Tamil Nadu’s school education system is a study in baffling contrasts.

On one hand, its students fare well in school examinations – nearly nobody fails and a good number of them get a perfect score of 100. On the other, in the NCERT’s National Achievement Surveys, the state ranks close to the bottom of the national list, as the first part of this series noted.

Talk to employers in Tamil Nadu and they too complain about the falling quality of recruits emerging from the education system. G Rajasekaran, proprietor of Sri Ganesh Engineering, a small sheet metal fabricating firm in Coimbatore, lamented that “even a BE [engineering] student doesn’t know anything”.

“Ask them to do a small conversion – like inches to millimetres – and they will not be able to,” he said.

Around 2008-’09, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government had tried to overhaul the raggedy system by creating some uniformity in the way education was imparted in government schools and matriculation schools.

The government created a common syllabus for government and matriculation schools, replaced the earlier insistence on rote learning with activity-based learning, and did away with exams until the ninth standard, among other steps.

A key objective behind the exercise was to ensure that matriculation schools in particular end their unbending focus on students achieving high scores in examinations, regardless of whether any concepts in the curriculum were understood or not.

Seven years on, educationists in Tamil Nadu near-unanimously agree that the reform did not work.

What went wrong?

A former official in the state examinations department traced the disarray to a handful of factors – among them the decision to do away with exams, the obduracy of matriculation schools, and rising pressure on the education department to show good results.

Take the schools first. In the past five years or so, there has been a spike in the number of matriculation schools in Tamil Nadu – indeed, at present, “about 38% of all students in the state study in matriculation schools”, said a consultant to the state education department. This spike is partly due to the end of an earlier boom in teacher training and engineering colleges, both of which killed themselves by churning out so many graduates that many could not find jobs. Running schools is easier in contrast to colleges, said Thangam Thenarasu, the education minister in the last DMK government. There are troughs and crests in demand and investments are lower.

“Colleges have to adhere to harder norms regarding faculty, infrastructure like libraries and labs, not to mention certification and accreditation,” Thenarasu added. “In contrast, matriculation schools call for very little.” Additionally, school fees can be high, ranging anywhere between Rs 6,000 and upwards of Rs 1 lakh a year.

When the revamp was first introduced, matriculation schools opposed it on several grounds. The common syllabus meant they could no longer set their own curricula, which was an important differentiator between them and the state schools. Furthermore, as the competition between various types of schools intensified, matriculation schools had become even more preoccupied with good results in board exams. Some schools pushed out students they felt would not score well in these exams, said the principal of a church-run school in Trichy school.

“I know a school where one student failed and they sacked the principal,” he said. “That was a new school. And it was a teacher from my school who had left to set that up. She is back with us now.”

Parents in Tamil Nadu choose schools for their children based on the institutions' exam results. This overweening focus on results has resulted in a distortion of education delivery by both the state and the schools.

Opposition to the new system also came from teachers. Some teachers felt their schools were being dragged down to the level of government schools. “Schools like ours had a very good standard,” said John Peter, a senior official of Crea Matriculation Akademi, a school on the outskirts of Trichy. “But now, in the attempt to do away with disparity between government and public schools, the standard has gone down.”

This lack of conviction in the new model did not help. After all, the new system put a lot of the onus on teachers to make the activity-based learning work. “If a student is not able to read, the teacher has to spend time with the child and give them special homework,” said Gomathi Nachiar, principal of a CBSE school in the small town of Karaikudi. “And they have to call the parents and tell them what to do. Not learning-vomiting-byhearting.”

Given all this, the new education system’s hopes that teachers would conduct, in the words of the consultant, “monthly, quarterly and continuous evaluations” got buried. Rote learning continued.

“Some schools are skipping the eleventh [standard],” said John Peter. “They use the additional year to [make students] mug up answers for the twelfth grade. Others finish the eleventh grade syllabus between June and September, and then start on the board syllabus.”

In other schools, the Right to Education Act, which makes education a fundamental right, became an exercise in passivity. “As a student completed one year, they were moved to the next class,” said the examination department official. “And with that happening automatically, the teachers became idle.”

According to the consultant, this happened particularly in government schools, with caste becoming an additional factor – the teachers could be from an intermediate caste and students Dalits. “The teachers are not teaching. They have not read the textbooks or the library books. You look at notebooks and find there is no correction.” In some extreme cases, the consultant said, well-paid teachers outsourced their work to tenth-standard graduates by paying them Rs 5,000 to teach.

Between them, schools and teachers represent a powerful force. “Several of Tamil Nadu’s top politicians and bureaucrats own matriculation schools,” Thenarasu said. The teachers are a lobby as well. They “may or may not be a part of the political party pandering to them,” said the consultant, “but they will be members of the local caste association.” And so, they have clout over the local leaders.

Given these concerns and interests, the onus for making sure the system work lay with the state government.

Pressure to show results

According to Thenarasu, that has not happened.

“There should be a constant review to ensure adherence to the new system. They [the administrators] will have to go check at every level if the system is functioning well. I have my doubts if this is happening.” The blame, Thenarasu felt, goes beyond matriculation schools and teachers. Such programmes, he said, are “politically viewed”, something the “previous government brought in”.

