English medium schools: pragmatic or problematic?

Ramanujam Parthasarathy

The new Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (AP), Jagan Mohan Reddy, has announced that English will be introduced as the medium of instruction (MoI) from classes I to VI in all government-run schools in the state while Telugu will remain a compulsory subject on the curriculum. This is much like his predecessor, Chandrababu Naidu’s decision in 2016 that with immediate effect Telugu be replaced with English as the MoI in all municipal schools in the state. In response to protests by teachers’ unions, however, Naidu relented on the issue and put the controversial move on hold. His successor though has taken it up as part of his Rajanna Badi Bata (Way to School) scheme.

The obsession with English in AP
During the last 10 years or so, irrespective of the party in power, the Government of AP has been keen on introducing English as the MoI in all schools. In 2008, six years before the state was bifurcated, the government rolled out an interesting MoI policy called SUCCESS, an acronym for Strengthening and Universalizing Quality of and Access to Secondary Schools, for implementation in select schools. In these 6,500 schools identified for SUCCESS, instruction was made available in both English and Telugu, and parents could opt for one of the two languages as the MoI for their children. There are only 3072 SUCCESS schools in AP now, as 3428 became part of Telangana in 2014. In 2015-16, the government wanted the SUCCESS schools to become full-fledged English-medium schools with the Telugu-medium sections in them being shifted to non-SUCCESS high schools in the neighbourhood and issued orders to this effect, but has failed to implement the orders so far. The government also announced that the teachers of the SUCCESS schools would be trained by UNICEF, the British Council, and The English and Foreign Languages University during the summer holidays, but this plan also remains only on paper. The last two events in this English as the MoI history are the decision, in 2016, to replace Telugu with English as the MoI in all municipal schools followed by a dramatic climb-down, and the present Chief Minister’s announcement, so soon after his takeover, that all government-run schools in the state will be converted into English-medium schools.

Why is the government, irrespective of the party in power, so fixated on English as the MoI? I can think of two reasons.

First, enrolment in government-run schools in AP has greatly declined and perhaps the government thinks that “upgrading” them to English medium schools will give them a makeover. In 2006-07, there were as many as 5639 primary schools with fewer than 20 children in each and the government wanted to close down 2,300 of them by merging them with upper primary schools. In 2007-08, the government ordered the closing down of 6,500 primary schools, 2,500 upper primary schools and 50 high schools, but reduced the number to 6000 relenting to pressure.

Can English medium provide the needed attraction? The government seems to think so. But, it is not altogether wrong, because the Telugus, unlike the Tamilians, the Malayalees and even the Maharashtrians, seem to put a high premium on English language education to the extent of ignoring their mother tongue; the craze for English medium education runs so deep here. During the three school-year period till 2006, enrolment at the upper-primary level in English medium schools in AP registered a dramatic 100% increase (i.e., from 10.6 lakh to 20.9 lakh), while the figures for Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala for the same period are 17%, 12% and 3% respectively (http://www.schoolreportcards.in/Media/m69.html).

Secondly, the government seems to think that an early start in English is necessary to cope with the needs of a fast globalizing economy. It seems to assume that an early start will serve to equalize learning opportunities and empower the underprivileged sections of society. Implicit in this assumption is the cynical belief that the mother tongue will hamper the child’s success later in the job market.

Can an early start in education through English help?
Are the government’s assumptions about an early start in English education yielding gains valid?

Research has shown that a late start in a second or foreign language is not at all a disadvantage. Late starters can easily catch up with early starters, using the skills they have learnt in their first language, if they have attained, in the first language, what is called CALP (cognitive and academic language proficiency). And acquiring CALP in the first language doesn’t involve a long and painful process. Proficiency in the mother tongue is, therefore, a resource. A good deal of research has been done in the area of the best starting age for learning a second language. The findings (e.g., Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. 2006. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press) indicate that unless an L2 learning situation is similar to that of an L1 acquisition situation, which is possible in the case of total immersion, learning a second or a foreign language in childhood is not at all an advantage. As a matter of fact, research results suggest that one can learn a second language more effectively if one starts around 12-14 years.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that an early start is advantageous, its success depends upon competent teaching. Is this possible in the state-run schools?

In 2017, in the wake of the Chandrababu Naidu government’s decision to replace Telugu with English as the MoI in municipal schools, I did a good deal of field work visiting a few SUCCESS schools in Vijayawada city and discussing with a cross section of teachers the teaching-learning situation there during the past eight years, ever since the introduction of English as the MoI alongside Telugu. I gleaned the following facts from those lengthy conversations.

The teachers were pushed into teaching via English with no preparation or training. When the SUCCESS programme was launched, the government promised to train the teachers adequately through different means. GO Ms No. 76 Education (SE-TRG) Department dated 10 June 2008 promised (a) adequate training for the subject teachers drawing upon the expertise of The English and Foreign Languages (EFL) University and the Regional Institute of English (RIE); (b) long-term training for 40-45 secondary-grade teachers at EFL University, RIE and other institutions and then using them as resource persons for conducting district-level training programmes for the rest of the teachers; and (c) equipping each of the 6500 schools with an English language lab and 6 English-Telugu and 6 Telugu-English dictionaries. All these grandiose plans have remained a pipe dream to this day; none of them has materialized. Except for a 5-day orientation programme in 2008, there has been no training whatsoever during the past 10 years or so.

