Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP's) candidate for the East Delhi constituency Atishi on why voters should choose her as their MP
Deexa Khanduri | October 3, 2018 | Delhi
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has chosen Atishi as its candidate for the East Delhi constituency in the 2019 elections. The activist known for the transformation she wrought in state government-run schools in Dehi talks about why she thinks voters should choose her as their MP.
Lighting up the blackboard
Atishi speaks about the challenges she overcame to brighten Delhi’s govt schools
In 2015, we did not begin by stating a problem or drawing up a blueprint of the problem and thinking up possible solutions. In our manifesto, we confidently wrote about changing the face of government schools. But we found the task much more onerous than we supposed.
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
In our early visits to government schools, we couldn’t help noticing how pathetic they were. The stink from the toilets greeted you right at the school gates. Nothing was in place: drinking water, classrooms, blackboards, desks, rest rooms, staff rooms, the buildings themselves. It wasn’t just a matter of infrastructure. No one was interested in taking care of the school – not the principal, not the teachers, not the students, not the ancillary staff. They were performing their duties merely for form’s sake. The situation was worst in the schools of East and North-East Delhi. Not the staff’s fault, entirely. For example, there were 176 students in one particular class; even the best teacher will not be able to focus on teaching.
What we noticed, anyone else could have seen. It wasn’t rocket science. We realised that we needed to put the basics in place: infrastructure, cleanliness, quality of education. Did no one notice the mess before, I wonder.
We spent one and a half years on just cleaning up the schools. At a school in Jahangirpuri, we found some students sitting on the floor and some on desks. The desks were usually cleaned by the students occupying them. The unoccupied desks remained dusty. The unspoken message was, “Gareebon ke bachchey hain, kahin par bhi baith jayenge. Kya fark padega? (These are children of the poor. They’ll sit anywhere. What difference does it make?)” They come from places that are filthy, so where’s the need for keeping their schools clean?
In September 2015, after the inspection of a school in Alipur, we suspended a deputy director of education and sacked a principal. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia led the surprise check that resulted in this action. (The official was suspended for not having inspected the school for six months; the principal lost his job after staffers’ two-wheelers were found parked inside a classroom.) But we didn’t want this stern message to give headaches to principals, who work under severe constraints: administration, operations, and staffing, in addition to the main work of education. To reduce principals’ burdens, the government hired retired personnel on contracts and deployed them as estate managers who would ensure that schools remained clean.
Next, we set up school monitoring committees (SMCs), which would oversee schools. They would also ensure that schools adhered to Right to Education law. Twelve of the 16 members of these committees are voted in by parents from among themselves. The other four members are the principal, one teacher, the local MLA, and a social activist of the area nominated by the state government. Members have two-year terms. In government schools, unlike in private schools, there is a class difference between principals (who at senior secondary school level earn around '1 lakh monthly) and parents, who earn '5,000-10,000 monthly. Because of this divide, parents would find it difficult to question or even interact with principals. Here, SMCs would help bridge the communication barrier and allow parents to voice their concerns before the principal and other staff. SMC members remain connected through WhatsApp groups. We monitor these groups.
In December 2015, during winter holidays, extra classes were organised. SMCs monitored them. In January, at a school in Laxmi Nagar, a teacher was found to have signed the attendance register for the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th on the 5th itself. A photograph of the attendance register was circulated on the group, and within 45 minutes, a district level officer reached the school to investigate. The message was clear: SMC members are not to be taken lightly. In fact, SMC members are our eyes and ears.
Another focus area was education and curriculum. The challenge was not to bring students to school but to make them learn. According to NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) figures, 74 percent of class VI students of government schools can’t read their textbooks. The findings of a national assessment survey by the human resource development ministry are similarly unencouraging. The earlier government failed to acknowledge this crisis. We rolled out the Chunauti 2018 programme: the deputy chief minister pledged on Teachers’ Day, September 5, that by November 14, Children’s Day, its teachers would make all class 6-8 students capable of reading their textbooks.
We enhanced the learning experience with educational videos and activities such as drawing, tracing out words, making photo-story worksheets. Students responded with rapid progress, from first recognising letters, then making sense of words, and then stringing them together into sentences. There was quiet determination in classrooms, among teachers and students alike. It powered children on their journey from being non-readers to readers.
Earlier, government school teachers would be embarrassed to speak about their jobs, because they were known to be made to do all kinds government fieldwork, such as Aadhaar seeding, census duty, election duty, surveys, immunisation drives, and so on. We believe the core of educational improvement lies in building teachers’ capacity. So we started investing in teacher training programmes. We sent teachers and principals to the best universities in the world: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the National Institute of Education, Singapore, universities in Finland, essentially countries known for their pioneering teaching methods. We ensured that in calibre, teaching aptitude, content knowledge and pedagogy skills, government school teachers are as good as those at private schools. For this, we raised the budget for teacher training from Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore. It was a breakthrough: the quality of education in government schools has improved; hitherto infamous for their poor teaching and by-rote methods, school teachers are now keeping abreast of contemporary knowledge in their domain areas and improving their pedagogic skills.
In 2018, we introduced a happiness curriculum from class I to VIII. Education is much more than just reciting what’s written in books. Children must grow into well-evolved adults with ethics and sensitivity. Happiness classes help children reflect on their attitude and what they deeply feel about themselves.
We need to focus more on taking learning beyond the classroom by including more extra-curricular activities in government schools. This year on, schools have started organising clubs for languages, painting, drama and other activities. The idea is to create and sustain the excitement of learning in students.
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