Rajesh Kumar had been a principal at government schools in Chhattisgarh for over two decades. In 2020, when the state government called for applicants for the posts of principals to head newly launched English-medium government schools, he jumped at the opportunity.
Kumar said many of his colleagues decided against applying. He recalled that they worried that because it was a new venture, it would mean long hours, extra workload, and additional effort to adapt to their new roles. But Kumar saw it as a new and exciting challenge.
He was selected and joined the Swami Atmanand English Medium School in Dhamtari district in 2020.
Two years later, though he works on one campus, Kumar often feels like he is running two schools. This is because two sets of students use the same campus at different times of the day, and as principal, Kumar has to oversee both.
At 7 am, a batch of Hindi-medium students trickle into the classrooms of the school. When their final bell goes off at 11.30 am, the students rush to the dining area for the midday meal and then proceed home. After a quick turnaround, Kumar gets ready to welcome English-medium students at 12 noon. These students start their day in the dining area, eat their midday meal, then move to the still-warm benches, where they start their classes, which wind up at 5 pm.
“Of course my hours have increased but I’m happy that I have the opportunity to participate in this initiative,” said Kumar, who, like other government employees cited in the story, asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, or to remain anonymous, because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “The government’s decision to establish these English-medium schools is a step in the right direction and is welcomed by everybody.”
The Chhattisgarh government launched the Swami Atmanand English Medium Schools programme in November 2020, with the opening of 52 schools across the state – the programme was named after one of Chhattisgarh’s most popular social reformers, whose life spanned the twentieth century. Currently, there are 1,30,000 students studying in 247 of these schools. (There are also 32 Hindi-medium schools that were launched under the Swami Atmanand programme.)
The programme is one of several initiatives launched by states, including Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, to expand English-medium education in government school systems.
These initiative are in tension with the National Education Policy, 2020. The policy states that “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least grade five, but preferably till grade eight and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.”
Aditi Tandon, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington, who researches caste and gender in education, agreed that there is significant research that supports the idea that learning in the mother tongue is beneficial; but, she argued, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that the approach can also be exclusionary.
“Elites keep saying that it is advantageous to learn in vernacular languages, while at the same time sending their children to English-medium schools,” she said. “This argument is used to keep the social hierarchy intact.”
Overall, Tandon said, she believed that opening English-medium schools was a good idea because Bahujan students, encompassing students from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, deserved to have access to the same opportunities as their privileged counterparts. “There are two reasons why this idea is good,” she said, “ One, Bahujan students deserve to learn English. The English language has a complicated history entangled with caste and colonialism. However, the matter of the fact is that English is the language of opportunity and social mobility. It is the language of the global market and Bahujan students have the right to partake in it.”
The Chhattisgarh government, on their website, made a similar argument for the need for English-medium schools. It stated that the “aim of this scheme is to provide a level playing field to bright students from economically weaker sections of the society.”
Further, in a note shared with Scroll.in, the government said, “Many talented students had lost out on an English medium education because of high costs. Now students from Chhattisgarh can participate in the competitive environment at a national and international level.”
Visiting six schools in three districts of the state, Scroll.in found that many students and parents were thrilled that they no longer needed to pay high fees to private schools to obtain an English-medium education. But the government’s claim that the schools would provide an English-medium education to a large number of students who had not previously been able to access one was at odds with some of Scroll.in’s observations on the ground.
In the six schools that Scroll.in visited, the enrolled students had all shifted from other, private, English-medium schools. In one of these schools, earlier Hindi-medium students had been shifted out entirely. In the others, like Kumar’s, the schools ran parallel sessions for English-medium and Hindi-medium students. According to several principals and education activists Scroll.in spoke to, most of the 247 schools had adopted the latter approach, of starting separate classes for students from other English-medium schools, while running Hindi-medium classes in parallel.
“We were instructed to only choose students from English-medium schools,” one principal said. “Anyway, Hindi-medium students would not want to switch mid-way.” (The principal, like
But many parents of Hindi-medium students were displeased with this attitude. One principal said that she had had requests from some parents of students from Hindi-medium government schools to switch their children to the English-medium school when it was converted. “They were angry,” she said. “They would ask, ‘Is it our fate that we should only study in Hindi?’ They were insistent that their child should also get the opportunity.”
But, the principal said, she had had to refuse their requests because of the government’s orders.
One social worker from the education sector argued that this approach left out some students who may have wanted an English-medium education.
“It is students from private schools who were eventually admitted to the Atmanand schools, meaning children who were able to pay fees,” he said. “So I don’t think that these schools are very inclusive.”
