Understanding the Context

English-medium education in India is becoming more lucrative by the day. This global lingua franca, which has found its way into most dialects of India’s regional languages is so popular, that studies have noted that after assessing teaching quality, parents choose to send their children to schools that teach in English!

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Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy has caught on to this phenomenon. Recognizing the value of a good English-medium education, and its potential to transform the lives of socio-economically weaker children, Reddy has placed a radical new education policy on the table. From the next academic year, in all government schools across Andhra Pradesh, students up till Grade 6 will only be taught in English. Gradually, other grade levels will be included under the purview of the policy, making all government schools in the state entirely English-medium institutions. 

The Opposition in Andhra Pradesh, led by the Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu, have strongly opposed the policy, stating that the prominence of Telugu will diminish significantly as a result of it (remember, Andhra Pradesh led the move to reorganize states along linguistic lines in 1956!) Yet, the benefits of such a policy are clear for Aarathi: it levels the playing field, allowing everyone access to a lucrative English-medium education. It may seem like an anti-democratic policy decision right now, yet, it is filled with the promise of democratising access to economic opportunity and success in the long run.

Political grandstanding aside though, there is something to be said for the importance of Telugu in the classroom. As The Bastion has previously reported, when a child is taught in one’s mother-tongue, knowledge retention and comprehension are much higher. If only English-medium government schools dominate Andhra Pradesh’s educational landscape, this could have serious consequences on a child’s ability to learn. Swagam asks whether the end-goal is literacy in English alone, or strong cognitive and linguistic skills in both languages.

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Alongside Telugu sub-nationalism, Andhra Pradesh is also home to a rich anti-caste movement too. Honouring the traditions of social equity embedded in the state’s history in its education models is important too. Only then can we provide all children with a better chance of succeeding in the current global economy. It is not the responsibility of disadvantaged children alone to uphold Telugu culture in Andhra Pradesh.” — Aarathi Ganesan

“Learning models need to be scalable and sustainable. Given a discernible lack of foresight, the English-ization of Andhra’s government schools runs the serious risk of satisfying neither of these requirements.” — Swagam Dasgupta

I agree with Chandrababu Naidu. There is no doubt that Telugu, or indeed any regional language, needs to be preserved and promoted in daily life. However, once we move beyond establishing this truth, the question of responsibility, which is central to this debate, rises to the fore. Who exactly should take up the responsibility of preserving and promoting Telugu? Where exactly does one effectively celebrate the language?

Intuitively, the best way to promote a language is to teach children residing in Andhra Pradesh Telugu in school. If this is done, then Telugu survives and prospers. But what of the children who end up carrying the language forth? Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs, to answer the question.

While Telugu is a rich language with a long history, it simply does not have the global currency that English does. Colonial legacies notwithstanding, the language holds within it an incomparable power in India.

A study by Cambridge University notes that skills in English are important for up to 90% of India’s employers. Alongside the adaptability to a challenging work environment, the 2019 India Skills Report further noted that English language skills were amongst the top 3 skills desired by recruiters. Therefore, although an education in Telugu is important, it fails to equip students in government schools with crucial linguistic skills in English that will help them climb up the economic ladder. 

Why is this significant? An Oxford University study by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon notes that in the 5-10 age group, around 33-34% of students in India’s government and government-aided schools are from lower castes. On the other hand, in private schools, only 16% are from lower castes. For such students and their families, access to expensive education or professional opportunities is limited by virtue of their caste-class position. With an English-medium education, comes increased structural access, as well as greater social mobility.

As Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad and proponent of English-medium education for Dalit children notes in an interview with The Guardian, “Ambedkar compared English to the milk of the lioness, and said those who drink it become stronger.” Thus, this move although homogenizing, and perhaps anti-democratic in that it takes away choice, contains within it an unprecedented democratising potential. 

The lucrativity of English isn’t a particularly novel finding, though. You’re able to read and understand this article because you were taught in English, a conscious decision probably made by your parents. In fact, studies have shown that after teaching quality, whether the school is English-medium or not is the second factor parents take into account when choosing schools! Irrespective of the quality of education, these are often private schools that charge higher fees, making them inaccessible to financially weak communities. A divide is created between those who can (just about) afford to gain access to social capital, and those who can’t. 

