Other States

English gets a push in Chhattisgarh schools 

Students playing in a school in Chhattisgarh. File photo for representation purposes.

Students playing in a school in Chhattisgarh. File photo for representation purposes. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

One of the recurring themes added to the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s “ Bhent Mulaqat (Meet or Greet)” programme recently is a brief interaction during which he asks a few questions from a school student in Chhattisgarhi language and the latter replies in English.   

Under Bhent Mulaqat, the Chief Minister has been touring all the 90 Assembly constituencies in phases to assess governance at the grassroot level through public feedback. The children who feature in these interactions are the students of Swami Atmanand Government English Medium Schools (SAGES) that the government pitches as a major highlight of a “pro-people” image it is attempting to build. 

These schools were launched as a pilot in capital Raipur three years ago. The numbers stand at 171 today, catering to over 72,000 students. At least 76 more schools will start from this academic session. These schools have dedicated shifts for students, a majority from the underprivileged sections, who receive education with English as a medium of instruction. 

The SAGE campuses have better infrastructure, teachers who are either recruited or deputed through a dedicated screening process where senior bureaucrats sit in the interview panel, enjoy more autonomy than the existing schools and offer scholarships, to name a few defining characteristics. 

The Congress party leaders say these interactions, beamed through live television and social media, will go a long way in setting the stage for pitching education as a key poll plank in the next year’s elections, more than what the government official communications or advertisements do. 

Global language

“There is a demand for these schools as the enthusiasm among the parents during admission and the CM’s interactions with the public have shown. Apart from access to quality education, this will also talk about representation as these schools bring down the invisible barrier for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes when it comes to private English medium schools in the big cities. Plus, English, of course, will be a talking point as we are making the first serious attempt at making our children better versed with a global language,” says a Congress leader. 

For the most part, the history of English education in the State’s government schools goes hand in hand with Madhya Pradesh from which it was carved out in 2000. “Till then, English as a subject was introduced in Class VI. It was in 2002 that the former Chief Minister, late Ajit Jogi of the Congress, decided that English will be taught from Class I instead,” says Principal Secretary (School Education) Alok Shukla. 

However, it was still not the medium of instruction and soon Jogi was voted out of power. The Bharatiya Janata Party government that ruled for three consecutive terms between 2003 and 2018 did a pilot with Multi-purpose English Schools in each block but the project never took off due to the non-recruitment of specialised teachers who were proficient in not just English but also the subject they were teaching. 

The BJP government also tried a public-private partnership (PPP) model with 72 schools running under the Mukhya Mantri Adarsh Vidyalaya Yojna. Then there were individual experiments like the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Education City in Dantewada, where, among other things, dedicated residential English-medium government schools were set up when O.P. Chaudhary, a bureaucrat-turned-BJP politician, was posted there as the Collector. Some of these schools admitted students who had lost their parents to the Naxal conflict in the Bastar region of southern Chhattisgarh. 

Yet, all these efforts were scattered in nature and did not signify any policy intent to transform education, the Congress claims. 

The party may be gung-ho about the political prospects of this thrust on education, especially English education, today, but these SAGES were not a part of its election manifesto the last time. Comparisons are often made with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP’s) success in Delhi and Punjab on education and many other State-run initiatives. But the party claims that their emphasis on education has nothing to do with the AAP or its perceived strategy. Mr. Shukla adds that while Delhi has covered a lot of ground in school education, the focus on English, as a key driver to overhaul the education system in the longer run is another differentiator. 

Investing in human capital

Vinod Verma, the political adviser to the CM, recalls how an interview by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was a nudge. “Mr. Sen was speaking to an interviewer at the London School of Economics. He talked about the Left Front government in Kerala asking the erstwhile Planning Commission in the 1950s for more funds to pump into education whereas the Commission wanted it to spend more on infrastructure that it severely lacked back in the day. Eventually, the State government had its way and set the base for investing in human capital that has made it one of the richest and the most educated States in India,” says Mr. Verma. 

Sources close to the government talk about ground realities playing their own part. “The standard of English education in Chhattisgarh, even in private schools, was not up to the mark. For example, the same company that would come for a campus placement drive would offer ₹12,000 to a local graduate for the same job profile that drew ₹30,000 for someone with similar qualifications in Pune or Chennai. Even our bureaucrats struggled with career progression when on Central deputation because of English,” said a source.    

Critics point to the minuscule number at present (171 compared to the 44,000-odd schools in the State) and for each achievement the government boasts of, there are pictures of dilapidated school buildings in far-flung areas, complaints of mid-day meal irregularities, absence of teachers, non-availability of basic tools and laboratories or even classrooms splashed over social media regularly. 

Mr. Chaudhary does not contest the idea of improving educational standards but alleges that there is a problem with both with the scale and implementation. “This is not a serious effort by any stretch of the imagination and is certainly not being run at a scale at which a government should operate. There are no provisions for separate funds, existing Hindi medium schools are being converted into English medium schools due to which people in the small towns lose out. Also, in my personal opinion, children should be taught in their mother tongue instead of being saddled with English at a formative stage,” he says. 

Mr. Shukla addresses these points. “The buildings in which the existing Hindi medium schools have been converted to English medium schools, we have not done away with the Hindi medium students or moved them to English medium out of the blue. Separate batches are running and that’s how both Hindi medium and English medium students are studying in the same building, the former also benefitting from improved infrastructure. As far as the question of learning at a young age is concerned, we are providing bilingual primers in all the different languages spoken and English to each student,” he says.

Gradual process

While Mr. Shukla agrees that the present number (even 247) is not sufficient, he says that it is a gradual process but the State has managed to set the ball rolling. 

In public discourse, the ruling party continues to pitch Atamanand Schools as a success story and it has good reasons to do so. “Children talking confidently to the Chief Minister is an exhibit that suits us. We are able to deliver quality education to the weaker sections of society and despite the small numbers, the geographical spread of these schools is wide. Also, these are named after local icon Swami Atmanand [1929-1989], who had a long association with the Ramakrishna Mission. This will also help us counter the BJP’s attempts to project itself as the flag bearer of Swami Vivekananda’s legacy in Chhattisgarh,” says the Congress leader.

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2022 10:39:49 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/english-gets-a-push-in-chhattisgarh-schools/article65655369.ece