Tandon also felt that only admitting students from English-medium schools was discriminatory. “If you live in a basti and there are only one or two schools in the neighbourhood and one had been converted to English-medium, where would the student go?” she said. “Until Class 5, the child would have studied, and from Class 6, the school is closed to them because it is English medium?”
She argued that this approach idea risked undermining the very purpose of the schools. “If Bahujan children are to access these schools, no matter what their language background was, they should have access with whatever extra support they need,” she said. “Any help that they need during the transition period should be provided to them.”
The argument in favour of teaching students in the mother tongue is rooted in the belief that doing so aids in learning. According to UNESCO, research has shown “that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning, and it also improves learning outcomes and academic performance. This is crucial, especially in primary school to avoid knowledge gaps and increase the speed of learning and comprehension.”
On the other hand, research has also found that Indian government schools have seen a growing demand for English-medium education, with stakeholders, such as academicians and employers,arguing that students who did not have a good grasp over the language lost out on opportunities.
Indeed, reports have shown that students who were not from English-medium schools struggled in elite higher education institutions in India, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. One paper about language discrimination in higher education noted that those who received an English-medium education, “are more powerful, considered as intellectual and knowledgeable, socially and politically empowered” compared to those who studied in vernacular-medium schools. It added, “Consequently vernacular medium students feel marginalised, disadvantaged and powerless.”
Across the country, small private English-medium schools have mushroomed because parents would rather pay for an English-medium education than obtain a free local-language education in a government school. These schools have seen a sharp rise in enrollment in recent years. Currently, about 26% of schoolchildren in India study in English-medium schools.
Andhra Pradesh has seen a particularly heated battle over the question of the medium of instruction, after the government issued an order in 2019 that English would be used between classes one and six in all government schools. Opposition leaders in the state argued that it was important for students to study in their mother tongue – in response, Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy demanded to know the medium in which their children and grandchildren studied.
Two leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party challenged the order in the state’s high court, which struck it down in April 2020. The state government challenged this decision in the Supreme Court, where the case is underway. In the aftermath of the high court judgement, the state government also conducted a survey in 2020, to determine the preferences of parents of children studying in government schools: out of 17,85,669 parents, 96.7% said that they would prefer to send their children to an English-medium school over a Telugu-medium one.
Despite the high court’s decision, the government has pushed forward with its plans. By 2024-’25, English is slated to be the medium of instruction in all primary and higher secondary schools in Andhra Pradesh, which include students between the ages of four or five and 18. When Scroll.in reached out to the education secretary of Andhra Pradesh to ask about these plans, he declined comment on the matter, noting that it continues to be sub-judice.
Other states have also undertaken similar measures. Telangana, for instance, decided to introduce English-medium education in government schools for students between classes one and eight in 2022-’23.
Assam also implemented a shift towards English-language education: in 2022, the state announced that it would introduce textbooks the following year in English for mathematics and science for Assamese-medium schools. Many opposed the move, and various bodies demanded that the directive be withdrawn. Kuladhar Saikia, the president of Asom Sahitya Sabha, declared that “Science and maths are always better taught in vernacular language so that the concepts are better grasped by students.” In September of this year, the opposition party raked up the issue again in the Assam assembly. Education Minister Ranoj Pegu responded that there was a “consensus” on the need for English in schools.
Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh pushed forward with its plan to introduce English-medium education in schools at a larger scale. The government allotted Rs 130 crore in 2020 for the development of these schools across the state.
Government data shows that the move has been received well: in almost all of Chhattisgarh’s districts, Atmanand schools have seen a dramatic increase in applications for admissions each year since the programme’s launch.
In 2021-’22, the schools received 82,626 applications across the state; in 2022-’23, that number increased to 2,76,703 – an increase of over 200% in the span of one year. Enrollments have increased too – from 1,41,745 students in 2021-’22 to 2,31,403 the following academic year.
In 2022, the Chhattisgarh government said that in total, the Swami Atmanand schools had received 40 times the actual number of seats available at the schools. Initially, each classroom in every Atmanand school had 40 seats each, but in response to the high demand, this number was increased to 50 per classroom.
As part of the shift, the government also upgraded most existing school buildings and campuses, constructing new classrooms, equipping them with new furniture, and setting up new libraries and laboratories. On the Swami Atmanand schools website, the government refers to the schools as “schools of excellence”, and boasts that they have “state-of-the-art infrastructure such as libraries, ultra-modern computer and science labs, as well as highly trained teams of teachers and school heads.”
On a sunny afternoon in September, Kumar proudly opened the gates to a new school building that will be open to students in the next few months. The towering white building had a huge portrait of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s former president, on one wall and a portrait of Albert Einstein on another. Kumar pointed out the large library rooms, the laboratories and the playground area. “I’ve not even seen a private school this massive,” said a social worker, who had accompanied us on the visit.
