Published: 21st September 2022
Delhi, education and Reform 2.0: Principal Advisor to Director Education tells us what to expect next from the National Capital
Curricular reforms are just two to four years old. We have a long way to go before it becomes an integral part of the school curriculum, he says
Delhi and quality education seem to be synonymous with each other lately. Happiness Curriculum, Entrepreneurship Mindset (EMC), Deshbhakti and the list is surely quite long. Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal and Education Minister Manish Sisodia are at the front and centre of it all, but there are others who are working behind the scenes too — who can really lend insights into what it is that the National Capital getting right when it comes to educating the future of the nation.
One such personality is Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor to Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi. After being associated with Pratham, the organisation that works in the space of education since 2002, Shailendra Sharma became the Principal Advisor in February 2016. And when we ask him after all the milestones, what’s coming up in terms of education in Delhi next, he says, “There are a few big initiatives which we call Reform 2.0.”
That itself is a cliffhanger.
We proceed to ask the alumnus of Delhi University about all that’s coming next, all that has happened and what’s his near-ideal idea of education and more. Excerpts from an interesting conversation.
The stand-out policies of Delhi's education system are, of course, well known. For example, the happiness curriculum. But what are the little things that Delhi is getting right when it comes to education and where is there scope for improvement?
The Happiness Curriculum is the first of the three mindset curricula we introduced in our schools. The other two are Entrepreneurship Mindset (EMC) and Deshbhakti. We introduced these curricula because balanced education requires a proportionate emphasis on knowledge, skills and attitudes but conventionally schools across the country, barring a few exceptions, largely focus on scholastic areas only. Thus, good grades in subjects like Math, Science seem to be the only indicator of “success” or qualities of “good students”.
While knowledge of these subjects is important, equally important is the ability to be an emotionally sound, confident, compassionate, critical thinker and problem solver. Through components like Business Blaster under EMC, our students get seed money of Rs 2,000 each to develop a business idea in groups and execute it in real situations. It is not a casual project but a real situation. Students learn teamwork, planning, budgeting, and communication, and in the process, acquire the confidence to be ready for life after school.
Similarly, through a daily session of mindful meditation, our children learn to be more attentive and focussed. The stories and activities in Happiness and Deshbhakti classes enable them to reflect upon their thoughts and emotions and express them without being judged. Apart from helping them acquire important life skills and appropriate attitude, this approach has a direct impact on other scholastic areas as it provides a pathway to shift from rote learning of subject matter to understanding and application.
Having said that, let me add that these curricular reforms are just two to four years old. We have a long way to go before it becomes an integral part of the school curriculum.
What do you think works best about the "Delhi model" of education? And since many states, including Telangana, are looking to implement the same, do you think it's a one-size-fits-all solution or will it have to be customised? If so, how and why?
Delhi Model has two important features. Firstly, it is located in the context of Delhi and secondly, it is backed by a very strong political will. The political will has two components: one, the personal commitment of the Chief Minister and the Education Minister and second, the allocation of 25% of the state budget to education, the highest among all budget heads.
I have been in the field of school education for the last 20 years but have never seen anything like this before. As a result of this, education is now becoming a part of serious political discourse even beyond Delhi. This is good for the future of our country.
As far as other states are concerned, we share our learnings and add that each state needs to create its own model based on its respective context. The only thing that needs to be common is the political will at the highest level including commitment of resources.
Coming to the NEP 2020, several academicians are not very happy with the policy, surely you have come across the criticism. In this context, what are your views and how do you plan on helping to implement it in Delhi?
I think the debate on NEP 2020 should now move from syntax to substance. The issue is not with the content of the policy but the intent in implementing it. There are two major roadblocks. First, no clarity on how the current school education system will transition from the present to the future. Schools are governed by the laws of the states, which will have to be aligned with the current education policies.
For example, Delhi school education is governed by the Delhi School Education Act 1973, Gujarat is governed by the Gujarat Secondary Education Act 1972, UP has Uttar Pradesh Basic Education Act 1972, Punjab has Punjab Primary Education Act 1960 and so on.
Second, who is going to commit the resources? The NEP was adopted by the Central government in 2020. The very next year’s budget saw a reduction of allocation to education by 6.13 per cent. Thus, the two biggest challenges in implementing the NEP 2020 which will need to be addressed first.
As far as Delhi is concerned, we took several steps between 2015-20 which found resonance in the NEP 2020 and subsequently also. For example, a strong emphasis on Foundational Literacy and numeracy has been in place in Delhi through the Chunauti programme of 2016 and Mission Buniyaad from 2018 onwards. Providing effective and sufficient infrastructure is recommended in the NEP which is one of the most significant thrusts of the Delhi Government. In the last seven years, more than 20,000 additional classrooms have been built in nearly 450 schools of the Delhi Government equipped with modern laboratories, libraries, staffrooms, sports facilities and so on.
Mindset Curricula is another example which resonates with NEP’s thrust on building social-emotional and ethical skills among children. Beyond this, for structural changes like teacher’s professional development, new ideas of school leadership, and shift from 10+2 model to 5+3+3+4, repeal or serious amendment of the Delhi School Education Act 1973 would be required.
The big COVID question. Learning gaps, dropouts, attention spans — there are so many problems that the pandemic has brought upon the education system. Could you please share a few pointers on where educational institutions need to begin and how can we get close to the solution?
