Twenty four years is a long time for experimenting with the role of languages in primary education. But the West Bengal government has done precisely that, although things are back to square one at the end of this period of trial. The government’s primary schools will revert to teaching English from class I. It is doubtful whether years of confused thinking and even more confusing action on bilingualism, chauvinism and pedagogy has brought about any gain in wisdom for those in the government who still insist on having their fingers in every educational pie. But it has certainly produced generations of seriously disadvantaged students and professionals, who would be perfectly justified in seeing themselves as the victims of the most reactionary principles of primary education. The Left Front government had abolished English teaching from class I in 1980, and then from 1982, students were introduced to the language from class VI instead of class V. From 1996, the Ashok Mitra commission managed to bring this down again to class V. Then the Pabitra Sarkar committee succeeded in getting students started with English from class II, and now it again hopes to begin at the beginning. This is the worst sort of meddlesomeness which is bound to have a sort of relay effect on the state of education in Bengal, from the primary to the highest levels, and beyond. Such damage is inevitable when education becomes a partisan and bureaucratic affair, leaving its mark even on such things as the quality of text-books and the standard of teaching.
The belated good sense of recognizing the absolute importance of English as a world language, and also as one of the Indian languages, is part of the Left Front’s efforts to keep up with the times. It comes with a new emphasis on vocational education, and on preparing students for the practical and professional world. This has its own perils in the context of education, particularly with authorities who cannot decide whether they are party-members, politicians or educators. It is also alarming that the state is planning to have yet another board for vocational education, in spite of the existing boards’ state of chronic disorganization. The education bureaucracy needs to be made minimal rather than more elaborate. Keeping primary and vocational education in tune with the modern world is a serious and specialized matter which needs the concerted thinking of experienced educationists, and not a series of hastily got-up committees which pronounce on isolated elements of teaching and learning. Both the Centre and the state will have to back off from education and let those who know best about these things take on the business of learning and academic excellence.