Why fewer kids from poor families become engineers

Aman Sethi, Heena Kausar
Saumya Khandelwal

A month into the academic year, Ashok Kumar Tyagi, principal of the evening shift at Sangam Vihar’s C Block Government Boys Senior Secondary School, had a problem. His physics teacher for Class 12 had retired and he didn’t have the money to pay his chemistry teacher.

“Our chemistry teacher is teaching without a salary,” said Tyagi, one afternoon in his office this May. “But he knows the system — stoicism in adversity.”

For the twelve students studying science in Class 12, one month had slipped by without any physics instruction. Instead, they studied chemistry in double shifts in an effort to cover as much of the syllabus as possible before the lack of a salary compelled their chemistry teacher to quit.

The school had a biology teacher, but none for computer science. Students studying computer science were being taught by a young mathematics teacher.

Nonetheless, stoicism in adversity: Tyagi and his students had been here before. “Actually we’ve never had any permanent science teachers,” Tyagi said, “Not once in the four years since we started offering science in 2013.”

Four years ago, principal Ashok Tyagi fought to introduce science in his school

Four years ago, principal Ashok Tyagi fought to introduce science in his school's senior classes but the government is yet to assign him teachers for physics or chemistry.

Little resources, large disparities

Sangam Vihar’s C block government school, also known as the Pahari school , functions as a girls’ school in the mornings, and a boys’ school in the evening.

The science wing is on the third floor. When it was built in 2012, Tyagi had a grillwork door installed. “I want students to feel special,” he said, “Like they are entering a place of knowledge.”

Only 279 of the Delhi government’s 1030 schools offer science to students in Class 11 and 12. This paucity of opportunities reflects disparities of both class and gender.

The children in these schools are working class; 127 of the 279 science schools in Delhi are boys’ schools, 54 are coed schools, while only 96 are girls’ schools, despite the fact that Delhi has more girls’ schools than boys’ schools.

This disparity is visible in Sangam Vihar. The school offers science to the 4000 boys in the evening shift, but not to 5700 girls who come in the mornings.

Delhi is no exception. Science education in government schools is in decline across the country. The impossibility of finding the Pahari school a physics teacher is emblematic of how the education system is deepening, rather than bridging, the country’s unequal society.

“We must offer science in government schools,” said Tyagi, “How else will the children of poor parents become doctors or engineers?” But Tyagi admitted that offering science was meaningless without providing the students with teachers.

While parents and children are deeply invested in the sciences, watch Anuj's story to see the challenges facing India's aspiring doctors and engineers.

The devoted student

Anuj Gupta is a science student: he’s skinny, high-strung, nervous. He stabs at his register with his pen and fusses with the figures. But then, suddenly, the squiggly formulae resolve into a solution for the charge contained by parallel plate capacitors and Anuj is at peace.

“All kids in Sangam Vihar help their families,” he said, “Some kids work. I study, study, study, study.” Vijay, Anuj’s father, drives a rented auto-rickshaw. It’s a “share-auto” – which means he plies set routes and passengers pay Rs 10 to hop on and hop off . He could use a helping hand, but Vijay takes the long view of the future. “Right now I want my sons to study and get a good job. Anuj is studying science. Why can’t a poor kid become a doctor?,” Vijay said.

Anuj Gupta, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, is acutely aware of the strain his education places on his family's monthly budget.

Anuj Gupta, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, is acutely aware of the strain his education places on his family's monthly budget.

So every afternoon, Anuj walks to a school where he studies for six hours. If a teacher shows up for class, he takes notes. In the unmanned physics period, he practices numericals or does homework from the physics tuitions he takes after class.

When school ends at 6.30pm, he rushes home, changes out of his uniform, washes his face, and goes to his tuition centre where he studies, till 9pm.

Sixteen hundred Rupees a month — that is how much it costs to take tuitions in physics, chemistry, maths and biology at the Pacific Coaching Centre. “The government says education is free,” said Girja Devi, Anuj’s mother, “But it is a board year, the kids don’t have a physics teacher. What are we going to do but spend on tuitions?”

How much does Rs 1,600 a month mean for the family? Anuj knows: 160 trips in his father’s auto at Rs 10 a trip. Each day, five passengers in his father’s auto are paying for his tuitions.

After dinner, he unscrews the house’s sole light bulb in the kitchen and plugs in the inner room he shares with his brothers. His parents sleep on the kitchen floor in the darkness, Anuj studies till late.

The rare science teacher

Physics teacher N.P.S Malik got his first promotion after 28 years of service.

Physics teacher N.P.S Malik got his first promotion after 28 years of service. "Why would anyone want to do this job?" he asks.

NPS Malik is one of a species so rare he may as well be extinct. Malik, who is in his fifties, is a physics teacher at the Shaheed Amir Chand Government Sarvodya Vidyalaya, where he teaches Class 11 and 12.

Malik finished his physics master’s degree in 1983, and began teaching middle school physics in 1985 as a trained graduate teacher. He started at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Bharat Nagar, north Delhi.

“It was a great school,” he said one afternoon, “Huge old building, full cricket pitch, swimming pool… everything.” The trouble, he says, began in the 1990s when middle-class kids started leaving. “Once government officers started sending their children to private school, the education department lost interest,” he said, “our schools went into decline, and science sections were hit the hardest.”