Learning gaps, attention span and dropouts from the secondary stage onwards is not a new problem. COVID has merely exacerbated all these. The ASER survey has been consistently pointing out since 2005 that nearly 50 per cent of children in Class V across India cannot read a text of Class II level. As per DISE 2020-21, nearly 15 per cent of students drop out in Classes IX to X. Attention deficit is a common complaint of teachers during any parent-teachers meeting anywhere. I think post-COVID, school systems have a huge opportunity to reboot.
In Delhi schools, we started with rebuilding foundational learning skills when schools reopened. The idea was to start where children are. It took nearly three months of concerted efforts to bring the class where we normally would see them at the beginning of pre-COVID academic sessions. This was possible because we kept the class-wise syllabus aside and focussed on foundational skills.
As a next step, we have not only reduced the syllabus for all classes but also mapped the topics to conceptually connect with previous classes. Thus, we have brought the focus on strengthening the ability of reading, writing, understanding, expressing and problem-solving as learning goals in elementary grades.
What can we expect next when it comes to education in Delhi?
There are a few big initiatives which we call Reform 2.0.
While the first phase of reforms was largely fixing the fundamentals, Reform 2.0 is about reimagining education itself. We have set up schools of specialised excellence in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Humanities, Performing and Visual Arts and 21st Century High-End skills for Classes IX-XII.
At present, there are 30 such schools enrolling about 6,500 students but in the next two to three years, we plan to expand all these four sets of schools to all the 29 zones or 16 districts of Delhi. These schools will provide a futuristic pathway to children having special interests or aptitudes in any of these domains.
We have also launched a residential Armed Forces Preparatory school to support our boys and girls in their quest to join the Armed Forces after completing their school education. Delhi has set up its own board, called the Delhi Board of School Education (DBSE) now. The board will create a robust learning assessment infrastructure from kindergarten up to Class XII. Our expectation is that after 15 years of school education, a child should graduate as a confident, capable and creative person.
Do tell us about areas in education that you are personally passionate about and how you have invested time and energy throughout the years to see progress in the area?
Operationalisation of Schools of Specialized Excellence (SOSE) and setting up of the Delhi Board of School Education (DBSE) are currently two of the most significant initiatives that I have been personally involved with.
I am privileged to be part of a team that has senior education officers of the Delhi government and knowledge partners like International Bachelorette (IB), Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), IIT Delhi, Vidya Mandir Classes, NIFT, Global Music Institute amongst others. This is a unique experiment where the experience of government is converging with the expertise of specialised institutions to redefine secondary education. This is about getting our children future-ready in domains of their interest.
We are introducing new areas of learning, new dimensions of enquiry and exploration and new methods of assessment. The journey so far has been very interesting but I am aware that we have a long way to go.
With the delay in entrance tests, the introduction of CUET and of course, the pandemic, this academic year is seeing a lot of delays and students are going through a lot. What would be your message to them in circumstances like these?
Apart from everything else, in the last two years, our children in Classes XI and XII have had to face uncertainty with respect to syllabus, pedagogy and examination. It has been very stressful for them because this is the stage when they start planning to join college.
I can say that a very chaotic implementation of CUET has added to the already existing stress and uncertainty. My message to our students in the midst of this situation and the ones who will be here in subsequent years is to prepare for life and not for any particular exam, your life preparation will enable you to take any exam and clear it successfully.
Also, my message to decision-makers is: Please ask yourself if CUET is the remedy to the problem you are trying to solve. One single exam as a gateway to higher educational institutions, whether it is Boards or entrance tests, will not be able to curb coaching culture or the race for high marks/grades.
The remedy lies in having a series of assessments at different stages of a child’s entire schooling journey and using that data to facilitate the transition from school to college based on the child’s interest and aptitude.
India wants to be a 'Vishwaguru'. What are a few immediate and long-term steps that we need to take to ensure that this dream translates into reality?
I think if each one of us strives to become “Selfguru” India will automatically become “Vishwaguru”. India is not outside of us, each one of us is India. India cannot become something which most of us are not. Securing a high-quality and equitable education for every child is the most important first step. The next step should be to make education truly inclusive, which means schools should be able to identify the uniqueness of every child and help them attain excellence in them.
Take us back to the time in your life when you decided to make education your purpose. How did it all begin and what keeps you going on this journey?
Way back in 1999, as a student intern, I had the opportunity to work with a self-help group of tribal women in rural Madhya Pradesh. Most of these women have never been to school. They could not read the minutes of the meeting that recorded the decision to extend loans to members of their group. They were just putting their thumb impression. So practically, their decision had no meaning, instead, the one who could write it down would be the most powerful person. I saw what education could do or rather what the lack of it could take away.
Later on, I got the opportunity to work with Pratham, one of the largest organisations working for children’s education in India. It is here that I learnt to look at the child sitting in the last row of the class. Even today the biggest satisfaction I get is by seeing the shine in the eyes of a child who has just learnt to read. The confidence with which this child looks up after completing the entire paragraph is very inspiring. As though s/he is saying, “I am ready now”. This is what keeps me going.
What are you working on currently and what can we expect from you next?
I am part of a team which is working to translate the vision of the Delhi Government to transform India through education. We have demonstrated that the government school system can be changed for the better. Now we have to consolidate it. The job is not finished yet.
When do you think education in India would lead to a near-ideal, if not ideal, place? For example, when all students get jobs or when all students are awake, aware citizens. What is the picture you see?
When every morning, every child in India is happily headed for school. When there is no reason for any child to leave school mid-way. When every child walking out of school is confident, happy, compassionate, capable and clear about what s/he would like to do next. This is the near-ideal I imagine about education in India.