The recent Bollywood flick English Vinglish directed by Gauri Shinde has a poignant scene in which the lead character Shashi played by Sridevi stitches up a conversation with her daughter’s English teacher.

While Shashi’s English is at best patchy, the English teacher, who is from Kerala, is only as good in Hindi as his ward’s mother is in English.

Replace Hindi with Malayalam and it would perfectly reflect the education scene here. Malayali society’s obsession with English medium schools reflects in 426 schools in the district – 257 government and 169 aided schools – that are on the ‘uneconomic’ list on account of student dropout, leaving the fate of 26,361 students and 2,336 teachers in balance.

To some extent, the sorry state of these schools could be attributed to the conditional grant of parallel English divisions. School managements can claim a parallel division only if they have at least 51 students, the minimum number to have two divisions as per the existing rules, out of which the parents of at least 30 students should agree to English as their children’s medium of instruction.

But the catch lies elsewhere; the grant of parallel division neither entails allocation of qualified additional faculty nor extra means. That means, these schools will have to run the new division with existing faculty who need not necessarily be well versed in English, a senior education department official told The Hindu.

When the quality of learning takes a hit, students flock to CBSE and private management schools, bringing their previous alma mater the dubious distinction of ‘uneconomic’. The government’s lofty aim of nurturing the mother tongue also goes for a toss as Malayalam is at best an optional language in many CBSE schools.

M.K. Sanoo, literary critic and retired professor, says that it’s not possible to promote Malayalam at the cost of English, which is an essential life skill in the modern world.

Liberalizing the grant of English divisions in government schools along with qualified teachers may not be such a bad idea after all. At least it will keep alive Malayalam alongside English. “The possibility of appointing qualified instructors in spoken English in government schools should be explored as fluent English speaking skills is the biggest draw for parents who sent their children to private schools,” Mr. Sanoo says while lamenting how the obsession with English medium schools is indicative of the snobbery of larger Malayali society.

D. Babu Paul, former chief secretary and writer, believes that stonewalling English is pointless when even the Chinese are out to master it. But, allotting more English divisions is not a panacea to turn around the fate of government schools.

Noted historian and educationist K.N. Panikkar ridiculed determining the viability of schools based on numbers alone without taking in to account the various social parameters. Closure of unviable government schools only affects children from the lowest strata of society.

“The mother tongue should be the medium of instruction as is the practice world over. But English should be a compulsory subject and should be taught by qualified teachers,” he says.

Former Vice-Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, and PSC chairman K.S. Radhakrishnan feels the question to be asked is why Malayalis who otherwise jump at any thing free are turning down free education offered to their children.

MP and two-time Education Minister E.T. Mohammed Basheer admits there is indeed a tide in favour of English medium schools. Factors ranging from lack of application of mind in choosing the location of government schools and mismanagement have only strengthened the current.