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'Moving Beyond Tyranny of Syllabus': How Atishi Marlena Scripted Success of Delhi Govt Schools

By: Rupashree Nanda

Edited By: Mayur Borah


Last Updated: June 01, 2018, 20:44 IST

Illustration by Mir Suhail.

Illustration by Mir Suhail.

Atishi Marlena has won praise after Delhi government school students’ stellar performance in the CBSE Class XII exams. In an exclusive interview with News18, she talks about her decision to join AAP, her passion for education and much more.

Atishi Marlena, who served as an advisor on education to the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government for three years was removed from her post following an advisory from the Union Home Ministry in April in which her appointment was cancelled. Marlena was the most “critical person for AAP in its efforts in the field of education”. She was also instrumental in shaping the Happiness Curriculum designed to increase the “happiness equality” levels of students. She is said to be involved in strengthening regulations on private school fees and organising parent-teacher meetings, including the largest such meet in Delhi in 2017.

Marlena has won praise after Delhi government school students’ stellar performance in the CBSE Class XII exams.

In an interview with News18's Rupashree Nanda, Marlena talks about her decision to join AAP, her passion for education, the mystery with her surname and her plans for schools.

Excerpts from the interview.

Tell us about your early life and education.

Atishi: I went to a private school in Delhi. I was in Springdales and before that till grade 4, I was in the school called Shivniketan, an alternative small school. Then I did my graduation in history honours from Delhi University, St Stephen’s College. Later, I went to do my Masters from Oxford in Ancient and Modern History

After finishing your education where did you start working?

Atishi: When I came back I thought of doing a PhD. But then I thought that duniya ke liye kuch karna chahiye (I should do something for the society). So I started teaching in a school 100 kilometres from Bangalore called Rishi Valley. The reason for going there basically was that I have been involved in a lot of activism through my student days and my days in Oxford. I used to feel that when this activism is done in Delhi, nothing changes because there aren’t enough people who are trying to change things. The year I was at Oxford, the Iraq war had happened and I was involved a lot in the anti-war movement. At that point of time, millions came out and opposed the war and still nothing happened. Nothing changed. So then I thought of doing something in education –a year after I taught in Rishi Valley, I worked on exploring different education related initiatives across the country.

How has working at Rishi Valley impacted you?

I was in Rishi Valley for a year. Then I went back again to Oxford for a year. I did a Masters in Education and after that I worked for 4 – 5 years with a group of friends in Madhya Pradesh. They were living in a village 25 kilometres outside of Bhopal and working with the local community there. The idea was how communities could actually build themselves and be the pillar of social change – like the Gandhian kind of idea and gram swaraj. So we used to live there. We were not working like an NGO because we had to live there ourselves. We were doing some work with local schools and worked with the gram sabha and gram panchayat. We were, in fact, doing organic farming ourselves.

Which year was this?

Atishi: It was from 2007 to 2012.

You were not in Delhi when Jan Lokpal movement started in Delhi?

Atishi: No, I wasn’t here. It was interesting because this was the time the Lokpal movement was happening. By that time we had some questions about the things we were doing. First, we thought we should build a bottom upwards kind of movement for change but then I think we had also begun to realise that there are so many constraints that ordinary people face in their lives that I think change needs to come from top down . So that question was already there in all of our minds by then. When the Lokpal movement happened, it was interesting to see that so many people, having been involved in lot of student activism, came out on the streets. It was quite exciting but I wasn’t sure whether this is what was going to lead to some change.

Then a very interesting thing happened. So we had known many of these people like Manish ji, Prashant ji, Arvind Ji from this activists’ circle that we used to be in and because of the RTI movement. I remember when the India Against Corruption movement was going on Manish ji had come to Bhopal once, he asked some of us ‘I am having a volunteer meeting of IAC why don’t you come also and address our volunteers? So I said okay. I think that was the time I started getting even more interested in IAC. The reason was if you look at the activism in a city like Delhi be it a protest or some International Women’s Day march, or any other issue , it is the same set of people, the same was true for Bhopal also. There were a certain kind of activists and we used to know all of them by then. We have been living in Bhopal for many years but when we went in to address the volunteers of India Against Corruption, it was a room full of people – hundred plus people and I did not know a single one in that room. And that for me was quite interesting to know that there is a completely different set of people who have come out and are asking for change. So I started getting interested in IAC. I got into a conversation with Manish ji, Prashant ji and moved to Delhi by the end of 2012. I started off by doing some odd policy related research for IAC.