Despite the Chhattisgarh government’s enthusiasm for English-medium education, and the funds and resources it has dedicated to the Swami Atmanand schools, the programme has encountered numerous hiccups in implementation.
For one, though most students were drawn from private English-medium schools, teachers told Scroll.in that instruction often had to be in Hindi.
They explained that while these private schools are marketed as English-medium schools, Hindi was still often the medium of instruction in their classrooms, and that, therefore, students struggled with speaking in English in class. “The English-medium shift and the Hindi-medium shift still sound the same,” one principal said of the Swami Atmanand school they headed.
To ensure that students can follow the lessons, one teacher said, “We first explain the concept in Hindi and then repeat it in English.” In a class on “heat and temperature” that this reporter observed for a few minutes, the teacher read out from an English textbook and then explained the material to students in Hindi. Students Scroll.in spoke to also said that if they had difficulty understanding anything, they would ask the teacher to explain it in Hindi.
Teachers often struggle with parents’ differing expectations when it comes to the language of instruction.
“There are some parents who demand that we speak in Hindi because their children are unable to understand English,” a teacher said. “But there are also some others who criticise us for using Hindi inside the classroom, as they want us to teach exclusively in English.”
Even when teachers use Hindi, there are some students who remain at a disadvantage because the language of communication in their homes is Chhattisgarhi, or another local language. “We have difficulty understanding each other because a lot of the students come from different communities,” a teacher said. “So even Hindi doesn’t help in those situations.”
Staffing the schools has also not been without challenges. When the Swami Atmanand programme was launched, the government called for applications for teachers’ positions from candidates who had had an English medium education. The headmistress of one Swami Atmanand school, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she was flooded with applications. “There are many private-school teachers who were very happy when the government opened English-medium schools,” she said. “Because private schools do charge huge fees, but as teachers, we don’t get paid much.” These teachers were also drawn by the promise of a coveted government job.
But despite the high number of applications, three of the principals Scroll.in spoke to said many posts in the Swami Atmanand schools continue to remain vacant because there are not enough good applicants who fit the bill. “English-medium education has not been so popular here in Chhattisgarh,” one said. “So we don’t have enough suitable candidates applying for the job.”
“Even I struggle to speak in English. I’m from a Hindi-medium school myself,” said another, with a smile. “That’s why I ask the English-medium teachers to speak to me in English, so that I can become more fluent with the language.”
Meanwhile, teachers themselves are also facing some problems with the changes. Those teachers of schools that were entirely converted to English-medium schools were transferred to other, Hindi-medium schools. (The exceptions were teachers of the Hindi language, who, naturally, did not need an English-medium education to teach at the new schools.) One Hindi-medium teacher who was transferred this way argued that this process had been unfair to these teachers. “Everything was going normally and everyone was happy,” she said. “There was no need to disrupt the process. The English schools could have been started in separate buildings.”
In schools that continued to run Hindi-medium classes in parallel with English-medium ones, some teachers were given the option of continuing in their positions. But there would be a shift in the nature of their employment. This was because the Swami Atmanand schools were set up, not under the regular school system, in which the heads of schools in each district reported to the district education officer, but under a parallel system of societies at the district level, under which heads of schools reported to the collector. According to S Bhartidasan, secretary of the state’s school education department, this was done to ensure “better management and monitoring”. He noted that “The collector was given paramount responsibility to maintain the expected standards.”
The new teachers hired for these schools were employed on contract, to be renewed each year, and not as permanent government employees. In the case of older teachers who chose to stay on in the new schools, their status would be changed from regular employees to employees “on-deputation”. As part of this change, their salaries would no longer be released directly to their accounts, but first disbursed to the schools, which would then make the payments – in the process, many found, their pay was frequently delayed. “Before, they used to get their salaries on time but now in this new system, their salaries get frequently delayed which has obviously made them unhappy,” one principal said.
The new contract teachers had to suffer these delays, while also worrying about the insecurity of their positions.
“Only when teachers are content with their jobs will they be able to give their 100% in the classroom as well,” one principal of a Swami Atmanand school said. “There is a sense of restlessness in the staffroom because teachers are worried about their livelihoods.”
One headmistress of a Swami Atmanand school in Raipur said that she was hopeful that the contractual teachers would be made regular soon. “We are on contract right now but we are hoping that soon we will be made regular staff,” she said. “All we have is hope.” But Bhartidasan, the secretary of the school education department, confirmed, “No employee recruited on contract basis will be made permanent.”
The teachers also felt it was unfair that Hindi-medium students in some schools were forced to shift schools, just as some teachers were. Some had to part ways with teachers with whom they had developed a rapport over some years, and then had to see their entire campus change drastically over just a few months. “Now there are some schools without enough quality teachers too because of all these changes, and it is the students who will suffer because of it,” a teacher on deputation said.
