Switch to English medium isn’t enough to improve Andhra’s education

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The state that spearheaded the linguistic division of India in 1956 is now proposing to abjure that very language, Telugu, in its quest for “better education”.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy’s proposal to convert all public Telugu medium schools to English medium over the next two years has kicked up a storm, predictably. The opposition has raised a furore and the altercations are ugly, even as the real problem is being ignored.

Andhra’s school education has displayed a worrisome trend in the past several years.

Comptroller & Auditor General audits have unearthed serious issues with Primary and Upper Primary education. Since 2010-11, no household survey of children 6-14 years of age has been conducted, leading to wrong or inconsistent data on Out of School children. Schools have not been mapped for access within neighbourhoods of 1-3 km. Between not enumerating school age children and unmeasured accessibility of schools, it is unknown how many children the state is not educating.

There is also a serious shortage of teachers, poor pupil-teacher ratios, infrastructure deficiencies, ineffective utilisation of funds by School Management Committees (SMCs) and delayed release of funds by both the state and central governments. 37% students had not received uniforms either.

Net-net, the Gross Enrolment Ratio of Primary classes dropped from 91% in 2010-11 to 83% in 2016-17, a giant red flag for education.

This whole gamut of problems was caused by a lack of governance focus on education.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of HRD and the Niti Aayog released the School Education Quality Index in 2019, measuring the performance of school systems across states. The Overall Performance & Rank for Andhra Pradesh, at 56.1%, is at the midpoint of the highest (Kerala, 82.2%) and lowest (Jharkhand, 30.6%.) This places the overall educational quality of the state at the 11th position amongst the 20 large states, leaving a huge 25% point gap to the top.

Source: Niti Aayog School Education Quality Index 2019
A closer examination of the Outcomes Category & Domain Specific Performance of Large States shows that the biggest inadequacies lie in AP’s provision of Infrastructure & Facilities for educational outcomes and in Access to schools. Both these also mirror the findings of the CAG report above: accessibility of schools, funds, infrastructure and facilities, teacher shortage, etc.

Source: Niti Aayog School Education Quality Index 2019
The question that needs asking is – will the total replacement of Telugu as medium of instruction with English improve the quantity of children educated and the quality of education they receive?

English medium schools may well attract more children with parents aspiring for upward mobility. This may improve the Gross Enrolment Ratio, but it cannot be viewed in isolation.

By the CM’s own admission, current teachers need training to be able to handle English medium classes. This will further impact teacher shortages and the pupil-teacher ratios adversely.

It is well-known that children tend to learn and perform better when taught in their native languages. Indeed, states like UP are switching SCERT books from Hindi to Braj, Bhojpuri, Awadhi in an effort to improve learning outcomes of native speakers. While English medium may indeed attract more enrolments, it could cause lower learning outcomes, what with both children and their teachers struggling in an unknown language. This will likely lower the red dot in the Outcomes Category chart from 90%, one of the highest amongst all states. AP manages to score top notch learning outcomes for enrolled students, despite overall low enrolments.

Furthermore, the medium of instruction has no bearing on Access to schools or Quality of Infrastructure and Facilities. Unless those are addressed separately, children will receive no better education either way.

Administrative delays in funds sanction, transfer and utilisation, provision of uniforms, etc., are orthogonal to the medium of instruction, and indicative of much-needed tightening of governance.

The switch to English medium could hence leave education in the state even worse.

Instead, the Andhra government could undertake a more balanced approach.

  1. Survey the households for accurate counts of school age children; determine the correct Out of School children figures as a new baseline.
  2. Survey the accessibility of schools as per RTE regulations.
  3. Fix the administrative issues with regard to latency in funds disbursal and utilisation, and fix infrastructure and facilities issues
  4. Invest more in education. Fill the teacher shortages, train the teachers and absorb new ones as needed for teaching in English.
  5. Use a novel approach of dual medium of instruction, in Primary and Upper Primary, with a curriculum that balances both Telugu and English lessons for all subjects.

This allows for social, historical and cultural continuity, preserving the unique identity of the language of the state. It also provides a ramp for transitioning to genuine bilingualism, combining both the advantages of learning in English from day one, which is a faster path than starting later, while simultaneously learning in Telugu, a natural advantage for native language children.

The Chief Minister’s question on whether objectors and his political opponents send their children to Telugu medium schools is spot on. However, the answers to it are way off.

It is not education in English language alone that the objectors and elites, and indeed anyone who can afford it, seek. It is that they seek a high quality education in English. They send their children not just to any English medium school but to the best that money can buy.

A better education is a compelling driver of economic success. If the Andhra CM desires to accomplish that, turning all Telugu medium schools into English with one wave of his official wand is not what is needed. It may even backfire. His thinking that English helps climb the economic ladder aligns well with people’s aspirations, However, the approach to accomplishing that must traverse a route of higher investment in school education, course-correcting its administration, and engaging long term with a novel bilingual and balanced approach. One that preserves the advantage and cultural continuity of Telugu medium with the professional and economic advantages of English medium.

Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, and Citizens for Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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