Juggling dreams and livelihood: View from the back-bench

Aman Sethi
Saumya Khandelwal

The Pahadiwalla School stands aloof from the rest of Sangam Vihar, a working-class neighbourhood on Delhi’s southern fringe. Its rough concrete walls rise like cliffs weathering tides of hawkers, water tankers, auto rickshaws, middle-aged shopkeepers, receptionists, fitness instructors, domestic helps and Uber drivers who live in the tightly packed houses that crowd the school’s perimeter.

Inside, 10,000 children try their best to get an education.

In the morning, 5,700 girls stream into 64 airless classrooms, where they sit for five straight hours of relentless instructions.

At half-past noon, teachers usher out the girls as 4,000 boys are at the gates for the evening shift.

In the 30 minutes between the morning and evening shift, 17-year-old Kshetrapal Singh takes his window seat in the last row and turns from being a guard into being a student of Class 12E.

He is here in the classroom because of a choice he made three years ago when he and he and his friends failed Class 9. “My friends dropped out and took up odd jobs. I stayed in school and did the extra year to get an education and a good job,” he says.

Three years on, his friends are scattered across construction sites in north India — some in Rajasthan, some in Haryana. Kshetrapal works nights, standing guard outside a showroom stacked with bathroom tiles in the neighbouring Devli settlement.

He’s made it to Class 12. The dream of a good job is still alive.

He works hard like his teachers tell him, he prays hard like his mother tells him and he is saving money for a computer class, for an English class and for his mother’s medical bills.

But at night as he slips on a blue baseball cap with “Security” emblazoned across, Kshetrapal can’t help but wonder. “What if I remain a chowkidar (watchman) all my life? What if I have to work odd jobs like my friends? What if this whole schooling thing is of no use at all?”

Sangam Vihar's C Block school is one of Delhi's largest, with almost 10,000 students studying in two shifts.

Sangam Vihar's C Block school is one of Delhi's largest, with almost 10,000 students studying in two shifts.

The Class of 2018

This academic session, Hindustan Times will follow a group of Class 12 students from Delhi’s two government schools from their first day in the class to the opening day of university.

The Delhi government identified the schools and the children were chosen by their teachers and HT reporters to ensure a good mix of caste, religion and gender.

Each story will introduce our readers to one of these teenagers as they navigate the classroom, the tuition centre, the family home and the workplace. We will capture the hopes, fears, struggles and victories of the Class of 2018 — a restless generation caught between a misguided education system and an anaemic job market.

Seven years ago, Kshetrapal and his cohorts were the first generation to enter middle school under the Right to Education Act (RTE), a transformative legislation that schooled more children at a faster rate than any similar point in human history by making education a fundamental right till the age of 14.

Now, as these teenagers stand at the threshold of adult life, researchers and educationists wonder if the rapid expansion of India’s schooling system has come at the cost of a meaningful education. Or, as Kshetrapal would put it, is this education of any use?

“For a chunk of children who come to school, it equips them with nothing. This is the reality,” says Atishi Marlena, adviser Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia.

Last year, about 300,000 children in Delhi sat the Central Board of Secondary Education’s Class 12 examination, and 90% of them passed. Across the border, in Uttar Pradesh, three million students wrote the state board exam. Like in Delhi, about 90% of them got through.

But Marlena says the numbers are misleading. In 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party to which Marlena belongs swept to power on the promise of fixing Delhi’s healthcare and education.

“Our first step was to find just how bad the things were,” says Marlena.

The following year, the AAP government unveiled a study that said 74% of Class 6 children in the Delhi government-run 1,011 schools could not read a paragraph from their textbooks. Only 54% could read anything at all.

The priority now, Marlena said, is to fix middle school, and in the meantime, ensure as many children as possible passed Class 10.

“Because then you at least have the option of social mobility to make your way in the world,” she says.

While enrollment figures and pass rates in India have risen steadily, the quality of schooling is a cause for concern.

While enrollment figures and pass rates in India have risen steadily, the quality of schooling is a cause for concern.

The class 9 crisis

The Sangam Vihar school where Kshetrapal is a student is packed to the rafters, but is one of the best-performing government schools in south Delhi.

The principal’s offices are lined with trophies and certificates of excellence, teachers appear overworked but are motivated, the buildings are clean and toilets functional.

Pass percentages for classes 10 and 12, like 62% of Delhi schools, are normally above 90%. But pull back the layers and the school, too, is afflicted by structural problems that plague India’s education system.

This year, only half of Kshetrapal’s cohorts from Class 11 made to the next class. In Class 9, which is the only grade Kshetrapal failed (before clearing it the following year), only a quarter of the students made it to Class 10.

“The board results hide the problems of the lower classes,” says Ashok Kumar Tyagi, Kshetrapal’s principal. “But under the Right to Education act, you can’t fail anyone till Class 8.”

