Will English Help Reverse Falling Enrollment Rates in Government Schools?

Governments say that the falling rate of enrollment in their schools is because of the preference for English medium. But statistics show that infrastructure, environment and unavailability of teachers are more likely to be the reasons.

In his budget speech on July 5, newly elected Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy proposed a pilot project to introduce English as the medium of instruction in government schools.

“English medium classes will be commenced along with the existing Kannada medium classes in government Kannada primary schools. With this, more children can be attracted to the government schools. Initially, it will be experimented in 1,000 schools,” he said.

The proposal was met with opposition from various quarters, including chairman of Kannada Development Authority and noted writer S.G. Siddaramaiah and prominent personalities like writers Chandrashekhar Kambar, Chandrashekhar Patil and freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy. During a meeting with the chief minister on July 7, intellectuals and academics felt that the move would harm Kannada language and culture, apart from confining the students to a “straitjacketed” education.

After the meeting, Kumaraswamy said English would only be taught as a language and would not be the medium of instruction, as it was originally planned. “The move will not harm the Kannada language in any way. The coalition government will protect the land, language and culture of Karnataka,” he said.

Recently, state governments in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – among others – have also mooted the idea of introducing English as the medium of instruction in government schools.  During March this year in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s government overturned a 35-year-old Left government decision by reintroducing English medium government schools.

The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of introducing English as the medium of instruction in government schools has been fairly a regular one. It is estimated that government schools provide education to about 62% of the children in the country, according to a survey released by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2014.

Students sit inside their classroom in a government-run primary school, in New Delhi. Credit: REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal/Files

The challenge of medium of instruction, as experts have pointed out, is tied to many other challenges that are dogging the school education system. Besides coping with lack of infrastructure and shortage of staff, the poor learning outcome levels as documented by the educational trust Pratham, are serious issues of concern. One of these issues is the shortfall in student intake in government schools.

Over the years, the enrollment rates in government-run schools are decreasing. In 2008, government schools provided education to about 72% of children in the country. That number came down to 62% in 2014. The governments attribute the reduced numbers to the popular preference for English as medium of instruction. However, surveys show that this might not be the only reason.

According to a report by IndiaSpend, almost 60% of rural students and about 52% of urban students said that they preferred private institutions as they provided ‘better environment of learning’. Another 22% of rural students and 19% of urban students said the quality of education in government institutions was not satisfactory. Only 11.6% of rural students and 18.5% of urban students said that they preferred private schools because the medium of instruction is in English.

In Punjab, senior secondary and high schools students of government schools refused to choose English as the medium of instruction. Having been been instructed in Punjabi medium until then, they feared that they would not be able to pass examinations in English medium.

Inefficient implementation of mid day meal scheme, lack of infrastructure and unavailability of teachers could also be some of the reasons for decreasing enrollment and high dropout rates in government schools. In Jammu and Kashmir, a 23% decline in enrollment in government schools during the 2011-12 academic year was attributed to ineffective and inconsistencies in the implementation of the mid day meal scheme. A recent report from Telangana said that a drop of 5% in enrollments was due to lack of teachers and proper amenities in schools.

However, even if the argument that the fall in enrollment is due to the preference for English is taken at face value, there are still several problems to tackle in the school education system itself. Most school teachers are not trained to teach in English. In Meerut, when the department of education called for applications to teach in English, only 280 people applied for 335 available posts.

Then there is the problem of printing new textbooks. In Lucknow, it was found that students of a school that had newly attained the English medium tag had not yet received their textbooks. So students continued to use old textbooks in Hindi.

Experts on their part argue that infrastructure and environment of government schools should be the focus, not the medium of instruction. Only such a move would be able to reverse the trend of falling enrollment, they say.

In Delhi, the a government school was able to see that students migrate from private schools due to emphasis on providing good infrastructure and a ‘sense of belonging‘. Availability of free education, textbooks, uniforms and mid-day meals has encouraged parents to shift their students to government schools, a report said. The school also had special classes to help students resolve problems. These factors helped the school achieve a high pass percentage as well.