Reams and reams have been written on what ails our educational system. But, one aspect that does not seem to get due attention is the role of our educational system in perpetuating the class divide. Today, primary education in India is imparted by a variety of schools.
At one end of the spectrum, we have schools which impart quality education, boast excellent facilities and use English as the medium of instruction. These are the schools which charge hefty fees and donations and, hence, are out of reach for children from the less privileged families.
At the other end are the typical government schools, where teachers hardly have the skills or motivation to do justice to their jobs. Such schools normally use the vernacular as the medium of instruction. These are the schools which cater for the educational needs of the less privileged. With exceptions, students from these schools generally carry with them an inferiority complex engendered by the kind of schooling they receive and this is all the more pronounced as a result of their lack of ability to handle the English language well. In a country like India, all this has serious and far-reaching implications. In our social set-up, English is not just a language, it is also a statement of ones breeding, abilities and smartness. You may have scored excellent marks at the graduation examination. You may know your subjects very well. But if you are not able to speak fluently in English, make no mistake, this deficiency is going to eclipse whatever qualifications you have.
No wonder when it comes to the job market, knowledge of English is often the key to bagging a good job in our country. Other things being equal, a graduate or post-graduate with good oral communication skills in English has more chances of landing a good job than someone who cannot articulate in that language.
The first step in ensuring equality of opportunity to all is to have an educational system which imparts quality education of uniform quality to all without distinguishing between the rich and the poor or the rural student and the urban student. In the Indian context, equally importantly, it would also mean that every student gets equal opportunity at school to learn English the way it should be learnt. Let us not forget that if the growth in the services sector has not really touched the lives of ordinary people in our country, part of the reason lies in the English/vernacular medium divide in our educational system.
It is heartening to note that companies like Infosys and Wipro have started recruiting candidates from rural areas in a big way, training them after recruitment in not just job-related skills but also soft skills, including the ability to handle communications in English. While such laudable initiatives need to be emulated by other companies, these alone cannot provide a long-term solution.
The government schools in pre-Independent India were as good, if not better than many of the expensive English medium schools we have today. After all, many of the greats this country produced before and after impendence were from government schools. The government and society then treated the teaching profession as one of the noblest professions. The pay and service conditions were good enough to attract talented and dedicated people. Those who end up in the teaching profession now are mostly those who could not make it to more lucrative careers.
As a democratic nation, we should strive to neutralise the disadvantages on account of economic background, caste, creed, religion, etc., faced by the underprivileged sections by supporting them to raise themselves to a position where they can compete on equal terms with others. While providing reservation to these sections in educational institutions may be one way of achieving the objective, making available quality primary education to them at affordable cost cannot be lost sight of.