Bangalore: Syed Mustafa, a building painter by profession, this year withdrew his son Akram, 9, from a private school in south Bangalore and sent him to a neighbouring state government-run school.
The shift meant Akram lost an academic year but his father insisted on the move to the Hombegowda Nagar Government Kannada Primary School because it has begun teaching English from this academic year which began earlier this month, giving Mustafa a real choice for the first time.
“They teach both English and Kannada here,” said Mustafa, a Class IV dropout and father of three, of the decision to shift his son’s school. The Rs150 a month fees for Akram at the private Crown English School, which was the only way to learn English at his age, was burning a big hole in Mustafa’s household budget, which ran on his paltry and often erratic earnings.
Akram’s new school is one of the 55,000 state-run and government-aided primary schools that function in Kannada but have introduced English as a subject from Class I.
While the move has found wide support among parents, it has been opposed by Kannada activists, who fear the state’s language will be used less. Typically, state schools had been teaching English as a subject only from Class V.
The decision to introduce what it calls “conversational English” in primary schools, and without any exams to boot, is a bold step for the state government. It also weakens a legal battle the state has been waging with some 2,000 private schools that it alleges have been teaching English on licences they took to run classes in Kannada medium.
Further, the administration in this province, which is the biggest beneficiary among Indian states of tech and business process outsourcing work shipped to India from large US and European companies, has long resisted calls from educationists to redeem its education system that is seen as lagging behind peers.
Eighteen states, including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra, have English as a subject from Class I, where students begin to learn to write the alphabet and words as a means to better equip students to participate in the services boom in the Indian economy.
The difference in Karnataka’s “conversational English” programme is its emphasis on learning through storytelling, singing songs and rhymes, an approach different to conventional teaching. This method, local administrators believe, will help the 35 lakh primary schoolchildren conduct basic conversations in the language.
“It is to keep both the teacher and the students interested and occupied. In rote writing, the teachers give a task to the students and then there is no involvement with them,” said Gayathri Devi Dutt, director of the Regional Institute of English, South India (RIESI), the Bangalore-based autonomous body funded by the four southern states to devise courses to teach English for teachers and students in the region.
The institute, which helped design the course, has trained 112,000 teachers for 10 days, on how to teach the students in the new method, to be reviewed in October.
“Children will easily pick up any language. The difficulty would be for us to teach them,” said Jayalakshmi, a teacher at Hombegowda school, the new place of learning for Akram, who last week received a resource book with 50 stories, 50 rhymes and 30 commonly used sentences.
The students will each get a textbook with over 200 pictures that match the stories, rhymes and sentences of the teacher resource book.
Karnataka decided to go ahead with English as a subject with a focus on conversation skills after an RIESI survey in November 2003 in the state found overwhelming support from parents, who said learning English would help their children improve social mobility and access better job opportunities. Of the 613 parents—nearly half from rural areas and places with low female literacy—surveyed, 592 supported the introduction of English early on in schools.
As parents preferred sending their children to private schools to learn English for better future prospects, experts now believe that introducing the language could help stem attrition at government schools.
“I believe this helps level the field for the children in government schools,” said Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of the Akshara Foundation, which works with several states, including Karnataka, to make elementary education available to all children.
The new language policy has divided the literary community in the state, which has seen Kannada activists take to the streets in the past to press their demand of jobs for locals in software companies.
Organizations such as the Kannada Sahitya Parishat, Kannada Rakshana Vedike and Karunada Veerara Vedike accused the government of sacrificing the interests of Kannada by introducing the English language in primary schools. “It is unscientific and a policy that is aimed at the vote bank,” said Chandrashekara Patil, president of the Parishat.
A body fighting for Dalit rights criticized such opposition, calling it regressive and biased. “The middle class and the rich can afford to send their children to private schools. For the poor, the only option is government schools. Then why should the poor be denied an opportunity to learn English?” argued N. Murthy, president of the Karnataka Dalit Sangharsh Samiti.