NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) – Pradeep Paswan used to skip school for weeks, sometimes months. His classrooms with tin ceilings were baking hot in the summer. The bathrooms were filthy.
Now, he gets dressed by 7am, in a blue shirt and trousers, eager to go to school, in a new building where the toilets are clean. “I come to school because I know that I can become something,” said Paswan, 20, who is in the 12th grade and dreams of becoming a top officer in India’s elite bureaucracy.
In India, where millions of families look to education to break the cycle of poverty, public schools have long had a reputation for decrepit buildings, mismanagement, poor instruction, even tainted lunches. Paswan’s school, in a working-class Delhi neighbourhood, was known as “the red school”, for the regular brawls on campus and the colour of its uniforms.
Today, it is a highly sought-after school, a beneficiary of the broader transformation of Delhi’s education system. Last year, 100 per cent of students in the school who took the standardised examinations for grades 10 and 12 passed, compared to 89 per cent and 82 per cent in 2014. The red uniforms have been swapped for navy blue and lavender.
The Aam Aadmi Party rose to power in Delhi on the promise to improve basic services: health, electricity, water and education. The party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who became Delhi’s chief minister in 2015, said he wanted to “revamp” the system to a point where government ministers would feel comfortable sending their children to public schools.
Kejriwal committed billions of additional dollars to overhaul schools, some of which until recently had no drinking water or had been invaded by snakes. The school system partnered with top experts and universities to design new curriculum, while working with parents, students and teachers to improve day-to-day operations.
“The first strong thing that Delhi has signalled is that our children are worth it, our schools are worth it and our teachers are worth it,” said Padma Sarangapani, a professor of education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
The school system is still a work in progress, with student-to-teacher ratios high in some schools and many buildings still in need of basic upgrades. But Kejriwal is finding success, announcing in December that 250,000 students had left private schools in the last five years to attend government schools. Some of those moved to public schools because of pandemic-related losses in family income.
Almost 100 per cent of students who appeared for their final high school examinations last year passed, compared to 87 per cent who appeared in 2012, according to data from the Delhi government. And other state governments, including Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are now pushing to adopt “the Delhi model”.
The work on education has helped generate solid political wins for the party, which in March gained control of a second state in India, Punjab. The party is taking its approach countrywide, campaigning on an education and basic-services platform in state elections this year in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
The transformation of Delhi’s schools started in 2015 with surprise visits by Manish Sisodia, Kejriwal’s education minister, and his chief adviser on education at the time, Atishi. The two would question school officials, pointing to rundown classrooms, misleading records and leaky taps.
“You would enter a school and you could smell the toilets from 50 metres away,” said Atishi, who goes by one name. “The message was that if the government can’t even clean schools, how is the government serious about education?”
The government enlisted private companies to clean hundreds of schools. It hired retired defence personnel as “estate managers” who oversaw repairs. The estate managers freed up school principals to focus on academic work.