Several states looking to fix their failing public education have settled on “English medium” as the likely solution. Andhra Pradesh, for one, intends to universalise it. In Tamil Nadu, English as the medium of instruction is optional in some elementary schools.

Tamil Nadu’s decision was informed by a slight fall in enrolment in state-run schools compared to private schools. The government interpreted it as a sign of the public’s growing preference for English medium schooling. Indeed, a minster told the Assembly in 2012 that introducing English as a medium of instruction would make state schools more attractive to rural children. Since then, over 3,00,000 children have enrolled in or shifted to English medium sections in public schools.

The state education department’s policy note for 2013-’14 listed the introduction of English medium instruction as the final of nine “welfare measures” – to go with free uniforms, crayons, geometry boxes – that would ensure “government schools in rural areas attract more children”.

On the face of it, this may look like a government committed to public education and responsive to changes on the ground. But the nature of the problem and the quality of its response raise questions about the state’s conception of “quality education” and its motivation for pushing English as a medium of instruction.

The state claims its policy is “a paramount of achievement”, citing an increase in enrolment and improvement in English scores in the State Level Achievement Survey. Teachers, however, paint a different picture.

Since most elementary school teachers speak English with difficulty, the classes are English medium in name only. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Forced policy

All but three of the 28 children in Class 3-4 of a rural school in Kanchipuram district were “English medium”. When they started school two and three years ago, Tamil was the medium of instruction. But when English was offered last year, the majority switched. The three who did not switch continue in the same classroom.

The head teacher complained that state officials did not discuss the policy change with them. Still, the teachers did not try to dissuade parents from taking the English medium option. Supriya, who teaches Class 3-4, felt the children would be better off learning in Tamil. “But we are afraid they will leave, so we do not say anything to their parents,” she said.

Teaching the alphabet or words and simple sentences using the Activity Based Learning system is not a problem for teachers, Supriya said, since in any case they taught English as the second language from Class 1. The problem was in explaining words, ideas and concepts in English, especially when they cannot be expressed as pictures. In Tamil Nadu’s primary schools, one teacher teaches all subjects – language, social science, science and mathematics. Supriya herself spoke English with difficulty. As a result, her class, like most such classes, is English medium in name only. Or, as she put it, “neither English nor Tamil”.

Teaching in both English and Tamil would have been ideal. Bilingual classrooms, with a teacher fluent in both the language that the children already know or speak and the one they are learning, are increasingly seen as the way forward. In this case, the teacher would use both Tamil and English in the classroom and gradually move to using only English. But Supriya and most other elementary school teachers lack proficiency, never mind fluency, in English. So, their classrooms are not bilingual, just badly mixed up.

Mangala, an award-winning Activity Based Learning teacher, agreed that English as the medium of instruction in primary school was a “real problem”. Primary school children, she said, learn best in their mother tongue. Mangala switched to Tamil to explain how a familiar language helped ease children into the process of learning. It enabled them to understand and engage with what they learn, talk about it with others, instead of leaving them confused, bored and disinterested.

Mangala’s spoken English was insufficient for a conversation about her experience as a teacher. Like many former elementary school teachers, she had acquired the qualifications to be a middle school teacher because there were opportunities for promotion. She opted for English because at the time there were vacancies for middle school English teachers.

Her explanation about the role language plays in a child’s education is of a piece with scholarship on the subject. Research shows that children taught in their mother tongue learn their second or third languages with greater ease, if, of course, each language is taught properly. For children in Tamil Nadu, being taught a language by someone who has never learnt to teach it is already a bad start. Being taught everything in a language that the teacher herself uses minimally is disastrous.

Go up the school system and teachers at every level talk about their students’ low learning levels; limited facility with language, particularly English, and poor grasp of basic mathematical concepts. The State Level Achievement Survey may show year-on-year improvement in learning but teachers said they did not see this in their classrooms. In Class 5-6, rote learning rules despite the fact that Activity Based Learning in Classes 1 through 4 and Active Learning Methodology from Class 5 were introduced to minimise just this. More importantly, even students who learn, understand and analyse fairly well now find it difficult to write, especially in English.

Over 3,00,000 children are enrolled in English medium sections in public schools. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Tamil Nadu’s English medium policy is symptomatic of policymaking that undervalues language education, said the historian AR Venkatachalapathy. He attended a government funded school in Chennai and works in both Tamil and English. The students he taught as a university teacher, however, “lacked the capacity to read even a newspaper”. This is largely because the education system sees language in purely instrumental terms as a means of basic communication. “But language is germane to thinking and no one [who makes education policy] seems to understand this,” he said.

Since English as second language is poorly taught, most government school students can barely use it even for simple communication. When they become teachers, the problem is amplified. An English lecturer at Chennai’s District Institute for Education and Training said most trainee teachers, even after studying English for 12 years at school, had practically no English. Since most of them pass the language paper by cramming, it “is like teaching them a new language from scratch”. “We cannot expect adults to learn a language to full fluency in a short time,” she said. In her own class, the lecturer added, she got practically no responses from trainee teachers if she spoke in English, but had an animated class once she switches to Tamil.

Poor training

The gaps in teacher education exacerbate the problem. Teacher education institutions such as the District Institutes for Education and Training do not distinguish between first and second language teaching. They also reinforce the practices trainee teachers are familiar with from school, where most pass exams by employing tricks to answer basic grammar questions, ignoring the comprehension section. So, students, teachers and teacher educators are caught in a vicious cycle, from which there seems to be no escape.

