The false allure of English-medium schooling

The Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh is set to make all government elementary schools ‘English-medium’ from the next academic year. There has been the expected party-political denouncement of the decision, despite the fact that it is really just the scaling up of a policy proposal made during N. Chandrababu Naidu’s tenure, when English was introduced as the medium of instruction in a select number of schools as a pilot project.

The push for English as the medium of instruction in government schools in Andhra Pradesh, as in other States including Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is due to two related factors. First, there is a belief that English-medium schooling can guarantee good jobs. Second, economically constrained families are shifting their children from free government schools to private English-medium schools. It is to try and reverse this trend (which also poses a threat to government teaching jobs) that many State governments have made at least some of their schools English-medium or started English-medium sections.

Research, from India and across the world, shows that children who get educated in their mother tongue learn better than those who start school in a new language. A new language in the early school years, especially one that is not used outside school, can become a barrier to learning. This is also plain common sense: if a child speaks or understands the classroom language, engaging with new concepts, ideas and information is easier, as is learning to read and write. Even researchers who advocate privatisation of schools as a quality improvement measure accept that English-medium schools are not the solution. A study of learning outcomes in government and private elementary schools in Andhra Pradesh has found that children perform best in Telugu-medium schools.

Ignoring the evidence

Governments, while making policy changes favouring English-medium schools, have ignored the evidence. For politicians, it is a win-win situation — they are able to give a mass of voters what they appear to want, at no significant additional cost. For the influential middle class, it is comforting to believe that poor children are getting a leg-up through English-medium government schools. Even some Dalit intellectuals who claim to speak for the most vulnerable hold that it is English-medium schools that will emancipate them, and that those who disagree are hell-bent on retaining the status quo.

Even ignoring all the evidence about language and learning, what sort of English-medium schools does the government promise? At the very minimum, such schools will need teachers who, apart from being knowledgeable in the subjects they teach, are also fluent in the medium of instruction. No State government can claim that a majority of teachers, especially in elementary schools, are English-fluent, not even the ones who teach English. The vast majority of them have had their entire education in their mother tongue or the State language, and have spent their working lives teaching in that language. With rare exceptions, any English they have is bookish. ‘Retraining’ them, through short-term language courses, would not transform them into teachers for English-medium schools. On the contrary, it will handicap them, making the best of them resentful, and the disinterested even more so.

In-egalitarian system

The problem lies not in the medium of instruction, but in an in-egalitarian education system that is completely skewed in favour of the intergenerationally privileged. This is a system whose design — from the annual school calendar to the syllabus and textbooks to teacher engagement to the high-stakes board exams — ignores the vastly different socioeconomic realities of a majority of children. The focus on English medium pulls a veil over these knottier problems.

Politicians and the middle class (whose powerful voices make or influence policy) have for too long promoted the canard that if you give everyone the “same thing” — in this case English-medium schools — it makes everything equitable. Making Telugu-educated school teachers instruct children, with no English, in English will not transform Andhra Pradesh government schools into institutions of the kind Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy’s children go to. On the contrary, such schools will be a parody of the elite schools, like the ‘affordable’ private English-medium schools that children most often move to from government schools. In these schools, teachers with barely any or no English read from English textbooks and use the mother tongue or State language to communicate; students have to cram the English textbooks or prepared answers for their tests. The result is that they develop a hold over neither their mother tongue/State language nor English.

This is what the government English-medium schools will offer, with the only difference that they will be free. This sort of ‘English-medium education’, far from making education more equitable and closing the social gap, will accentuate inequity.

A government really concerned about education and making English accessible to poor children in government schools should focus on the children’s natural receptiveness to new languages by teaching English as a language. Investing in modern language-teaching education (not short-term training) for English-language school teachers is essential. Anything else is just an eyewash that people will soon be wise to.

Anjali Mody is a journalist with a special interest in education

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:30:20 PM |

Next Story