Back to our original question — what of the children who end up carrying Telugu forth? From this trajectory, we see that children who study in Telugu will most likely be from government schools, be economically weak, and be from historically marginalised communities. The Opposition is suggesting that the burden of carrying forth the mother-tongue be placed on their shoulders. On the other hand, those who can somehow escape this system are not similarly burdened, and thus climb up the ladder much faster. 

Alongside Telugu sub-nationalism, Andhra Pradesh is also home to a rich anti-caste movement too. Instead of pandering to historical sentiments, honouring the traditions of social equity embedded in the state’s history in its education models is important too. Only then can we provide all children with a better chance of succeeding in the current global economy. It is not the responsibility of disadvantaged children alone to uphold Telugu culture in Andhra Pradesh. 

Learning English in a Telugu Speaking State

There are multiple legitimate concerns surrounding the policy, though. Can students be taught in English well by teachers who themselves may struggle with the language? Will students be able to comprehend a language that they are not exposed to at home? These are serious concerns, yet the state government’s plans thus far, as well as the state of digital learning tools in Andhra, are encouraging. 

For the upcoming academic year, only grades 1-6 will have to make the switch. As with the case with any policy, negative outcomes are sure to arise. However, the fact that it is being phased out means that those negatives can be carefully assessed before proceeding to the next rollout for Grades 6 and above in 2021-2022. 

Now, to accommodate for the current students, over 1 lakh teachers are being trained in English between January and May of 2020. They are to be taught by experts in the language from Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) and Bengaluru’s Regional Institute of English (RIE). This is significant because both EFLU and RIE specialise in more than just English literature and grammar — they especially focus on teaching English-medium educators in an Indian context. Outsourcing teaching training to them allows for already well-developed training modules to be deployed, increasing the chances of better teaching outcomes once the transition is made.

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Furthermore, the state government’s Andhra Pradesh e-Knowledge exchange (APEKX) portal, which partially facilitates the sharing of teaching methods amongst teachers, can help provide solutions to the difficulties teachers face teaching in the English-medium classroom. Already, over 1 lakh teachers in the state are registered with the portal, and thanks to a points-based system, they are incentivised to regularly use it.

 The state government in collaboration with the Centre’s DIKSHA has also introduced many digitised textbooks on APEKX for students, many of which are in English, and can be easily accessed from desktop computers or smartphones. While indeed there will be hiccups in implementation, there are ample free resources being made easily available for both students and teachers transitioning into a new language and curriculum.

The Road Ahead

However, the question of carrying forward Telugu culture is a legitimate one, and should be heeded by Reddy’s government. A search for the Andhra Pradesh Culture Ministry produces an outdated website from Naidu’s reign between 2014-2019. In the current state government website, cultural development is an appendage to the larger Ministry of Youth Advancement, Tourism, and Culture. The contact details for the Director of the Department of Culture aren’t even listed. If this is the state of the website, then the state of government activities promoting Telugu’s linguistic culture in schools or otherwise may be worse. Separately teaching Telugu and embracing its diverse literary cultures in all classrooms is crucial to ensure that students connect with the region’s heritage.

 In any case, the Andhra Pradesh state government is simply responding to trends in its education sector. Gross enrolment levels in primary government schools fell from an impressive 96.74% in 2013-2014, to 84.48% in 2015-2016. Given that private schools offer English-medium education, and the state’s generally lacking school infrastructure, it is likely that parents are opting to enrol their children in the former instead. Yes, this is literal populism, but not without good reason. The steps taken by the Andhra Pradesh government to rollout English education are indicative of a strong conviction to ensure the policy is successful for all, as opposed to mere populist grandstanding.

Aarathi Ganesan

Aside from her work as Editor at The Bastion, Aarathi explores the cultural intersections between gender, technology, and development in South Asia in her free time.