And then you decided to stay on?

Atishi: Actually I think, many of us had never thought that this is going to be forever. We were all volunteers. I had planned to move out of Delhi after 2013 elections – I was like, chalo acche log hain inke saath lagke kuch karna chahiye (These are good people and I should work with them) and then 2013 happened and we thought we should stick around for few more months. But when the party lost the Lok Sabha elections, we decided not to abandon the sinking ship. We thought about all our friends and our colleagues and decided to stay put until the next elections.

Was that an easy decision?

Atishi: Actually, I don’t think I consciously made the decision to stay. I just happened to do it. As I said it happened in bits and pieces. This is what we had become.

It’s interesting that you mentioned you worked both with Manish Sisodia and Prashant Bhushan when you got into the movement. But what happened when they fell apart? Do you still interact with Mr Bhushan?

Atishi: Not very much. But to be honest if I were to meet him I definitely would have a cordial conversation.

Was that difficult for you – the falling out of Prashant and Arvind?

Atishi: Of course it was difficult. I think it was difficult because we were not just normal colleagues. AAP has been through so many difficulties. So having lived together and worked together 24x7 through such difficult times, it almost felt like a fight in the family. It is almost like parents getting divorced in a family. If you were to see even in the party today, everyone refers to Prashant as Prashant ji. They respect him a lot.

So you would like him to come back to the party? You would want some sort of reconciliation between Arvind and Prashant?

Atishi: I think a lot of water has now flown under the bridge. But we have a lot of respect for what someone like Prashant ji does. Maybe not all battles are meant to be fought together. I think there is no doubt about the fact that he is doing good work.

But do you see them coming together? 

Atishi: I think it is difficult to say.

If he was with AAP today, would the party have been stronger? Looking at all the legal battles that you have been through and the strength that he brings to the table?

Atishi: Prashant ji is a crusader, there is no doubt about that. He is someone who has immense courage and strength but I think sometimes it is also that people have different ways of working. So just because we are not working together, we are not working against each other or have something against each other.

But would AAP have been stronger?

Atishi: It is difficult to say because as I said people have different styles of working. So it is not always possible for people also to necessarily work together. As I said we still have a lot of respect for him in everything that he does.

You worked on a token salary of Re 1 for so many months. How did you survive living in Delhi? Why did you not take salary from the government?

Atishi: The thing is I have been working full time for the party even before I started working with the government and when I was working with the party I had no salary. There were various ways to make ends meet. Sometimes I freelanced, sometimes researched, sometimes with the help of family support — and this is not just true for me, this is true for hundreds and thousands of volunteers of Aam Aadmi Party. I think, I could not for some reason justify to myself that just because I happen to be in the government I should be getting a salary. It is just because I happen to have a certain skill set which is useful in the government that was one of the reasons I did not take the salary. I felt that there are so many others in the party who also have worked as hard and are still working as hard and giving their lives to this. So this is not something I could justify to myself for some reason.

You did not tell us about your surname. How did you get that surname and whether it is going to become a stumbling block if you ever fight an election?

Atishi: It is not a surname. My surname is basically Singh. That is what my family name is, but I have never used that. Marlena is basically a second name

So it is Atishi Marlena Singh?

Atishi: Yes.

You feel it is not going to be a stumbling block when it comes fighting elections. Or will you let your people know that you are actually a ‘Singh?

Atishi: We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

But why Marlena?

Atishi: This was the second name that my parents gave me – comes from a combination of Marx and Lenin. My parents were Leftists. They still are. It is a Russian name.

You have always felt comfortable with it?

Atishi: Yes. Why not? What’s in a name after all?

What explains Delhi government schools’ performance this year? How does it compare with the past four years and what is the most significant achievement?

