Elephants and cows amongst the cars

Delhi is a curious mix. In a metropolis of around 20 million inhabitants it’s surprising to see an elephant being led alongside the highway as I did the other day (presumably it must belong to a zoo or circus). India is well-known for its tradition of allowing cows to wander freely – particularly in rural areas, however, in Delhi they are officially banned from the streets. So, when I saw cows in the road I knew I had arrived in a village, although the conurbation of Greater Delhi is very close to swallowing up the area.

The school we visited was quite different from any other I had yet attended. Overall, I felt a strong sense of a community and saw very little concern with timekeeping. This was a government school in an economically poorer area of Delhi, where village people lived alongside more recently arrived migrants from the countryside that had come to find work in the city. Attendance can be problematic for the children of these families who sometimes had to return to their villages to help with the harvest and to claim their portion of the produce. Children as workers might therefore disappear from lessons for periods of up to three weeks. Under such circumstances progress in learning will surely be quite erratic, but for these children, who might be the first generation in their family to attend school atall, adjusting to the system is a new experience.

Lunch arrives

Lunch arrives

Another concern was nutrition. For some, their first meal of the day would be that supplied by the school. Legislation ensures that all children attending government schools receive free meals. At this school the hot lunch arrives in a van at 10.30 am, since this is a morning school, using buildings which will accommodate another school during the second afternoon shift from 1 pm (population figures for this age group are growing more rapidly than school buildings – as a result of urban drift).

The school was designated as a Hindi-medium school, but with an English stream, so I was able to observe the first class having great fun in a game where they had to touch the part of their bodies named by the teacher in English (head, nose, etc.). Later, I observed a lesson based on a quite different understanding of how young children learn language. In a year 4 class the teacher asked one girl to read from the textbook while the class repeated her words. But, astonishingly, she was expected to read one word, which would then be chorused by the class, before moving on to the next word – what a contrast in understandings of teaching and learning!

My subsequent interview with Dr Mukul Priyadarshini, who taught on the highly rated 4-year course for elementary school teachers at a college of Delhi University, helped to account for this surprising evidence. Apparently, to become an elementary school teacher you need only to complete a two-year diploma course and take an entrance test to be ‘qualified’ as a teacher. There is little time in such a short course for any in-depth consideration of how children learn additional languages and many graduates of these diplomas have very low-level skills in English. Those students completed the 4-year course were more likely to accept jobs in some of the better equipped private, English-medium schools Nonetheless, for a ‘village’ school to be offering an English stream gives a hint of the high aspirational expectations of parents in this newly urbanised region of Delhi – apparently an increasingly common phenomenon throughout the country.

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