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Mind your language

It’s a sleepy neighbourhood in Alwal, near Begumpet in Hyderabad. C.S. Lakshmi, a daily wage labourer, waits patiently outside Sri Sai Sarvani Vidyapith for her daughter Meena, who is taking spoken English lessons in the school. Meena never misses the weekly class. Her mother wants her to hone her English before she appears for the board examinations next year.

Some 12 kilometres away, in Kakatiyanagar, autorickshaw driver B. Shriram politely refuses to ferry around students of Kairali Vidyabhavan, a private secondary school, or their parents. He is waiting for his son Sampath, a school topper, who is preparing for his board exams.

Lakshmi and Sampath represent families that earn barely Rs 5,000 a month. Despite that, they would rather put their offspring in private schools that charge a fee instead of free government schools. “Private schools take money, but they also teach English and computers,” Lakshmi says. “Government schools mostly teach in Telugu or Urdu. Plus, teachers often fail to turn up,” Sampath adds.

A report by the Regional Institute of English, Bangalore, a government institute that addresses the English educational needs of the four south Indian states, says that the enrolment percentage in Class I to Class X in Telugu medium government schools in Andhra Pradesh went down from 83.47 to 65.54 between 2000-2001 and 2009-2010.

The situation in neighbouring Karnataka is no better. Late last year, the Karnataka government announced that it might have to close nearly 3,000 schools across the state because of a lack of students. Karnataka has around 45,000 government schools with some 5 million primary class students.

The state of government schools can be gauged from these figures. Only five or fewer children enrolled in over 600 government schools and 10 or less in 2,500 government schools in Karnataka in 2010-2011. A government primary school in Ashok Nagar in Bangalore hasn’t seen a single student in classes I or II for two years.

“The pressure from private schools is enormous. Parents are ready to starve but they want their children to speak in a language that they themselves don’t understand,” says Y. Yellappa, block education officer of south range, Bangalore.

Not very far from his office in Jayanagar, Manasa Vidya Kendra is spilling over with students. Such schools — where students are taught in English and the monthly fees range from Rs 120 to Rs 250 — dot almost every colony in Bangalore. “The challenge is for the government to form a policy which attracts students from all sections of society,” says Channa Basavayya, principal of Government Model School, Puttenahalli, Bangalore.

There is concern in some quarters about the lack of interest in regional languages. After the government announced its decision to close the schools, the Kannada Sahitya Sammelan, a literary summit, opposed the government’s move. It urged the government to pay a stipend to every student willing to study Kannada in a government school.

“We proposed that every student be paid Rs 250 a month which is a minor sacrifice to keep Kannada alive,” says S.L. Bhyrappa, Kannada writer and a vocal critic of the focus on English education.

Minister for primary and secondary education, Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri, is unperturbed. “It is not as if children are losing out. We are merely merging schools in areas where the enrolment is very low,” he says.

For many Indians, English is the door to opportunity. “There is a belief that English medium schools make children smarter and better,” says N. Siva Sankar, commissioner and director of school education, Andhra Pradesh government.

Not surprisingly, the Karnataka government recently decided to permit around 300 government schools to introduce English medium instruction from Class VI. “I think the government is reading the signs correctly. You cannot force a language down the throats of the children and parents,” says Shudra Shrinivas, Kannada poet and author.

Andhra Pradesh is taking similar steps. Around 5,000 Model English Schools — on the lines of the Kendriya Vidyalayas (government schools across the country with high levels of academic standards) — will be set up across Andhra Pradesh. The importance that the people give to English can be gauged from the fact that Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress recently promised to convert all government Telugu medium schools into English medium schools if the party came to power in the Assembly elections in 2014.

Affordable English education has several national and international private investors interested. Hyderabad-based Rumi Education is one such organisation, started four years ago by the Richard Chandler Corporation, a Singapore-based investment group. “We don’t run schools per se, but we partner with low-cost or affordable schools. We help them develop their curriculum,” says Amitava Banerjee, head, marketing, Rumi. Rumi has a partnership with over 120 schools in India.

Others, such as the Sri Chaitanya Techno Schools, Gowtham Model Schools and Sujaya, are also in the business. “We have 80 schools in Andhra and are expanding in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha,” says Aravind Kumar, general manager (marketing), Gowtham Model Schools. According to him, surveys show that parents in low income groups are ready to spend a fifth of their income on their children’s education.

Most parents know that India’s job market demands fluency in English. Since teaching standards have been falling in government schools over the years — for reasons such as lack of funds, infrastructure and teachers — parents are opting for private schools which have been mushrooming across India. But what worries educationists is that the standard of teaching is often no better in these schools.

The Annual Status of Education Report 2011, a survey of government and private schools in a municipal ward in Hyderabad conducted by the non-government organisation Pratham, says that only a third of all children in Class V in an average English medium private school in the ward were able to decode simple English sentences. “The (reading) ability of children in English medium private schools is cause for major concern,” the report concluded.

The survey results do not surprise experts bemoaning the state of education. “The medium of instruction is not an issue — the problem is that most state governments have failed to teach proper English to students,” says R. Govinda, vice-chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, established by the ministry of human resource development. “For that matter, they’ve failed to teach any language or skill. The problem lies in teaching.”

Ronald Stones, a British educationist and vice-president, Richard Chandler Corporation, agrees. “You need a good teacher for better learning outcomes. Neither the medium of instruction nor technology is important,” he says.

Some government teachers believe that their schools are far better than the private schools. “Students taught by government schools will win hands down in any subject against those from private school because of the quality of teachers,” says Krishnappa, a science teacher at a government school at JP Nagar, Bangalore. “But English is our Achilles’ heel.”

And as long as it’s another word for development and affluence, the march of English will clearly carry on.