Atishi: So two-three things one needs to understand. First is that Delhi government schools are the only schools in the country that take CBSE exams otherwise all government schools apart from the Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas all take state board exams. And state boards are, as one knows, under different kinds of political pressures also, so you have good results in election years. Delhi has always given CBSE exams and our government has also decided that students are going to take CBSE. First of all our students are competing on equal footing with private school students. What we have seen in the past three years is that government schools have started doing better than private schools in terms of pass percentage. The reason this is a big deal is because students in government schools come from very disadvantaged backgrounds. When you look at Class 12th exams, people are taking children for tuitions and rely a lot on guide books. These are things that children of government schools often cannot afford, around 50% of these students are first generation learners. So no one in their families have even gone to school, hence there is no academic support at home.

But you have said earlier that research shows many students in Class 5, Class 6 are unable to read properly, they are unable to do solve maths problems. Then how do you explain this performance in class 12th?

Atishi: We have been working on all of these counts. It is not that we are only working with Class 10th and Class 12th students. A lot of our initiatives have been with students from lower grades as well. The intent is to strengthen their foundation and the more you strengthen the foundation, the more likely they are to perform better as they move higher up.

But can there be such a big leap for a child who can’t even read or write in class 6th?

Atishi: Actually, reading and writing are not that difficult to learn. Last to last year, we ran this reading campaign, in a period of month-and-a-half we were able to help one lakh children transition from non-readers to readers. Before Mission Buniyaad, the previous version of it was called mission Chunauti. Our problem is that our education system has been the victim of the syllabus and it is almost like the tyranny of the syllabus that needs to be completed. So it does not understand if the child does not understand anything or learn anything. The teachers feel the compulsion to complete the syllabus and that is the one thing that we have changed. We have said that if a child does not know how to read we teach them how to read. If the child does not know the basics we teach them the basis. The child who can understand the syllabus, we will teach him the syllabus. So that is how we have been bridging the gap. Having said that, there is still a long way to go, because there are children who reach Class 9 and Class 10 and are not able to make the transition beyond. That’s why this year we have been helping the children take the Class 10th exam by NIOS as they have not been able to clear the CBSE exams even after one or two attempts.

How many or what percentage would that be?

Atishi: Because of the no-detention policy, what happens is that children keep getting promoted year upon year till they reach Class 9th. It is almost 40% to 50 % children who have been failing their exams. Till we came to power this number was steadily increasing. So in the first year or two, we have been able to stem that increase and after that it started declining.

What is the scale of the number, if you can give an idea?

Atishi: Approximately, almost one lakh students per year fail in Class 9.

I presume most of these students must be from lower strata of society.

Atishi: Yes absolutely they are.

So one lakh students only in Delhi, every year?

Atishi: Yes, and 20,000 students enrolled in NIOS. We ran extra classes for them. We started special NIOS centres where Delhi government school teachers were deployed. Regular classes were conducted in the evening, otherwise NIOS only provides weekend classes.

So while UP government celebrates children dropping from exams you found a way out for those who were stuck?

Atishi: I won’t say we have found a way out. We are trying to find a way out.

Teacher training has been a big challenge for government schools. What have you done on this front?

Atishi: In government schools teachers are better qualified than private schools — they come through a more rigorous selection process. Problem was that there was no learning atmosphere in these institutions. Once things like with infrastructure, hygiene and overall atmosphere improved, teachers’ attitude also changed. We have not given any cash incentive to our teachers, neither have we taken excessive punitive actions. Basically we have transformed the work culture.

I feel in any institution there are 20% people who are outstanding, they work despite all odds. Then there is bottom 20% who are really bad. But the bulk of 60% go whichever way the wind is blowing. This is where we have been able to make biggest difference. Earlier the middle 60% tended to go towards the bottom 20%. Now that has changed.

For example, there are some small things that have gone into motivating teachers. Earlier, teachers used to be given Rs 25 in cash for lunch during training programs. That’s such a humiliating thing for a professional. How can one buy a decent lunch in Delhi for Rs 25? Similarly, teacher’s desks were of such poor quality that no one could sit on them for hours. We increased the funds for teacher training.

In the summer vacation of 2016 we converted a couple of schools in central Delhi as temporary training centres and rolled out green carpet, something commonly used in weddings, for our teachers. All chairs had cushion covers and tables were wrapped in white clothes... when the teachers came, we served them packed lunches… they were pleasantly surprised. It gave them a message that we value their work. In the larger scheme of things this is not an educational reform, we just gave them respect. But that made a lot of psychological difference.

Today, a teacher in Delhi gets same facilities during training that a civil servant does.

