The first thing Ashish Kumar Jha noticed when he arrived at Ludlow Castle Number 3 was the blackboard. At his previous school, the classroom was a rug under a tree in the school yard.
"Our school building was under construction, so the junior classes studied in the playground," Ashish said. "We didn't have a blackboard. So our teacher just dictated the lessons."
Ludlow Castle Number 3, on the other hand, has large, well-ventilated classrooms, a library stacked with books and well-stocked laboratories. Its teachers — who must clear a screening interview to get a job at the school — devise their own helpful study guides and stay behind after school to answer their students' questions. Every class is limited to 35 kids. Entry to the school is granted only to students who pass a special exam.
Ashish and eight other current students and graduates all described their time at Ludlow as a transformative experience.
The school is part of the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya (RPVV) program to create model schools. In an education system suffering from crowded classrooms and missing teachers, RPVV schools were conceptualised as oases of academic excellence. The first three were established in 1997, and the city now has 20. They admit only students who have spent at least two years in a government school so as to distribute their benefits to those most in need.
The aim of the program was to establish centres of excellence that would provide a template for the transformation of Delhi's 989 other government schools. Many of them are like Ashish's old school: they lack desks, chairs, textbooks, or even enough space inside to fit all their students.
RPVV is representative of the Indian education system generally. Public higher education is a clear analogue: a handful of high-powered IITs, IIMS, and medical schools like AIIMS attract resources and attention while the vast majority of government institutions lack modern facilities and do little to support their students.
Though egalitarian in its ambitions, the RPVV program has bred resentment among those on the losing end of its exclusivity.
"The problem with model schools is that they remain isolated models," said Krishna Kumar, the former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). "We keep on using limited resources to create ever smaller rings where we can show some results."
The much-touted success of the RPVVs, Kumar said, masks systemic underinvestment in education. India commits only 3.3% of GDP to education, compared to a global average of 4.9%, according to the World Bank.
"A false sense of scarcity of resources has been created," said Kumar. "Then at every level you have a phenomenon of selecting the most deserving children for a small set of institutions."
On the twentieth anniversary of RPVV, it's easy to find alums grateful for the program. But it's not so easy to find evidence that concentrating the best teachers, principals, and students into small, well-resourced schools has benefited anyone outside of a tiny minority.
Model government schools like Ludlow Castle Number 3 provide some students with a good education at no cost, but have proved hard to replicate.
Ashish, a quiet, bespectacled boy, loves mathematics. A teacher in his school at Bhajanpura spotted his promise and told him there was a government school for children like him."
"The boy just studies," said his father, Pankaj Jha, who works as a shop assistant. "That's all he does. No one has to tell him."
Most of Ashish's peers at Ludlow share similar stories of a teacher who singled them out among the scores of children packed into a chaotic classroom in a government school. These mentors are often the only way that most children learn of the existence of the RPVV programme.
Once admitted, their school days are one long boot camp of intensive study.
"The best thing about RPVV is that the teachers know scoring in the boards won't get you anywhere," said Divya Rani, who graduated in 2016 and is currently in her first year at Lady Harding College, a prestigious medical school. "You need to crack the competitive exams - medical or engineering."
In Divya's previous school, her teachers came late to class and the students spent more time hanging out in the corridors than studying.
"It always felt like we were in recess," Divya recalled.
Schools like Ludlow offer support for committed students lost in such environments. According to Urvashi Gupta, Ludlow's principal, the quality of the students is the most special part of the school. "We have some exceptional teachers," she said, "but most of our teachers are the same as other schools. We push them hard, but the students push their teachers the hardest."
Divya's experience of disengaged teachers and unfocused students is typical of government schools. Still, in eight months of reporting on Delhi's public education system, Hindustan Times has met dozens of kids passionate about succeeding in school. With a punishingly rigorous examination regime that calls for extensive memorization, sometimes of surprisingly advanced topics, many Delhi students push as hard as Gupta's pupils.
Those outside the RPVV system, however, do not receive the special resources and forms of support described by Divya or Ashish.
Ludlow belongs to a network of four schools with excellent facilities. The Delhi government has been using them for experiments with model schools since they were founded in 1970.
The inclusion of the Ludlow schools in the RPVV program, in 2007, provoked a backlash from the local community, according to Prahlad Sawhney, a former MLA from the Chandini Chowk constituency surrounding Ludlow.
"Once these schools became RPVVs, they stopped giving admission to children from the neighbourhood," said Sawhney. He came under pressure from his constituents to help their kids gain admission. "How can you suddenly declare that four best schools in the neighbourhood are out of bounds for its children?"
Facilities at RPVVs are better than many of the city's private schools.
In 2011, the Department of Education relented to Sawhney's frequent demonstrations: Ludlow 1 and 3 remained RPVVs, while Ludlow 2 and 4 returned to being ordinary schools.
Even the most spectacularly qualified applicants cannot always receive admission. Abdul Basit got a perfect grade-point average in his Class 10 examinations and still was denied entry to Ludlow 3 because he'd always attended private school.
TP Singh, a deputy education officer on the RPVV board, defended this policy. "Most students in government schools come from poor families," he said. "If we open admission to everyone, we will also get applicants from private schools, who have possibly received better facilities and parental support."
For Mohammed Raees, Abdul's father, this policy penalises working class families that suffer great hardship to send their children to a good private school. Raees assembles inexpensive radio antennae in a tiny four-man workshop in north east Delhi.
"Some sell for as little as eighty rupees a piece," he said. "These are cheap products. My margins are tiny. I worked very hard to send Basit to private school for as long as I could."
In the end, Abdul was able to attend Ludlow 2. The 'two-year rule', however, points to a bureaucratic dodge of a deeper problem.
Government primary schools in India are so terrible that half of all urban children go to a private primary school and 36% to a private secondary school, according data compiled by Geeta Kingdon, a professor education and economics at University College London.
The two-year rule, Raees pointed out, forces parents to risk a poor primary education in the slender hope that their child might make get in an RPVV for senior classes.
The Delhi government believes that newly refurbished like the one at Rouse Avenue will restore faith in the public education system.
A new initiative from the current Delhi government may have the potential to do what RPVV has not: to focus on certain specific schools while also effecting change in the public education system more broadly.
"A system cannot change the inequality of opportunity if it replicates the same inequality," said Atishi Marlena, special advisor to Delhi's education minister, Manish Sisodia.
While Marlena acknowledges that RPVVs offer students like Divya and Ashish a path to a rigorous education, she has plans to upgrade the crumbling physical infrastructure of Delhi's many non-model schools. As a first step, 54 buildings are being rebuilt and equipped with new laboratories, libraries, gyms, and classrooms in which the blackboards have been replaced by touch-sensitive screens.
This might seem another scheme that concentrates resources in a few lucky schools, but Marlena insists that her government will keep renovating schools every year with the aim of ultimately upgrading every single one.
There's evidence to suggest that fixing physical infrastructure plays a big role in restoring faith in the government system. One afternoon in a freshly-refurbished school at Rouse Avenue, a group of Class 12 students took turns playing instructional videos on the large smart-screen installed in their classroom.
"The department has provided us with video study material, but we encourage students to bring things they find interesting," said Davindera, Rouse Avenue's principal. "It keeps them engaged."