Chennai: The nearly two-month long curriculum freeze in Tamil Nadu’s school thawed on Tuesday with India’s Supreme Court crumpling Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s plea to trash a much-awaited uniform education policy championed by the previous government.
For the first time in Tamil Nadu’s history, schools will receive their academic guidelines almost 60 days after reopening – an out-of-whack situation for most teachers glued to prescribed texts but nerve-cooling for parents pinning hopes on a school education as a step towards a college degree and a job for their kids.
Following the SC order, Jayalalithaa’s government has to dispatch 9 crore new textbooks within 10 days to more than 1 crore students in close to 54,000 state schools.
“Most teachers see text books as a comfort blanket – a bit like Linus,” said a Chennai-based educationist with a global children’s welfare group, who didn’t want to be named, referring to a blanket-toting character in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. “The verdict clears confusion and will offer relief to parents. But children will be unhappy.”
The Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo’s move to axe her predecessor and archrival M. Karunanidhi’s pet project -- a Rs200-crore uniform education scheme – soon after winning the April 2011 state elections had temporarily paved way for Tamil Nadu school pupils to practice English conversations, polish math skills, learn music, dance and get more outdoor play. Now, such activities are likely to be dismissed.
And even as petitioners against the government do a victory lap, some educationists worry that questions of inadequate teacher training and meaningful student assessments are getting swept under the carpet.
A common syllabus
In 2007, mechanical engineer and retired academician S. Muthukumaran lead a committee to replace Tamil Nadu’s four syllabi – unusual in India where states largely offer a single syllabus for government-run schools – with a common curriculum. The move towed the line of the victorious Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) 2006 election manifesto to equate content in the state where the Matriculation syllabus was deemed better than the State, Oriental and Anglo-Indian boards.
The ball was set rolling for primary levels by revising content for class I and for secondary sections by crafting new portions for class VI, both of which were introduced last year. This initial effort involved contributions from top academicians and also education-focused charities. But subsequent texts were created in a haphazard manner without much expert advice as the 2011 election closed in.
“In the end there was more of a leveling down than a leveling up of syllabus in the state,” said Cho Ramaswamy, editor of the Tamil political weekly magazine Tughlak. “Still, the government erred in rushing to stop sending textbooks to schools. They should have waited for a year.”
“There was no time to make these changes after taking over as chief minister,” Ramaswamy said of Jayalalithaa’s controversial amendment to the DMK-promoted Uniform System of School Education (USSE) Act that was opposed successfully via a June 2011 High Court (HC) case filed by a group of parents, teachers and lawyers, against which the TN government appealed mid June in the Supreme Court (SC,) only to lose.
An uncommon problem
“It was a vexatious issue for entire Tamil Nadu,” said Prince Gajendra Babu, who runs Chennai-based Navbharat Matriculation School and one of the winning petitioners. “The judgement opens doors for a poor worker’s kid to have the same education as a rich man’s child.”
On a recent Friday before the SC ruling, at the tree-lined and sandy campus of Avvai School in South Chennai’s Adyar area an English teacher scribbled a few passive voice sentences for 40, class X girls in green uniforms to change into active voice.
From the start of the school year, grammar gained priority in the absence of textbooks and eight 45-minute sessions, or 6 hours of instruction, were shrunk to five one-hour periods. The last remaining hour of the school day was used for music, dance and painting activities and even film screenings.
“The children were enjoying school as there was more time for extra and co-curricular activities,” said S. Rajalakshmi, secretary Avvai Home and Orphanage’s school committee. The government-aided school has 1,500 students, a majority of them girls. “But teachers who are used to conduct classes in the standard way, had to really prepare ahead of class (in the absence of textbooks) and not many of them could cope.”
The 58-year-old Avvai School English teacher, who didn’t want to be named, admitted that she was handicapped without a syllabus – unavailable for the first time in three decades of her teaching career – and that she struggled to retain the attention of the class that was easily bored studying grammar.
But K. Vijayalakshmi, a primary level English teacher in a southwest Chennai corporation school, used this lacuna as a chance to incorporate glove puppets, previously gathering dust, and conversation exercises from her teacher-training manuals in class. Still, even this inspired government-school teacher found the nearly two-month deadlock since the start of school in mid June a bit tedious.
“We can manage for 10-15 days but a majority of teachers are used to leaning on textbooks,” said Vijayalakshmi in Tamil. “Most of our children are first-generation school goers who cannot expect their parents to help them with academics. The simplified common syllabus is a chance to keep them in school.”
The state’s education minister confirmed on Tuesday that textbooks will be sent to schools within the next few days and offered assurance to teachers and parents that the government will be cognizant of the time shortage to complete portions this year.
“We will implement (the SC verdict) immediately,” said TN education minister C.V. Shanmugam via a press release in Tamil.
Jayalalithaa, who scored a thumping victory in the assembly elections, may just have chosen the wrong issue to hog the limelight. Some education experts opine that the chief minister could’ve let the DMK’s USSE project proceed after deleting poems of the former chief minister and even making much required improvements that would have brought her bouquets instead of brickbats.
“She (Jayalalithaa) could have been gracious and taken the common syllabus further just like the DMK government carried forward late rival (and former TN chief minister) MG Ramachandran’s (MGR) school mid-day meals scheme,” said the Chennai-based educationist quoted earlier, referring to Jayalalithaa’s mentor’s 1982 welfare policy to keep kids in schools that was replicated nationwide.
Others see the current controversy as merely a case of barking up the wrong tree. As the policy stalemate ends, critics expect it to reveal merely cosmetic changes without offering the prosthetic help that Tamil Nadu and a majority of education systems in India are in dire need of.
“I find this whole discussion of textbooks irrelevant and it is almost as if there is a conspiracy to keep the focus on minor changes to the system,” said Balaji Sampath, founder of Chennai-based education non-profit Association of India’s Development (AID.) “Eventually, the text books will be sent out and the government will criticize the content and key issues of improving teaching-quality and assessment will fall through the cracks.”
Amritha Venketakrishnan contributed to this story.