Far from putting in a mechanism for training teachers, the government has withdrawn the only mechanism available, namely the District Education Centre for English (DECE). In Krishna district, for instance, a DECE was set up in Vijayawada under a Government of India scheme with funding from the MHRD for the first five years. This had been done in 2006, two years before the SUCCESS programme commenced. As Director, Loyola ELT Centre, I was also associated with the training programmes of the DECE. But, in 2011, when the SUCCESS programme was in full swing, the DECE was closed down because the funding from MHRD had stopped. Ironically enough, the GO referred to above ordered the Director of School Education to strengthen the existing DECEs with “additional training and hostel facilities” and set up three new DECEs in each district where there was no DECE “to provide training to the High School Teachers in improving their English language abilities.” The Department of School Education implemented this by winding up the only DECE in Krishna district, leaving the district with neither a DECE nor an ELTC!

When the subject teachers are so ill-equipped and feel demotivated on account of the cold-shouldering by the government as far as training is concerned, one cannot expect their teaching to be very competent. It is an open secret that even in private English medium schools and colleges English-medium instruction is by and large impoverished: subject teachers often slip into the mother tongue for lack of proficiency in English. When this is the situation in the majority of private English medium schools, it will be unrealistic to expect, as the Naidu government did, teachers in state-run Telugu medium schools, especially those in rural areas which constitute the majority of our schools, to become competent enough through their own efforts to teach in English.

The way forward
However, the AP chief minister’s decision to introduce English as the MoI in government-run schools seems to be pragmatic, guided perhaps by the old political adage, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ During the past decade or so, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of parents rejecting free public education for their children in favour of fee-charging private schools offering English medium education, so much so that, in AP, the enrolment in private schools was 64.5% in urban areas and 31.9% in rural areas in 2014-15, according to an analysis of District Information System on Education (DISE) data for 2015. Even in poor families, parents prefer to send their children to budget private schools in their neighbourhood. This is likely to increase, thanks to the Right to Education Act which requires private schools to reserve up to 25% of their seats for children from economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups. No sensible government can ignore this silent revolution in education and the choice of the poor. Against this background, adopting English as the MoI in all government schools is perhaps a prudent decision.

But, unless the implementation involves a cautious approach with adequate preparation and training for subject teachers and a monitoring mechanism, it will be business as usual in these schools with the bulk of the teaching taking place in Telugu, as in the SUCCESS schools, and the students doing a poor job of memorizing answers in English to serve examination purposes.

How could the government go about it? First, the implementation should not be a rushed affair. The government could think of a gradual transformation rather than a wholesale change, with the focus on the process rather than the product. In other words, instead of introducing English as the MoI concurrently at the primary and entry stage of the upper primary levels (from classes I to VI) and causing disruption and disorientation, the government should implement it in a phased manner. Besides providing time for the much-needed preparation and training and effecting a smooth transition, it will soften the adverse impact a change of such great magnitude is likely to cause. The change literature is replete with hard-luck stories of wholesale changes causing frustration and fear and the inevitable loss of control. Change directors and agents would do well to study them.

Secondly, training the subject teachers, for which the government may use a cascade approach. An educational NGO such as Pratham (which is doing good work in UP government primary schools on the ‘Graded Learning Programme’ adopting a pedagogical approach called ‘Teaching at the Right Level’) or The English and Foreign Languages University may be asked to design a crash course to be offered to subject teachers. The thrust of the course should be on classroom communication through English with practice sessions for teachers on teaching their own subjects in English. Teachers appointed in government schools are well-qualified and so they are likely to be well up in their subjects; what they need are a certain degree of communicative competence in English and confidence. The course may cater to these aspects. Potential trainers among experienced teachers of English will have to be identified by the school education department, and they could be trained in course delivery at EFL University, the Regional Institute of English, and a few other institutions known for their quality work in ELT. The government may establish at least three DECEs in each district and post these trained teachers to them. Once the DECEs are ready and fully functional, potential trainers among subject teachers may be identified and they could be trained at the DECEs on a train-the-trainer programme. The trained teachers may in turn train other subject teachers in their regions on training programmes organized by district education officers. This is a workable model, given the large number of teachers to be trained, and a potentially empowering one.

Last, but by no means least, there is a basic problem with government-run schools, which needs to be addressed if any reform, not just the introduction of English as the MoI, is to be successful. Teachers in government-run schools are superior to their counterparts in private schools in terms of qualifications, training, and salary, but the learning outcomes are far better in the latter category of schools. How is it possible for private schools to achieve better learning outcomes using teachers whose salaries are, on average, one-sixth of those of government teachers? They do so thanks to better management and greater teacher accountability. Unless the government is ready to fix the problem of the business-as-usual approach in government schools through effective governance, English as MoI or any other new scheme will only have a cosmetic effect.

The author is Director, ELT Centre, and Senior Professor of English at Gudlavalleru Engineering College, Andhra Pradesh. He can be reached at partharamanujam@gmail.com.

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