Two things here. First, among educationists in the state, there is some anger towards the DMK for starting the reform towards the end of its stint. Second is the contradiction in the data. Even as the state’s schools work as before, there is a political incentive to show improvements.

“If you look at the state government’s pass percentages,” said the consultant, “they have been rising steadily.” For the longest time, she said, these hovered around 60% or 70%. And then, 1995 onwards, they started increasing.

“The difference is that, during the DMK [government’s regime], these numbers would rise gradually – from 75.2 to 75.5, say – just to show there is no decline.” But, in the past five years, the consultant said, “pass percentages have increased like anything. Out of every 100 students, 95 are passing. This should be a normal bell curve. But what you get is very different.”

There is another reason why pass percentages are so high, according to the former examination official. “If I declare 75% as the pass percentage, I take out 2 lakh students out of the college education market. That is the other lobby working here.”

The fallout? Tamil Nadu tries very hard to make its students pass. About three years ago, it began handing out a “Slow Learners’ Kit” a few months before the state board examinations in tenth and twelfth grades. A hundred and fifty pages long, it contains key questions from all five subjects. “Most of the questions [in the exam] are repeated from this,” said Thenarasu. “The pattern doesn’t change. If students still don’t manage to pass, for 40 marks, the government does moderation.” Moderation is academic code for manipulating exam results to make students pass.

The former bureaucrat agreed. “We have a programme in a computer,” he claimed. “We tell it the targeted pass percentage and it allots marks accordingly.” Tamil Nadu is not unique in this, he alleged. “All boards have software which gives grace marks.”

Indeed, little about these bell curves is unique to Tamil Nadu. Similar patterns have been flagged in both CBSE (see this, this and this) and Karnataka‘s exam results.

Government’s version

Early this year, when Scroll was starting work on this article, this reporter met Sabita Dayashankar, education secretary of Tamil Nadu. During that chat, she hotly denied any charges of data manipulation. “We do not do moderation,” she insisted.

She even dismissed the contradictions between the noteworthy results in state board assessments and the poor scores that Tamil Nadu’s students receive on learning outcomes in the National Achievement Surveys, conducted by the Central government’s National Council for Education, Research and Training. “That is because the NCERT questions are based on the CBSE pattern,” Dayashankar said. “Our children will not be able to understand.” We do not know “why NCERT is conducting these assessments”, she added, “The government of India should stop these and just fund us properly.”

These are problematic answers. For starters, can science, maths or social science be taught in such a unique way that students cannot comprehend a question asked by a rival school board? If so, what is the utility of such an education if a student decides to continue studies outside Tamil Nadu?

As the principal of the Trichy church-run school said, “If you are thorough with your work, students will be able to answer any question. We did not train them to solve those questions.”

As for centralised evaluations, they are an accepted part of pedagogy. Not only do they test whether students understand concepts and utilise them, they also provide an independent assessment. In the absence of such an evaluation, a state government would be appraising its own work. “Why do schools have an external examiner?” asked Thenarasu. “Because there have to be some checks and balances.”

In her meeting with this reporter, Dayashankar had insisted that education in Tamil Nadu was doing fine. But that is not how several educationists see things.

Among them is Aloysius Peter, a teacher in a convent school in Trichy. “We notice that the number of children getting centums has gone up enormously,” he said. “Thirty-forty kids get centums in science and maths. Another 30 in social sciences. About two in English. It was not more than one or two earlier. But children with centums come and fail in the eleventh [grade]. They are not able to cope. As many as 20 of a 60 student batch fail.”

When an engineering college in Coimbatore recently administered a test to a new batch of students, 40% of them failed. “They had all scored between 90% and 100% in their boards,” said a senior college official.

The endgame

That is the big picture here.

Ten years ago, before the reform, Tamil Nadu’s education system was an uneven plane, with some good and some bad schools.

Now, the state has created a system where students just cannot fail. Under the Right to Education Act, they cannot be failed till the ninth grade. After that, though they can be held back, schools are loath to do so for fear of the cost of gaining a bad reputation.

The principal of a matriculation school run by the Alagappa Group in Karaikudi, next to Gomathi Nachiar’s CBSE school, rued the situation: “We do not fail students in the ninth grade. Parents come and complain if we do.”

As outlined earlier, it is hard to fail in the tenth and twelfth grades. The eleventh grade is now but a formality – even if a child is found fairing very poorly, he is merely urged to transfer to another school, according to an IAS official in the state. Finally, since it is the twelfth board results which determine college admissions, most students make a switch from CBSE to state board around their ninth grade.

Till they enter college, there is no telling about the quality of their learning. This construct – along with moderation – is warping at least some of Tamil Nadu’s children. “As kids pass without exams, the burden of incomprehension keeps rising,” said the consultant.

This shows clearly in the NCERT surveys. The third round of the survey, conducted between November 2010 and March 2011, placed fifth standard students in Tamil Nadu close to the top. In contrast, after a few more years of schooling, the tenth standard students had completely squandered that lead and were stuck at the bottom along with states which chronically underfund education like Gujarat and Punjab.

But the system is taking a more immediate toll as well. “Students who should be getting 0% are getting 95%,” said the principal of the Trichy school. “Bright students are becoming lethargic. And the bad ones are becoming problematic.”

To read the other parts of the Ear to the Ground series of reports that attempt to examine how India is changing, click here.