A child learning Hindi (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • For a government that asserts to be different from its predecessor in valuing our heritage, it is hard to think what is holding it back from providing a policy push towards a vernacular medium of instruction.

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” –Malcolm X.

For a country obsessed with calling itself the superpower of future, ignoring the most important factor that shapes its future is, very simply, an unforgivable sin. Recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Survey paints a depressing picture about the quality of education the young children (age group 14-18) are receiving in rural India. As summarised in the Swarajya piece:

Of those surveyed, 76.6 per cent could read a Class II level text, 43.1 per cent could do a division problem correctly, 58.2 per cent could read English sentences correctly, 75.7 per cent could count the total amount of money displayed in a picture in the form of different denominations, 55.7 per cent could add up all the weights shown in a picture correctly;

In 2009, when a similar global survey (PISA) exposed the disastrous performance of kids in elementary schools, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) wasted no time in moving swiftly. The results demanded bold actions and the UPA took them: India decided to not participate in PISA. Apparently, in 2021 we will rejoin PISA.

The postmortem for our dismal performance will continue for a few weeks, as it happens every year. A number of experts have used nearly every possible available platform to shout at the top their voice about the perils of right to education (RTE). Besides being blatantly discriminatory against certain religion(s), the act’s provision of mandatory promotion to higher grades creates rather perverse incentives for the teachers. It should not surprise people then that the learning outcomes are poor. However, assuming that RTE cannot be undone (unfortunately) for political reasons, I do not believe that all hope is lost. In particular, I think we can focus on the medium of instruction to significantly improve the learning outcomes.

Conventional wisdom in India, especially in the upper middle class families, is that English offers significantly better economic opportunities and higher quality of education in general. There may perhaps be some truth to the economic opportunities, but going by some of the recent research, the higher quality of learning is debatable. Division for Child Studies (DCS) consultant Sree Kumar Nair did a comparative study of the math scores of eight and nine-year-old children studying in Telugu and English medium schools in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. DCS is a joint initiative of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

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Bear in mind that more affluent parents tend to choose English medium schools for their children and can also provide a better supportive infrastructure to their kids. Therefore, directly comparing the learning outcomes is challenging. Therefore, Nair controls various socio-economic factors to focus on the impact of the medium of instruction alone. He finds that children studying in Telugu perform significantly better than ones studying in English. Perhaps, the Andhra Government’s SUCCESS (2008-09), where it converted 6500 government schools from Telugu to English, is not that huge a success after all!

There is also a recent working paper by Khushboo Gupta and Panu Pelkonen ( Institute for Financial Management & Research (IFMR) LEAD and University of Sussex respectively), that studies the value added by the English medium schools in India. Again, the authors point out the prevalent narrative of economic benefits justifying why studying this question is important in the first place. They use the ASER data to study this question. To quote, they say,

In this study, we show that in India, there is a positive selection of pupils into schools that teach in English, in both public and private sector. However, after controlling for a rich set of socioeconomic characteristics and local area effects, we find that yearly value added in both reading and mathematics is substantially lower in English medium schools. The result holds for both public and private schools.

That is, as one can guess, richer parents send their kids to English medium schools. There is natural self-selection at the entry level itself. Therefore, if we take this into account in studying the direct impact of the medium of instruction itself, then the value-added – gained skills in higher grades, is substantially lower for English as opposed to the native languages. In both, public schools and private schools, the skills gained are vastly higher when the medium of instruction is a vernacular language vs English.

Unfortunately, the volume of research is not huge to settle the debate, but the early trends seem to indicate a strong force in one direction. I personally do not believe it to be coincidental. Anecdotally, I come from an admittedly well-to-do family but educated in a Marathi medium school throughout, English started in Class V, Science and Mathematics were in English from Class VIII. I feel comfortable in saying I haven’t suffered any disadvantage. Of course, one observation does not make a statistical point. But, I do not believe that anecdotes are worthless. In fact, from a social perspective, affluent parents choosing English medium schools and poor parents choosing vernacular mediums, and the economic gap widening, as a result, is a highly undesirable outcome. This type of sorting is precisely the kinds we need to guard against. The education system should be structured in a way that tries to reduce the advantages that factors like parental wealth give. I am not sure encouraging English medium schools is a step in that direction.

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Besides better learning, languages also preserve, enrich and pass on the culture, history and tradition to our future generations. For a government that asserts to be different from its predecessor in valuing our heritage, it is hard to think what is holding it back from providing a policy push towards a vernacular medium of instruction. In one group that I am a part of, some persons have rightly pointed out that the inevitability of English in India is that all higher education is in English causing a steady shift towards English at lower levels. There may be some truth to it.

World over, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Germans do their elementary schooling in their native languages. In Germany, France and Spain one can also pursue higher education in their local languages. So, a move towards offering even higher education in local languages is neither unthinkable nor impractical. However, getting entangled in the debate on whether we should change the primary and secondary school first or higher education first, may lose us precious time. It may be far easier to reform the school structure than higher education. We can start there and hope that things work out. If the research I mentioned earlier is any indication, it would strictly improve the situation.

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