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Rural India: English medium schools mushrooming across villages

Oct 16, 2010, 02.11 AM IST
PUNE | CHANDIGARH: Ten-year-old Maanav Grewal is up at the crack of dawn every day. He has to get ready for school 24 km away from his home in Tahliwala Jattan village in Ferozpur, Punjab. The fourth-grader’s school in the district’s main city, Fazilka, starts at 8 am, but he has to be up two hours earlier to catch the only jeep that ferries students from his village.

There are other schools closer home, but Maanav’s parents, who are well-to-do farmers, were set on this one. “Any school would not do,” especially if the medium of instruction was more Punjabi than English. They chose an English-medium school, which gave Maanav a “better education”.

Never mind that it costs a significant Rs 520 a month. From Punjab to Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, English-medium schools are sprouting in India’s villages to meet the growing demand. Small farmers, factory workers and labourers are sending their children to English-medium schools, even if it pinches the pocket.

There are no official or documented numbers available, and most private schools are unrecognised, but anecdotal evidence points to this growing trend. In Andhra, nearly half the Urdu schools in Kurnool and about a third each in Hyderabad and Nizamabad have been replaced by an equal number of English-medium schools in the past 2-3 years, says Parveen Sayyed, national Urdu coordinator of Hyderabad-based Pratham Education Foundation, an NGO working in school education.

English medium advantages

In Maharashtra, 2,500 new English-medium schools have sprung up since 2006, but not a single Marathi-medium school. In the past five years, an average of 100 English-medium schools have been added every year in the Panchkula region, comprising Haryana, Chandigarh, Punjab, J&K and Himachal Pradesh, since 2005.

Kerala has a network of 12,800 government and private schools. Traditionally, the medium of instruction in these schools has been Malayalam. However, over the years, there has been a marked shift. The number of English-medium schools has increased to 750, according to the latest economic review of the state.

As prosperity grows in rural India, the urge to walk in the brown sahib’s shoes gets stronger. Nearly every family in Punjab’s villages has relatives in the UK, Canada or Australia. Parents feel only English-medium schools can give their children the edge to survive there. Labourers too send their children to private or English-medium schools, despite monthly fees of Rs 300-500, which equals two or three days’ wages.

Privately-run, English-medium schools are perceived to be better equipped. They also have better-trained staff and healthier student-teacher ratios. In Punjab, for instance, the student-teacher ratio in private schools is 35:1, whereas it varies from 40-60:1 in government schools, says Punjab State Education Board chairman Dalbir Singh Dhillon.

Parents in Punjab may have their own reasons for sending their children to English-medium schools, but dreams know no regional barriers.

“The future belongs to those who speak English. Only they can secure big jobs or do big business,” says Pradeep Mandhare from Wing village near Bhor taluka in Maharashtra, who recently enrolled his four-year-old daughter in an English-medium school. Mandhare should know — he spent nearly 10 years as a machine operator in a factory near his village. “I cannot speak in English despite being a graduate. If I had studied science or learnt how to use computers, I could have done better for myself,” he says.

“The woman who works on the farm too likes to be called ‘mummy’,” says Renu Dandekar, a school teacher who runs a school in the state’s Ratnagiri district.

Former Thermax chairperson Anu Aga, who has set up the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation, says the increase in English-medium schools is a demand-and-supply phenomenon. In partnership with voluntary organisation Akanksha, the foundation runs two Pune Municipal Corporation schools for children from low-income families where they are provided free education.

“People in rural areas are aware that an education in English can give them jobs in India and abroad. When people in urban areas are sending their children to English-medium schools, why should this opportunity be denied to them?” she says.

There is fierce competition among the schools, particularly in towns with a population of 10,000-15,000. “I had to slash my fees by about Rs 2,000 per student,” says Vinod Savant, who recently opened an English-medium school in his village of Nampur, Nashik. He now provides uniforms, school bags and transport within the fee amount, as two more schools have come up in the area.

The average annual fees of Rs 5,000 — including uniforms and books, but excluding transportation — may not be a big deal for rich farmers. But for farm labourers, it leaves a hole in the household budget.

The average annual income of a farm labourer in Maharashtra is Rs 30,000. Still, there are about 20 children of farm labourers in Sahebrao Kadam’s English-medium school in Korhate village of Nashik district.

This is even while education in Marathi-medium government schools is free. Rural Karnataka is also experiencing a boom in English-medium schools, says Pratham Babu, state secretary of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, a voluntary organisation working in the education sector. “In many cases, it is difficult to get permission for primary English-medium schools, but people defy the rules and run such schools at the block level and below,” he says.

While state governments may find it difficult to monitor the sprouting of such schools in the interiors, they aren’t blind to the trend. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab have introduced English as a subject from the first standard in regional-language schools.

Another innovation is the creation of ‘semi-English’ schools, where a few subjects like science and mathematics are taught in English, while the rest are taught in the local language. These are fledgling steps, but governments have made a start. “Maharashtra has introduced English as a subject from first standard in Marathi-medium schools in 2000.

Earlier, it used to be taught from the fifth standard. Despite this, the number of semi-English schools is growing rapidly in the state,” says MR Kadam, state director of primary education.

In Kerala too, the government has started English divisions in many state schools. Moreover, students from unrecognised schools are often re-admitted to government schools. Such initiatives have started bearing fruit. In the past one year, for instance, the number of students who joined first grade in government schools was 3,57,322, but 3,67,883 completed second grade.

On the flip side, while private schools are proliferating, quality is not guaranteed — not just because all schools are not affiliated to the local boards. Very often, teachers do not have the requisite qualifications. Most of the teachers in English-medium schools in Maharashtra are from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. Kerala is another big supplier of teachers for schools in the interiors. “Parents prefer them to local teachers because they speak English,” says Savant.

In smaller villages, teachers have just a working knowledge of English. “Children suffer academically, as a few teachers have only a class 10 or 12 qualification,” says Sayyad from Hyderabad. Teachers are required to have at least a diploma in education for lower classes and a bachelor of education degree for the higher ones.

Those with higher qualifications are paid an average of Rs 5,500 with provident fund benefits. For those who are not as qualified, salaries can vary from a paltry Rs 500 to Rs 4,000, depending on experience.

But the teachers themselves are not complaining. “We get good salaries here, unlike in Kerala or Bangalore. We also get free accommodation, subsidised meals and free education for two children,” says Leena V from Kerala, who shifted to Pandharpur town in Maharashtra this year.

The late management guru CK Prahalad had said at a function in Pune a few years ago that the poor are willing to pay more for quality education. The irony is, what the poor perceive as quality education and pay more for may be miles away.

(With inputs from S Sananda Kumar and PK Krishnakumar in Kochi)

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