Schools don’t want poor results in Class 10 so they hold back students in Class 9.

All children must be promoted up till Class 8 under India's Right To Education Act, making it hard to assess their progress.

All children must be promoted up till Class 8 under India's Right To Education Act, making it hard to assess their progress.

The boys’ shift, for instance, has 834 students in Class 9 but Kshetrapal is one of the only 151 students in Class 12.

The figures are staggering. Around 1,550 of the 5,700 students — one in three girls — are stuck in Class 9. The Delhi government estimates that 100,000 of the city's children fail Class 9 each year.

The government’s solution is to put children who have failed Class 9 twice in a separate section called Vishwas, or faith. They are taught a syllabus distilled to the bare minimum, necessary to clear Class 10 through an open exam.

Vishwas is part of Chunauti (Challenge) 2018, a policy of reforming education by segregating children in middle school based on their abilities and simplifying the syllabus for those who cannot read or do math calculations appropriate for their age. The rationale for such a policy is in “Disrupting Education?”, a paper by Karthik Muralidharan, Abhijeet Singh and Alejandro J Ganimian.

The paper found that the abilities of government school children sharing the same classroom varied greatly — making it difficult for a teacher to teach at a level that suited everyone.

Will segregating children by ability improve learning outcomes? Experts and school teachers are divided. Chunauti 2018 has its critics, one of whom is Anita Rampal, an educationist and former dean of Delhi University’s Faculty of Education.

“Segregating children goes against the idea of progressive pedagogy,” says Rampal.

“Here the government is basically saying that an education is nothing more than the ability to pass an arbitrarily decided test,” she says. Rampal, who has written mathematics textbooks for primary school, favours a humanist idea of education, where learning produces empathy and creativity. At a recent seminar, one of her students presented a paper that talked about how a group of government school children were taught elementary statistics by interviewing labourers and recording their daily wages.

New research on literacy and early learning, Rampal says, “show that our schools completely mess up the teaching of reading and writing in the child’s first language.” Chunauti, in her view, assumes children do not learn in mixed groups. “But research shows that children learn better in mixed groups,” Rampal says.

Sankat Vihar

Six months ago, Kshetrapal’s father, a foreman at a Delhi Metro construction site, was laid off. “Luckily we had built this house,” says his mother, sitting in the courtyard of her sturdy two-storey home, a 10-minute walk from the school.

But there is a problem.

“We want to get my daughter married. People see the house, assume we’re rich, and make completely unreasonable demands for dowry,” she complains.

But one has to keep up appearances.

So when Kshetrapal comes home from school, he changes into a fresh set of clothes and packs his security-guard uniform in a school bag. He slips on a pair of polished shoes, has a quick meal, neatly combs his hair to a side and goes down the alley — looking like just another schoolboy headed for tuitions.

“Sometimes I feel ashamed of doing this job. Then I remind myself that it pays Rs.8,000 a month,” he says. His mother doesn’t like it either but she is ill and they need the money.

After a long day of school, Kshetrapal heads out to work as a security guard.

After a long day of school, Kshetrapal heads out to work as a security guard.

“When a boy works all night, how will he study in the school all day?” says RS Yadav, one of Kshetrapal’s teachers. “When a mother works 12 hours a day cleaning homes, will she have the energy to check a child’s homework?”

Yadav sometimes feels his classrooms are far removed from the world outside.

“They call it Sangam Vihar but this is Sankat Vihar — here there are only problems, and our job is to protect our children for as long as we can,” he says.

Harappa in Sangam Vihar

His friends dropped out of school in Class 9, but the dream of an education is still alive for Kshetrapal.

His friends dropped out of school in Class 9, but the dream of an education is still alive for Kshetrapal.

One afternoon, Kshetrapal sat through a history class on the Indus Valley civilisation, when the teacher asked the boy sitting next to him to stand up.

“Name some key features of urban planning in Harappa.”

The boy faltered, so the teacher prompted — “Think sewers.”

“Sewers? Our sewers in Sangam Vihar are crooked, dirty and blocked with garbage.”

Then suddenly the boy’s eyes lit up.

“Harappa was an ancient planned city. They had a sophisticated sewerage system. Every home had a bathroom,” he said.

“And?”

“The bathrooms had sloping floors. No dirty water collected anywhere.”

“And?”

“The roads intersected at right angles.”

“And?”

“There was a large granary for people to get food ….”

And?

And, suddenly the class came to life, the stifling heat seemed to have dissipated. The teacher broke into a smile, everyone was shouting answers and for that briefest moment the classroom wove a shared fantasy of a perfect city from thousands of years ago — far away from the troubles of Sankat Vihar.

The bell rang, the class was over.

Kshetrapal packed his books, hurried out of the school, to stand guard at the bathroom tile showroom.