Class 4 student Hema Tiwari and Delhi’s three municipal corporations had started out around the same time.
As she sat on a rug amid walls from which the paint was peeling in a municipal primary school in South Extension II in 2013, she only sought to learn, and eat a tasty midday meal.
The trifurcated corporations — a year into business — promised to give her all that and more.
As the next municipal election draws near and the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, debutant Aam Aadmi Party and at least four other major parties slug it out to get hold of the corporations, Hema is still struggling to learn.
The rugs have, however, gone. There are tables and chairs in the classroom that is decorated in many colours. There are enough teachers and even the once barren playground has swings and slides.
But for her age, Hema is far behind her peers in private schools as she can hardly read a word in English. “I can read and tell numbers in English but not the words. I can read Hindi though,” said Hema.
In five years, the municipalities didn’t do badly in delivering the brick and mortar. They have, in fact, 98%-100% success rate in providing toilets, drinking water, desks and chairs as per Elementary Education in India 2015-16 report from National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). The midday meals are also served systematically. However, the quality of education imparted is hardly talked about.
For 31% councillors elected to the three corporations, education was not worth discussing in the House meetings. The 45%, who did ask questions on the education sector, mostly focused on infrastructure, ignoring larger issues of falling enrolment, dropout rates and poor quality of education.
Having tracked the performance of Delhi councillors in the House, Praja Foundation, a civic rights group, concluded that municipal schools, which are responsible for providing education to city’s poor children, have not been a priority issue for the politicians.
Learning levels remain poor
In another school in North Delhi, Mohammad Chand, a Class 5 student can hardly read a small paragraph on water. “I can only read by breaking the words in Hindi. I cannot read English at all. I just know A B C D properly,” he says.
Teachers blame the lack of suitable learning environment at home where parents are poor and mostly out to work as daily wagers. But clearly, the school isn’t helping if Chand has to start from scratch when he moves to a government school in Class 6.
Delhi government conducted a baseline survey to assess the learning levels of their schools in July 2016. It showed that 74% of Class 6 students could not read a paragraph from their own Hindi textbook, 46% could not read a simple story of Class 2 level and 8% could not identify letters.
“It is a clear indicator that the municipal corporations have not done anything to improve the quality of education. Most children coming to Class 6 in our schools are from the corporation schools. Even after this, we don’t see them doing anything to bridge the gap,” said Atishi Marlena, adviser to Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia.
The leaders in all three corporations are aware of the need to improve education quality but say their primary focus has been to improve the environment in schools. “We have made smart classes, provided children with tablets. We take children for educational tours and these are important for providing quality education. We are slowly working towards it, but in terms of infrastructure, our schools can give competition to private schools,” said Subhash Arya, leader of the house in South Delhi Municipal Corporation.
Teacher-student ratio improves
An official in the east corporation says unlike Delhi government schools, they have improved the teacher-student ratio. In most schools, it is at 1:40, below the Right to Education (RTE) standard set at 1:30, but not too far from the mark.
“Improving the teacher-student ratio was the prime objective, as only after that, a teacher can focus on individual students,” said Sujata Malik, deputy director, education, north corporation.
The number of permanent teachers in north increased from about 6,000 in 2012 to around 7,000 in 2016. East corporation recruited 500 teachers to take the number to 3,000 in five years. There are 5,500 permanent teachers in south corporation schools, up by 700 since 2012.
Though recruitments have happened, the north and east corporations have not been able to pay salary to 12,467 teachers due to a financial crunch. Teachers boycotted work over the delay in payments, even moved court. This hit normal classes and distribution of midday meals in 2016.
Closure of schools
Even though corporations have created better infrastructure by converting at least 90 schools into model schools, bringing desks into classrooms, constructing separate toilets for boys and girls and making potable water available, around 80 schools have folded up since 2012.
“What merged schools after new buildings were built and the schools were expanded. We are trying to make sure that all schools run in a single general shift instead of double,” said an education official in the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC).
Educationist Anita Rampal, however, says that by doing this, corporations in the city are following the trend first seen in Rajasthan and Mumbai. “This is dangerous and there is a need to build pressure on the corporations to stop doing this. By calling it a merger, these school buildings in prime locations are being used by corporations to earn revenue,” said Rampal, a professor at Delhi University.
One of the most worrying trends seen in the last five years is decreasing enrolment. Many in the corporations blame the need for merging schools to fewer children on the rolls. The number of students studying in these schools has gone down by 10-20% since 2012. Officials say it’s also because many children find seats in private schools thanks to the quota for the economically weaker sections.
All three corporations have seen an enrolment fall by 10-20% in the last five years. “This decrease in enrolment is firstly because of 25% reservation in public schools and secondly because the Delhi government has started primary classes,” said Ramniwas Solanki, general secretary, Municipal Corporation Teachers Association (MCTA).
According to data compiled by NUEPA, around 5.69% students in Class 5 dropped out of school in Delhi in 2015-16. In the transition period – when students in municipal schools move to a government school in Class 6 – the dropout rate was 1.93%.
EDMC has the highest dropout rate at 16.3% in 2014-15 and 17.3% in 2015-16. For north corporation, dropout rate increased from 7.7% to 11.7%. It rose marginally from 8% to 8.3% in south corporation schools during the same period. “It is important to note that in Delhi, the population is migratory, which explains this dropout rate,” said Arya.