Six things we learned after six months in a Delhi government school

October marks the halfway mark of Class of 2018, HT's yearlong investigation into Delhi's school system.

Since April, when the school year began, we've been trying to learn the larger truths of high school in Delhi by following Naziya Naz, Anuj Gupta, Nikki Sharma, Reena Jha, Nikki Chandrashekhar and Kshetrapal Singh. These six students attend class 12 at Sangam Vihar's Government Senior Secondary School, known locally as the pahadi school.

Here's what HT reporters have found so far.

1. The board exams are destroying our education system

"In India, we essentially have a world-class filtration system in place of an education system," Kartik Muralidharan, associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, told HT in May. Schools spend more time separating out successful and unsuccessful kids than teaching them anything.

Instruction in junior classes is poor, Muralidharan said, while senior classes are geared towards cracking the Class 12 Board exams.

This encourages teachers to teach to the test, rather than provide children with a holistic education.

Universities recognise that board exams are a poor measure of learning, but their response has been to introduce even more tests in the form of entrance exams for premier degrees like medicine and engineering.

Students respond by signing up for tuitions centres that have mastered the technical art of cracking entrance exams. The cycle of testing and memorisation repeats.

None of this substantially contributes to getting an education, and worse, it discriminates against students who cannot afford expensive private tuitions.

The pass rate in Delhi for the class 12 tests is well over 90%. That sounds good, but it's largely because failure rates are so high in lower classes, particularly Class 9, in which over 1 lakh Delhi school students out of 2.5 lakh fail each year.

2. Schools encourage an education arms race that puts poor kids at a needless disadvantage

It took three months for Naziya to buy a full set of textbooks; Nikki S had to wait eight months before getting a pair of spectacles so she could read the blackboard in her classroom.

In theory, education is supposed to mitigate social inequalities by providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to find meaningful and well-paying jobs.

In practice, there is a yawning chasm between those who can afford to pay for private schools, tutors, and expensive textbooks and those, like Naziya and Nikki, who struggle to pay for basic things like books and specs.

Parents of children in government schools work long hours to make ends meet. They are less likely to be involved in their kids' education, and are often unable to help with homework.

Whatever their disadvantages, poor kids must compete with more affluent students for a chance to study in one of India's public universities.

3. Delhi's teacher shortage is approaching a crisis

Six months into Class 12, Anuj, a student focusing in science, is still doesn't have a physics teacher. He is not alone in his plight of pursuing a course while lacking the relevant teachers for it. Citywide, the number of permanent government teachers is only slightly more than half of the sanctioned strength of the workforce. The city also employs almost 17,000 guest teachers on short-term contracts, meaning that there are around 10,000 real vacancies.

As a result, a teacher looking to transfer schools invariably finds an empty slot. Many leave the schools that are neediest.

The problem is particularly acute in schools that are not easy to commute to. This includes the pahadi school, where Anuj's mathematics teacher had himself transferred out after only six months on the job. It looks like Anuj will have to rely on private tuitions for a chance at acing his exams.

4. Maths and English, the subjects with the widest applications, also have the least sensible syllabi

The students of the pahadi school are convinced that speaking English fluently would greatly improve their career prospects and that mathematics is a prerequisite for many college degrees.

Yet English and mathematics are the biggest reasons why over 1 lakh students fail class 9 each year. Why is it so hard to teach words and numbers? Experts say it is because Indian policymakers simply don't understand how young children learn.

Mastering a new language, new research shows, is easier if students are first taught to speak, rather than reading and writing. But Indian schools do the opposite.

Nikki S realised as much when free language classes provided by a local NGO taught her to speak English in nine quick months, something her school couldn't do in a decade of instruction.

As for mathematics, experts say the course overwhelms children with abstract concepts like logarithms and inverse trigonometric functions, rather than focusing on foundational skills like long division.

In 2012, researchers at the American university Carnegie Mellon found that a child's grasp of division in elementary school predicted her overall maths achievement in high school. Now in Class 12, Reena remembers learning long division at age seven as the first time she felt mathematics was slipping from her grasp.

5. In school and after school, girls struggle to get their due

Reena Jha is studying at a government school, but her younger brother, Shivam, is in a private school. It's the same with her classmates Nikki and Naziya, whose brothers Shubham and Salman are in private school as well.

The boys' shift at the pahadi school offers science, but the girls shift doesn't. That's typical: while nearly 300 of Delhi's 1,009 government schools offer science courses to boys, only 150 allow girls to major in science. Many girls live impossibly far away from the nearest option. Those who overcome these obstacles often find that their families object to practically all jobs except for teaching.

It's a trend that has persisted over generations: Even Sonu Nijhawan, the pahadi school principal, wanted to become a doctor when she was in school, but became a teacher at the insistence of her parents.

6. Nonetheless, students work incredibly hard to stay in school

For the first three months of school, Kshetrapal attended the afternoon shift at the pahadi school while working nights as a security guard. Reena and Nikki teach tuitions to younger kids to support their families; Anuj studies late into the night by himself. Nikki C balances her schoolwork with cooking, cleaning and caring for her ailing father while her mother works long hours in a textile factory.

Despite the many shortcomings of India's education system, students put themselves through great hardship to stay in school and finish their studies.

For Kshetrapal, his decision to stay in school is down to a choice he made three years ago when he and his friends failed Class 9. His friends dropped out, and now work at construction sites in north India.

Kshetrapal stayed in school, in the hope that completing his education would mean a more fulfilling job in the future. Now as he knuckles down to prepare for his board exams, he is determined to avoid his friends' fate.