The heads of the schools have also struggled with confusing instructions from the government on implementing the programme. The principal of one school, after giving this reporter a tour of the school, and showing off the brand new classrooms, freshly painted walls, large library rooms and bright blue desks and chairs, said that while he was delighted with the infrastructure, when it came to academic and administrative matters, the school was still facing some challenges.
“There isn’t enough clarity with government orders,” he said. As an example, he recalled that when the programme was launched, the schools that planned to run both English and Hindi-medium classes in parallel were told not to admit any new students for their Hindi-medium batches, because the government was aiming to gradually phase out these students from the schools. So in 2020-’21, the school did not entertain any new Hindi-medium applicants, and only admitted students to the English-medium classes. But this year, the principal said, in response to complaints from parents of Hindi-medium students, the government instructed his school, and some others, to admit Hindi-medium students again. Not only this, they were also told that there would be no limit to the number of seats for those batches. “Since it is new, there are some implementation issues,” he said.
One principal noted that running two schools in one campus presented a host of challenges. “One main issue with both the batches running here is that there is hardly any time to do other activities,” he said. He added that in the four hours that they are in school, teachers struggle to to squeeze in academics, cultural and extracurricular activities, and sports.
He also noted that managing the infrastructure and facilities is far more challenging when they are shared between batches. “If a chair gets broken, the English students blame it on the Hindi students and vice versa,” he said. “The students don’t feel a sense of ownership of their school.”
Despite the challenges that the Swami Atmanand schools are facing, many parents who have managed to secure admission for their children in the new schools are pleased with them.
At one school, in an area with a high Adivasi population, English-medium students streamed in as early as 10 am, though Hindi-medium classes were still underway, and English-medium classes were to start only at 12 pm. Unlike most schools Scroll.in visited, which boasted of impressive infrastructure, this one had not seen any renovation yet. A noticeable banner was erected at the entrance to the school, explaining the various facilities of an Atmanand school, yet the building appeared old and rundown, and in need of a fresh coat of paint.
But parents and children were happy that they had access to an English-medium school. In the time before their classes began, the primary school students took over the entirety of the playground and played on the swings and see-saws. One parent who dropped off his daughter, who was studying in Class 1, said he was happy that he wasn’t forced to send her to a private English-medium school, and that he could instead admit her for a nominal fee at a government school.
One parent of a student from a school in Raipur said that he had been saving between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 in expenses overall every month after he admitted his daughter to an English-medium government school. “But it wasn’t just about the money,” he said. “The teachers at the school were also not very good.” He added that this was a result of a lack of monitoring in private schools. “Here, since the government is involved in the hiring process, we can be sure that the teachers are of very good standard,” he said.
One parent, a single mother, said that owing to financial constraints, she had been struggling to keep her two daughters in the private English-medium school that they had been studying in previously. She had separated from her husband a few years ago, and had to move back to her parents’ home. This meant that her children had to shift schools as well – the government school was a boon in this situation. “Having a government-run English-medium school has saved me a lot of stress,” she said. “I’m still desperately seeking a job, but at the very least, I don’t have to worry about their school fees, and can feel happy that they are studying in an English-medium school.”
Mohammad Imran, who drives an auto for a living, was parked outside one of the Atmanand schools. He waits every day to pick up students from school and drop them home.
Since last year, his own son is among the children he ferries to and from school: when the school was converted to English-medium, he immediately sought admission for his son. “Isn’t it great that even the poor can now study in English medium?” Imran said, with a smile.
But while those who are now part of the Swami Atmanand school system seem largely satisfied with it, those who are not feel some sense of disappointment with the state government.
A principal of a Hindi-medium school, who has 25 years of experience in government schools, said that she was glad that so much attention was being paid to the Atmanand schools. But, she added, she wished that the government would also take notice of Hindi-medium schools that are still struggling for basic infrastructure. “Our washrooms are in very poor condition and we have been trying to raise funds to make repairs but we’ve been unable to,” she said. “For two years, I have been asking for the walls around the playground to be raised because miscreants cause havoc.”
She added that she frequently finds garbage and liquor bottles strewn on the grounds, and has been wanting to get the school walls raised, but said she has received no response from the government to her requests for help. “I’ve seen these problems, especially the washroom problems, in other schools as well,” she said.
Tandon said that she worried that the Atmanand schools may end up like other elite institutes, which often become exclusionary. “I hope this doesn’t get reduced to that again,” she said. “Always when something like this happens, these institutes become ‘islands of excellence’.” She added, “It cannot be a good programme if it continues to maintain the social hierarchy in education. So the question remains, will they scale up?”