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An equal chance?

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The recommendation of the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, giving schools the option to teach in the mother tongue, is being widely seen as a significant change. However, our experience as an NGO that worked with over 115 Marathi-medium and one each English- and Hindi-medium schools for 17 years, makes me assert that not just teaching in the mother tongue but also establishing a culture of excellence and quality teaching is required to transform education.

In 2007, inspired by the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science in Mumbai, which taught bright students from poor families maths, English and science and reduced failures in the 10th standard, we sent our volunteers to teach in three Marathi-medium schools in Pune.

The volunteers — fresh, working engineers — tutored the students in maths on Saturdays to prepare them for the Board exam. However, within days, they reported that the students did not know “any addition, subtraction, multiplication or division”.

We were aghast to find the students lacked conceptual preparation. Lowering our aspirations, we began teaching those in standards 5 to 7. There too, we found only a few students interested. The majority were irregular.

Our understanding with the schools was the class or subject teacher would sit in the classroom, but they conveniently excused themselves or slipped away.

The teachers had their own pains: large classes, classrooms next to smelly cowsheds, collecting census data or election duty, conducting extracurricular activities, and preparing for the inspectors’ visit. Most were on contract on a measly starting salary of ₹7,000. Vacancies remained unfilled. Schools assigned teachers to teach subjects besides their own.

After the “no-detention” policy, it was common to see standard 8 students who did not know standard 5 maths (despite learning in Marathi, Hindi and English). Continuous assessment was to accompany the policy, which was abolished in 2019. One teacher per school was trained as facilitator in centrally organised workshops. The teachers understood it correctly: “seat students around a round table and teach them through activities.” They came back excited, but continuous assessment remained a pipe dream.

In overcrowded classrooms, students sat three to a bench meant for two, their school bags littered everywhere. The chalk screeched when the teacher wrote on the broken blackboard which students on the second bench could not read. The students grew noisier. Unmindful, the teacher raised her voice and continued to teach. When she asked if they understood, they dutifully chorused, “Yes.”

Impatient teachers used the rod, indulged in public shaming, and complained to parents who thrashed their child with chappals or belts on school premises. The environment was terribly unsettling.

In paid schools (mostly English medium), there is discipline because parents are ambitious for their children and use their right as “consumers” to demand that their wards are well trained for the Board examination. Smart classrooms and videos are used to teach, and children face competitive activities continuously until they learn to fulfil parental aspirations.

In low-income schools, the concept of individual attention does not exist. The infrastructure does not support. The children remained absent for days to attend weddings and religious functions.

The end result was the students knew no Marathi, Hindi or English; maths and science were a far cry. The problem in poor government schools is not the medium of instruction, but the absence of a studious, caring atmosphere. Teaching is boring and students are not taught well.

Instead of getting lost in the language maze, schools need interactive teaching aids, well-paid, affectionate teachers trained in student-centric learning-teaching methods to provide an excellent education, and a positive engagement with the community. Research shows children below the age of 10 can easily master multiple languages (including English). So, why not give them an equal chance?

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 11:30:26 AM |

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