On July 15, the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education, which controls government-run schools, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Skill Development Corporation to introduce at least two vocational courses per school in 200 senior secondary schools in this academic year (2015-16). The list of skill-based programmes include beauty and wellness, automobiles, retail, travel and tourism, security, among others, and will be taught from classes IX to XII.

The agreement is not isolated to Delhi – it is part of a country-wide creeping drive to have vocational training at school level. The NSDC says it is working in 11 states to introduce vocational programmes in 2,400 schools. The Central Board of Secondary Education, which affiliates public and private schools around the country, also has skill-based courses.

Though vocational subjects are worming their way into private schools as well, it is in state-owned schools that they are getting maximum mileage. That’s because children here are from poor families – referred to in education circles as first-generation learners. With little support at home, these students struggle with academics.

“Initially, we had trouble persuading the girls to take up vocational subjects, but when we told them they are scoring low [in academics], their receptivity went up,” said the principal of a government-run school in Jama Masjid area, who asked that she not be named as she needs permission from the directorate to talk to the media.

Her school has beauty and hair care as a vocational subject.

The push towards vocational courses in government schools has teacher Firoz Ahmad worried. He perceives a dangerous offshoot to imparting skills at school level: in India, where work has historically been linked to caste, teaching vocational subjects to a particular set of students has an ominous ring to it, a "plumber-ka-beta-security guard" push by schools which are meant to lift students out of class and caste pigeonholes.

Those ranged against Ahmad argue that since government schools teach badly, proved by levels of learning recorded in successive Annual Status of Education Reports, vocational courses may be the answer to ensuring jobs for those whose options are anyway limited.

India wants to increase its skilled workforce, and schools are a way of catching them young. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, started by the Narendra Modi regime to house various programmes, estimates 5% of those aged between 20 and 24 years have formal training compared to half the population of this age in the United States. Also, 16 million enter the labour market every year, apart from existing workers, who need to be skilled.

Compulsory or not?

Despite three weeks of calls to Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia’s office, the Directorate of Education and e-mails to the CBSE, this reporter could not conclude if vocational programmes are on their way to becoming mandatory.

NSDC, in reply to e-mailed questions, said it is working in 11 states to introduce vocational education in more than 2,400 schools. Two trades are offered in each school, and each trade should have 50 students. Teachers come from NSDC’s partners while state governments build labs in schools.

In Delhi, anecdotal evidence suggests a few schools are offering subject combinations that necessarily include vocational subjects. What is worrying – apart from class reinforcement of vocational streams – is that the university system does not offer recognition of scores in vocational subjects, thereby forcing students to not count scores of such subjects in university applications.

In Burari, a Class XI student of a government school, who requested anonymity as she felt it would make her stand out in her environment, said the school she was automatically promoted to after Xth board exams offered a combination of Political Science with two vocational subjects: Fashion Design and Beauty & Hair Care. This student opted for the combination of Economics and Geography in another school.

Inme koi fayda nahi hai (there is no advantage in doing them)”, she said about vocational subjects. She wants to enrol in Delhi University for a degree in Economics. If she had opted for a combination with two vocational streams, she would have had to drop marks of both to calculate a best-of-four subject average. Usually, out of five academic subjects, universities ask for scores in English and any other four.

A Right to Information or RTI filed by teacher Ahmad came back with no answers as to how many students sat for vocational exams in 2015, or the number of course offered. It did say, though, that Delhi government schools offer choice-based vocational courses (in Delhi, all government schools above class VI are run by the government; below that grade are with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi).

Vocational courses are taught by part-time or contract teachers, the RTI reply in July said.

Not counted in college

Two of the most upmarket private schools in the city – DPS Sushant Lok and Sanskriti School – reported either disinterest in vocational subjects or worry from parents about their scores not counting for college applications.

Ruchi Seth, principal of DPS Sushant Lok, said a course on Entrepreneurship in her school did not find any takers while one on Fashion Design saw enrolment fall from 12 to 7 this year.

Abha Sahgal, principal of the sought-after Sanskriti School in Chanakyapuri, said while the Entrepreneurship course has been a success in her school she has no answers when parents come back and ask her if scores in that subject will be counted for university applications.

“My biggest grouse [as far as vocational is concerned] is that university doesn’t seem to be in sync with schools,” said Sahgal of Sanskriti. “We are caught on the back foot when parents come back to us.”

Sanskriti’s head of senior school, Poorni Rajesh, says the school will scrap Entrepreneurship once the current class XI batch graduates, even though the course was popular with differently-abled students who struggled with Maths. The school will, however, retain Fashion Design (this course helps students gain admission in design and fashion schools). Rajesh’s office, a buzz of activity in a beautiful campus in Chanakyapuri, is making calls to the CBSE to understand how another course will be taught.

Rajesh feels it is unlikely that vocational courses will be made compulsory till the university system recognises them. The courses “are not counted in DU, entire public will be up in arms,” said Rajesh.

Students in Sanskriti’s graduating batch who gained admission in Delhi University did so by dropping the vocational subject score.

Old hands in the school system such as SC Baveja, who headed a private school for 22 years before retiring, say introduction of vocational subjects after the Kothari Commission Report (which examined all aspects of the education sector) came a cropper because of this hurdle: lack of opportunity in higher education and further skilling.

Shortage of beauticians

Trainers such as VLCC say the challenge it faces while giving skill-based training is convincing students that being inside a beauty parlour is not a bad choice.

“Is it (the profession) sexy enough to begin with?” says Sandeep Ahuja, managing director and group CEO of VLCC Health Care Ltd, a beauty parlour and fitness centre chain.

Ahuja says all constituents of the beauty business should come together to make the industry – which, as per a KPMG-NSDC report, needs 14.5 million trained staff in another 10 years – as attractive as, say, photography or film-making.

VLCC runs courses in 68 college campuses, and is keen on getting into schools to tell students there are options other than academic choices.

“We are working to scale this up,” said Ahuja from the one or two schools VLCC says it has been in so far.

VLCC is a "skill knowledge provider" with the CBSE, a key body that holds standardised tests in schools, the XIIth examination being the most crucial in students’ trajectory. An official in the Public Relations office, after repeated messages, said all information is on the CBSE website. The site lists 35 skilled knowledge providers as “empanelled” for vocational courses in CBSE-affiliated schools. The courses, among others, are in retail, IT, security, health and beauty, and automobile.

VLCC trained 34 students last year at the Sarvodaya School, President Estate.

Sarvodaya’s newly-appointed principal Omlata Singh – the previous principal and guest teacher of food production, a vocational course, got sacked after a raid by Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia found irregularities in book-keeping of the vocational programme – said since she has just taken over she does not have time to unearth students’ names or find out how the VLCC course was received last year.

She said she is struggling to find a teacher for the food production course but, so far, without success. The home science teacher is acting as stand-in as the vocational course has to be taught “by hook or crook”.