the manner in which Delhi's education establishment has been working towards this goal suggests they might just pull off the impossible.
Principals and teachers alike accept that the Chunauti 2018 reforms, under which this project is being run, are revolutionary. The first time I spoke with a teacher about the latest reforms, the questions I really wanted to ask were, "Why did it have to come to this? What have you been doing for the last decade, so that a majority of your students can't even read their textbooks?" After subsequent conversations I realized that it is unfair to blame teachers alone for this crisis. There are legal and administrative factors which have also contributed to the mess we are in.
Section 24(1) of the Right to Education Act (2009) mandates that teachers must complete the syllabus in the prescribed time. Even before the RTE came into force, the Directorate of Education had been issuing strict directions to teachers regarding completion of syllabus. The learning abilities of children were not at par with their class levels; they were not able to understand what they were supposed to learn. With the teachers bound by irrational diktats, and children wholly unprepared to grasp what was being taught, there was no way this crisis could have been averted.
Previous administrations were not just uninterested in fixing education, they also had a vested interest in lowering the standards in government schools...
A teacher said, "If the DDE (Deputy Director of Education) madam came for inspection and checked the syllabus register, and if I had not been able to achieve my target, I would have got a memo seeking an explanation. In such an environment, was I supposed to teach each child the basics, or finish the syllabus?" The DDEs were not necessarily at fault either. They were doing what their predecessors had done before them, and it was the only means of supervision of schools they knew.
There has been an official neglect of public education in India, including in Delhi. Previous administrations were not just uninterested in fixing education, they also had a vested interest in lowering the standards government schools, so as to force parents to enrol their children in private institutions instead.
Most Delhi government schools are from Classes 6 to 12, while primary schools are run by the city's municipal bodies. A lot of the damage is already done by the time children graduate to middle school from the MCD schools. It then also becomes critical to work on middle school students, despite running the risk of failure. This is because the No Detention Policy does not apply after Class 8. So when the current batch of non-readers will reach Class 9, they will likely fail to clear their exams. Only last year, as many as 53% of Class 9 students could not be promoted to Class 10.
"No child will be left behind," Manish Sisodia had announced while announcing the Chunauti reforms in late June, and he has stuck to his promise.
Delhi's special cadre of "mentor teachers" work on a weekly basis with teachers from five-six schools. Every day they visit one school to monitor, assist and support teachers during the reading hour. They also provide daily teaching materials to all teachers in their schools in the morning. This model has been working well, with teachers finally having a support system, and the government being able to monitor progress in real time.
School Management Committees (SMCs), which comprise mostly parents, have also stepped up their efforts. Every Sunday, SMCs across Delhi have started organizing "reading melas" in community spaces, where children living in surrounding areas assemble with their parents and participate in fun activities that help them learn to read.
"No child will be left behind," Manish Sisodia had announced while announcing the Chunauti reforms in late June, and he has stuck to his promise. While it is heartbreaking to think of what might have happened to the lakhs of children who graduated from Delhi Government schools in the past without learning to read, a ray of hope has emerged. At the risk of being accused of indulging in hyperbole, it must be said— the Aam Aadmi Party government is rescuing an entire generation.