As fewer schools offered science, Malik said, opportunities for teachers dried up.

“Four year ago, after 28 years of service, I got my first promotion. I’m now a Post Graduate Teacher, teaching senior-school physics,” he said, adding, “Now, tell me, why will anyone want this job?”

Where are the teachers?

Physics teachers explain the crisis in science education as an instance of ‘circular causality’: when few schools offer science, there are few vacancies for science teachers, which means few teachers opt to teach the subject, which makes it harder to replace teachers who retire, which means, going forward, fewer schools can offer science.

“Many science teachers are now doing a second Master’s of Arts to qualify to teach subjects with more vacancies,” said Sonu Nijhawan, principal of the girls’ shift in Sangam Vihar. Her school doesn’t offer science as they can’t find teachers. Nijhawan said two of her middle-school science teachers are studying to become political science teachers, suggesting that the crisis in science education is beginning to percolate down. Science teachers in junior classes realize they may spend decades stuck at the same post. “Any permanent teacher who comes here lobbies the department for a transfer,” Nijhawan said, “No one wants to come all the way to Sangam Vihar.”

Nijhawan’s students point out that it is equally difficult to leave Sangam Vihar.

“It’s as if everyone has decided that girls here don’t need to study science,” said Jyoti Maurya, who graduated from the school last year. Maurya wanted to study science, but was forced to choose commerce. “There are no science schools for girls here,” she said, “and no public transport to go elsewhere.” Even studying mathematics was a struggle, Maurya said, “Because parents feel uncomfortable letting a girl go for tuitions.”

Only 279 of Delhi's 1030 government schools offer science, 127 of which are boys schools

Only 279 of Delhi's 1030 government schools offer science, 127 of which are boys schools, 54 are coed and 96 are girls schools despite the fact that - over all - the city has more girls’ schools than boys’ schools.

Maurya’s observations, and data from the All India Survey on Higher Education 2015-16, suggest that safe public transport may play a larger role in education than most people assume.

In the surveyed year, women accounted for 47% of all bachelor of science degrees — a course in which admission is based on Class 12 boards; but the representation fell for degrees such as engineering (30%) and the coveted Bachelor of Technology (26%), where admission is based on entrance exams that are hard to crack without specialist coaching.

Safe public transport was so important to Surendra Pal that he moved house to be close to a Metro station to ensure that his daughter, Simran, could study science. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable sending Simran in a public bus,” said Pal, who works as a librarian at Delhi University’s Dyal Singh College.

The backup plan: coaching

The Pacific Coaching Centre is on the first floor of a corner building not far from the Sangam Vihar school.

Upstairs, ply board walls divide the empty space into a tiny office cubicle and two classrooms where Anuj studies physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

“I feel more comfortable in my tuition centre,” said Anuj, “Here we can ask questions, without worrying, unlike at school.” Also unlike school, Pacific Coaching Centre has a physics teacher — a 20-year-old called Laxman Singh.

“I understand boys like Anuj because my school didn’t have a physics teacher either,” said Laxman, one day after class. Laxman grew up in Sangam Vihar, but he graduated from the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya (RPVV) in Lajpat Nagar. RPVVs are supposed to be premier Delhi government schools that take up the best students, pair them with the best government teachers, and groom them to crack competitive exams. Laxman, who studied in another Sangam Vihar government school, got in after scoring 92 per cent in his Class 10 boards.

“We didn’t have a physics teacher in either Class 11 or Class 12,” Laxman said, “Each year, we’d get a part-time teacher who would finish the year’s course in a few months.” Luckily, Laxman’s academic record also earned him a scholarship to a private tuition centre focused on drilling kids to crack the entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology. “That’s where I learnt all my physics. I cleared the IIT main entrance exam, but missed a berth by 5.25 marks.”

His family could not afford to support another shot at the exam, so he did a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from DU, and started at Pacific, where he earns Rs 350 per month from every student. One of his students Amit Negi, a senior of Anuj’s from school, scored 95 % in his Class 12 Physics board exam this year.

Laxman Singh, Anuj's physics tutor, understands the challenges faced by his students.

Laxman Singh, Anuj's physics tutor, understands the challenges faced by his students. "My school didn't have a physics teacher either," he says

“We didn’t have a physics teachers for 3 months in our board year,” said Amit, whose father is a vegetable vendor, “So I would study at tuitions and practice questions in school.”

“We had a good maths teacher in school, so I didn’t take maths tuitions but still scored 90%,” he said. Tyagi, the school principal, speaks often of young people such as Laxman.

“Sangam Vihar is full of young BSc degree holders who could teach,” Tyagi said, “but the department will never hire them as they don’t have BEd degrees.”

So, the well-financed school system has no teachers, while brilliant graduates eke out a living in tuition centres by teaching children like Anuj the basic concepts they should have learnt at school.

“I’ve decided to become an IAS officer,” Laxman said one evening, “I’ve joined an IAS coaching centre in the mornings, and I teach physics in the evenings.”

What’s his chosen subject for the IAS entrance exams?

“Political Science.”

If he clears the entrance exams there will be one less person teaching science in Sangam Vihar. For now, Laxman teaches his students with a devotion that is hard to match. “Practise the fundamentals, don’t memorise answers,” he tells them, “Remember Bruce Lee, who said, I don’t fear the man who practices a thousand moves. I fear the man who practises one move a thousand times.”