The education department, however, is not overly concerned about this. Never mind engaging with pedagogic arguments about the benefits of teaching in the mother tongue, even questions about the ability of teachers to teach English as second language or use it as the medium of instruction are brushed aside. A senior official who was until recently responsible for the introduction of English medium classes, said there was no need to hire new teachers for English medium classes because existing teachers are “highly trained” and that “They have been teaching English as a subject so they can teach in English.”

Trainee teachers disagree. Lakshmi, a trainee teacher at the District Institute for Education Training in Vellore, said, speaking in Tamil, “Children will only learn in English if the teacher is fluent and can transfer knowledge in that language. It will not happen if the teacher is like me, not comfortable in the language.”

Her classmate Anita pointed out that language was “something ingrained…through which we express ideas and feelings”. English, she said, was “alright for communication and technology but cannot be like Tamil for us, we think in Tamil.”

So, will they refuse to teach in English? “We will teach in English because it is government policy,” they said.

They do what they are told to get or keep jobs. Teaching jobs in state schools are linked to enrolment. Schools that enrol students for English medium instruction can start a new section and, in theory, create a new teaching position. It is a Faustian bargain: teachers, whatever their ability or inclination, agree to teach “English medium” classes in exchange for a job.

How does the education department justify this bargain? First, by asserting, despite evidence to the contrary, that all the teachers are “highly trained”. Second, by insisting that, “primary school teachers are trained every year in teaching through English medium”.

Trainee teachers, whatever their ability or inclination, agree to teach English medium classes to get a job. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

In the department’s view, short duration in-service training programmes – four days at a time – conducted by educators trained by the British Council will fix any shortcomings in a teacher’s capacity to “teach through English medium”.

Indeed, from secretary of school education down to block level officials, the education department had a standard reply to how teachers with little English and poor teaching skills can use it as the medium of instruction: “We are giving them training.”

How effective was the training? Mary, a Block Resource Teacher Educator who formerly taught secondary school English, said “after phonetic training”, teachers “are able to speak up to 40-50 per cent level”. It is a grim statistic, she conceded. But then, she said, no amount of in-service training can compensate for gaps in the teacher’s prior education.

The education bureaucracy sees teachers as the problem. They are seen at best as poorly trained and at worst lazy, unaccountable and protected by political interests (teachers are a powerful political constituency in the state). However, it is bureaucrats who set recruitment norms for teachers. A few thoughtful teacher educators pointed out that the norms ignore the most important criterion – aptitude for teaching. Indeed, the officials’ insistence that teachers who know little English teach in the language suggests that even the requirement of basic skills is ignored.

At a loss

The Chennai Corporation has adopted a different method in its schools. It has handed over classes in 32 schools to Teach for India. The non-profit’s teachers or fellows are young people who have quit regular non-teaching jobs or are between degrees. They get a few weeks training in a teaching methodology that is not Activity Based Learning and sign up to teach for two years. They speak English and teach in English, and are not required to know the local language.

Malini, a fellow in her second year teaching at a school in central Chennai, said it had all been wonderful. Asked if she faced any problem in her classroom, she replied, “There is still a problem with the children’s comprehension.” Her students were in Class 4. At a north Chennai school, the Class 4 teacher is a young Indian-American. He was having a time of it, trying to get his class to answer the question, “What functions does the cerebellum control?” His eager students kept pointing to different parts of their heads to tell him where the cerebellum was located.

S Teresa, the harried principal of the school in central Chennai, said she should be grateful for Teach for India fellows because the school is short of English teachers. But, she added, “These are projects of NGOs given to corporation schools for just one-two years.” The arrangement is “neither here nor there, no English and no Tamil”. She said Class 4 students were “slipping in social science because writing is a problem. They have no language; they do not know English to write”. If that was not worrying enough, Teresa said, “Now the children do not like Tamil, they only want English.” Although they learn Tamil as second language from a regular teacher, the principal fears the children are losing reading and writing skills. The school’s Tamil teacher was doing two additional hours a week with these students as a consequence.

Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Tamil Nadu’s self-image is of a state making a difference. The education department’s policy note for 2016-’17 declares that “Tamil Nadu is the only state that provides children with the maximum entitlements and this eliminates all socio, economic barriers and hindrances to, and opens new vistas for learning”. Further, it is “a pioneer state in introducing welfare schemes for enabling children of all sections to attend schools without any socio-economic barriers”.

All governments exaggerate their achievements. But even accepting these claims at face value, it is clear that the education department’s approach to provisioning for elementary education is about ticking off boxes on a checklist. So long as it can tick off all the boxes – uniforms, geometry box, notebooks, English medium – its claims hold. But changing the medium of instruction is not the same as providing school bags or a box of crayons.

Giving free uniforms, bags, notebooks to make good the “free” part in the free and compulsory primary education is one thing. To claim, as the officials do, that you have created equality of opportunity by giving children in government schools a poor version of what your own privately schooled children have – an English medium education – is disingenuous.

If Tamil Nadu is really committed to providing quality education to children from poor families, it should focus on systemic problems. For instance, if it really wants children to learn English, it must first strengthen the teaching of English as a second language.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.