I think we can all agree that a policy change at the scale and impact that is imminent to the ‘English-ization’ of instruction in government schools ought to have been first tested through controlled pilot experiments in more progressive districts of Andhra Pradesh. It is also not the responsibility of certain (underprivileged) sections of society to protect a culture and language. Rather, it is more useful to assess the mechanics of the scheme by the audience directly impacted by it: the children studying in government-run schools.

Well-Intentioned in Policy, Hasty in Implementation

Yes, fluency in English enables upward social mobility in today’s day and age. Yet, in the pursuit of securing the ‘employability’ of our children, we cannot forego the value of learning in itself. As per the government order issued, the policy is to be implemented “under all managements”, which includes Government, Mandal Praja Parishad and Zila Parishad schools that used to teach using the regional language as the medium of instruction. The dearth of pedagogical infrastructure through textbooks and teachers exacerbates the risk element with this government order, which we will address shortly. For starters, there is overwhelming research that proves that using indigenous languages results in the best learning outcomes, especially for children.

Next, one can acknowledge that SC/ST/backward class students from disadvantaged families stand immediately affected by the YSRCP’s government order. One must also acknowledge the fact that a child spends only half (at best) of his/her day in a school. Children require conducive and comprehensive learning environments that extend beyond the teachers and revamped textbooks that the government has cited in defence of the policy. Significant chunks of language acquisition – that is the ability to read, write and speak in a certain language – would take place outside of a school in socialising with friends or family. Given that most of these students are first-generation English learners, the government’s evasion of their out-of-school immersion is worrying.

Digitized classroom resources around children, out-of-school tuition teachers, extra-curricular activities and — arguably the most important — learning at home need to be addressed for learning acquisition to take place. Especially with such vulnerable students, the state might be wise to consider the proverbial bird in hand with instructing in Telugu before hastily scurrying for two in the bush.

Where Are the Teachers?

Since out-of-school-learning is a difficult space for the State to enter, then the next most important component of making this transition a success is the form of instruction. Schools need to be of excellent quality to enable foundational learning in English. Yes, the SCERT is said to be preparing “pedagogical material for supporting the teachers to be skilled in English Medium teaching”. But there is a lack of delivery muscle in schools in rural India, especially at the last mile. To expect a different output (English medium instruction) from the same crop of teachers is unfair, especially when teacher training is assumed to be a one-time event instead of a continuous and iterative process.

Madhukar Banuri, CEO of Leadership for Equity, in an interview with The Bastion, said, “It is established from developmental models that, less than 20 per cent of actual teacher learning occurs through direct training. Like any other professionals, teachers learn by doing. Till the time I don’t teach a lesson in English, how can I prepare for the challenges that come with it? Teachers are transitioning into a different kind of instructional pedagogy. So, from a solution perspective, besides continuous training, the teachers will need rigorous mentoring and support feedback mechanisms to handle the ups and downs of such a transition. A strong recommendation is to establish a cadre of teacher coaches and mentors for teachers, from existing DIETs or otherwise at local bodies, to observe and support classrooms on a continuous basis. This will be the single most critical differentiator for the success of the Andhra Government’s model”.

Little has been said in public about the possibility of such capacity-building for teachers beyond training seminars. This is a significant pain-point whose danger cannot be underestimated. Despite confining the policy to the sixth grade only, it is hard to believe that one year will suffice to train teachers for six batches of students across the state.

The muddled politics of this move makes it difficult to sympathize with the newly-elected government. Jagan Mohan Reddy and his English-speaking friends should be wary of the turnaround time-period for changing the medium of instruction in public schools. The dividends could take decades to show through.

If done carefully – and this is a big if – it could have an unprecedented ability to change Andhra’s coming generations of job-seekers by preparing them for a competitive globalized market. Yet, at the given scale of implementation, the results could be disastrous in the short-run, both politically and in terms of learning outcomes and dropout rates. There is a lack of academic support for teachers beyond ‘tick-mark’ training through seminars. Without out-of-school support, this move could backfire for the disadvantaged students that the government is attempting to uplift from their rural districts.

Learning models need to be scalable and sustainable. Given a discernible lack of foresight, the English-ization of Andhra’s government schools runs the serious risk of satisfying neither of these requirements. 

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