Two years after the Punjab education department introduced English as an ‘optional’ medium of instruction in government schools, over 14,700 government schools in the state are now offering the same to students.
However, the number of students opting for English as a medium is quite low, which many have attributed to reasons like unavailability of English language teachers, separate classes or because they prefer Punjabi.
Punjabi language is the primary medium of instruction for all government schools from class 1 to 12.
The National Education Policy (NEP) approved by the Union Cabinet, in its recommendations to states, says, “Medium of instruction uptil grade 5, and preferably till grade 8 and beyond, will be home language/mother tongue/local language. The ‘Languages of India’, a fun project/activity to be taken by every student. Three languages to be taught will be decided by state/UT.”
According to the latest data from the education department, 14,720 government schools in the state are offering English medium as an option. Of these, majority are primary schools (9,546), followed by senior secondary (1,875), middle (1,703) and high (1,596) schools. Punjab has around 19,000 government schools, which have a total of around 25 lakh students.
However, data also shows that only 3.44 lakh students in these schools have opted for English medium (1.69 lakh from senior secondary, 1.27 lakh from primary, 35,970 from high school and 10,817 from middle school).
Teachers say that most students still prefer Punjabi as a medium of instruction because of lack of separate teachers/periods and majority who have opted for English medium are those who have shifted from private schools to government schools.
This on an average means 23 students per school have opted for English medium, but according to teachers, the range varies. While some schools have just 1-2 students who have opted for English medium, some have more than 25 and hence have been sorted in a separate ‘section’.
Punjab had started offering English as a medium of instruction in government schools from the 2018-19 session, with 1,886 schools (middle to senior secondary) in the first lot. Primary schools were asked to decide for themselves if they could start English medium as an option then.
This was one of the pre-poll promises of the Congress in its manifesto for Punjab polls 2017.
The decision, according to policymakers, was taken to improve overall proficiency of government school students in Punjab, and help them compete on an international level as many of them move abroad and appear for the IELTS and other competitive exams, but fail to clear them because they are weak in English.
However, later, as the state framed the ‘Smart School Policy’ and started revamping government schools into ‘smart schools’, it was decided that English would be offered as an optional medium of instruction right from the primary level to ‘strengthen’ the base of the students in the language.
English has always remained a problem for students in Punjab and due to weak grounding and lack of English teachers, thousands of students fail in English in class 10 and 12 board exams.
In fact it was only in 1999-2000 that the then Akali Dal government had introduced English from class 1 in the state.
Earlier, English as a subject was taught from class 6 in government schools. But even after English was introduced at primary level, shortage of English teachers continued to be a problem, though recent recruitment has filled some gaps.
In January this year, the Punjab education department had to amend its ‘Smart School’ policy (which was notified in October 2019) after there was widespread criticism of English being introduced as a mandatory medium of instruction in government smart schools.
The critics said that it was a move to dilute the importance of Punjabi in the state. The amended policy read, “English as a medium of instruction be given as optional to the students…”
Speaking to The Indian Express, a government teacher from Mukstsar said that it entirely depends on the choice of parents/students if they want to opt for English medium, and if they do, it is a huge effort by teachers to make it work.
“In my class (Std 9), only two students have opted for English medium. So I teach them separately, devoting extra time for their online classes,” he said.
A government primary school teacher from Ludhiana said, “Twenty-seven students from my school have opted for English medium. Separate textbooks and assignments in English are sent for them by the department. Once school opens, we will make a separate section of 22 students from class 1 who have opted for English medium. How to manage these students depends a lot on the teacher,” he said.
If a student opts for English medium, the medium of instruction changes for four main subjects: maths, science, social science and environment studies.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Punjab Education Minister Vijay Inder Singla said, “We are yet to study the final draft of the National Education Policy (NEP). Anyway, English is an optional medium of instruction in our schools and Punjabi is the main medium. But we will take the next decision keeping in view the betterment of Punjab.”
A teacher however said, “Most students in Punjab government schools still do not opt for English as medium because there is shortage of teachers, separate periods/sections aren’t held for them due to infrastructure issues and they are mostly left to prepare on their own. They end up opting for Punjabi medium only…”
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