Similarly, we have sent some teachers and principals abroad for training. We have sent more than 300 principals to Cambridge. We are sending a batch of 100 teachers to Harvard. About 200 teachers have gone to Singapore’s National Institute of Education. Now bulk of our training is done by 200 teachers who have performed exceptionally. These mentor teachers train 25,000 fellow teachers. Our school leadership training is similar to how CEO coaching happens… peer group learning kind of thing. Principals have a monthly session where 10 of them sit together discuss issues and ideas.

How does Delhi compare with other states when it comes to budgetary allocation in education reforms?

Atishi: As far as I know, Delhi government has the highest budgetary allocation among states. I don’t think there is any other state that allocates 25% of its budget to education. When we came into power in 2015, we increased the budget almost by 100%. It was Rs 5,000 crore in the year before that and we immediately doubled it to Rs 10,000 crore.

These students were staring at an uncertain future. When you decided to give a huge push to education, in terms of budget, did you expect it to yield results?

Atishi: I think we realised that there was a serious infrastructure crisis as well. I remember when Manish ji and I were looking at the date to start with, the highest number of children in a classroom was 176. With so many children in the classroom there is no way to teach all the kids, no matter how qualified teachers you have.

What is that number now?

Atishi: There are some areas in northeast Delhi where there are still serious issues of number of children per classes. But the average is down to around 60.

What about the happiness curriculum? Where did the idea come from? What are the results?

Atishi: Happiness curriculum is yet to be launched. We are still in the preparation stage. It is almost like a ladder we started from infrastructure, moved to accountability, bridging the learning gap, training the teachers but finally the purpose of education is not just producing marks. We are not just marks producing factories. Right now the only purpose of education is to produce marks. So the idea is to do well in education for our practical life. But we live in a society where there is unhappiness even in people who are best qualified.There is definitely a need to start thinking more deeply about what kind of human beings the education system is producing.

Where did the idea of introducing spoken English classes in government schools come from?

Atishi: Spoken English was introduced last year when more than 350 students of Delhi government schools who had cleared IIT-JEE met the CM. During the interaction one of the students got up and said “Hamara IIT mein admission toh ho gya hai, magar hum jab bahar jaate hain toh humein inferior feel hota hai… humein English bolni nahi aati hai (We have got admission in IIT but we feel inferior in front of others because we can’t speak English).

To this, the CM said, “Jab mera IIT Kharagpur me admission hua, mein Hisar mein rehta tha. English toh humne school mein padhi thi, par English mein log bolte bhi hain ye mujhe pehli baar pata chala jab hum Kharagpur gaya. (When I got admission in IIT Kharagpur, I used to live in a town of Haryana. I had studied English in school but I first saw people speaking in English when I went to Kharagpur). Kejriwal promised to start spoken English classes for students. This year, we have trained about 24,000 students. We plan to scale it up to 3-4 lakh students and make it a permanent feature.

What about the regularisation of contract teachers?

Atishi: It is not controversial, it is something that has to be done. It is just that the honourable Lieutenant Governor has not ruled in our favour. See the reason why it has not happened is because the services as per the current legal situation comes under LG and not under us, and therefore we have not been able to do anything. Contract teachers in Delhi are not like contract teachers in any other part of the country who have just been recruited from the village who may not be qualified. All our contract teachers are qualified. They have BEd degree, they have CTET. Now if you have equally qualified teachers why would you not employ the one who is already experienced in our system. Apart from the working conditions of these teachers, the fact is that you exploited them when you needed them.

What is the RTE status and how many teachers are affected?

Atishi: Around 15,000 teachers. As of now, the regularisation of guest teachers or giving them any kind of weightage in the entrance procedure has been rejected by the LG. So is regular recruitment.

That will be a big issue for you?

Atishi: It is something that we have been fighting for all of this time and we do think that these guest teachers do deserve to be regularized.

What is the biggest failure in terms of education?

Atishi: I think that there is not any one specific gap. But I do think it would be helpful if there was not this constant targeting that we have faced by the LG. If the obstacles were not created on multiple fronts we would have been able to do much better. I think that even in these three years, we could have substantially done more even in terms of intervention and in terms of reducing the learning gap.

Some schools have swimming schools, football fields, is it possible that all government schools have the same level of infrastructure?

Atishi: Absolutely. That is the intent.