“This is a ball… that is a tree,” Pooja Goyal explains, holding up a picture book for her students. Himanshi Ninama, 12, looks on quizzically. For the Class 7 student of the Ekalayvya residential school in Ambaji, Gujarat, and her friends, the shift from the Gujarati “dado” to ball and from “vruksh” to tree is as exciting as it is baffling.
Himanshi, a Bhil tribal from Bhiloda taluka of Sabarkantha district, joined the school a year ago, when she was in Class 6. “I speak Bhil at home, but I learnt Gujarati after I came here. Now we are learning English. It’s scary, but also a lot of fun… Sometimes I wonder if I can learn all of this,” she says.
The transition that Himanshi is part of is on account of the Centre mandating all 375 tribal schools in the country — also known as the Ekalavya Model Residential Schools — to switch from regional state school boards to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
“The idea behind asking all Ekalavya schools to compulsorily affiliate to CBSE is to help them adhere to common norms and academic standards, just like the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas. Currently, since these schools are affiliated to different boards, their results are announced at different times and they adhere to different academic standards,” said Asit Gopal, Commissioner of the National Educational Society for Tribal Students or NESTS, an autonomous body set up by the Centre in 2019 to facilitate a more centralised system of administration for the Ekalavya schools.
The 35 Ekalavya schools in Gujarat, which were locally administered by the Gujarat State Tribal Education Society and affiliated to the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board, will now be part of CBSE. Of the 35 schools, 25 are migrating to CBSE, while the others are relatively new and already affiliated to the board. Gujarat has the third highest number of Ekalavya schools, only behind Chhattisgarh (71) and Madhya Pradesh (63).
As a result of this board migration, most Ekalavya schools also have to change their medium of instruction since the CBSE allows its affiliated schools to only use Hindi or English as medium of instruction. All Ekalavya schools in Gujarat have opted for English medium from the new academic year, an official said. To begin with, the transition will be implemented in Classes 6, 7 and 8.
Back at the Ambaji school, teacher Goyal is now translating simple sentences from Gujarati to English. Every day, her batch of 58 students waits eagerly for Goyal, their new English teacher hired specifically to handhold the students through this transition.
The school, located on a hillock nearly 3 km from the temple town of Ambaji, has 448 students enrolled from Classes 6-12, most from underprivileged families.
So far, the transition from Gujarati medium to English has had its fair share of challenges. When Goyal was hired in December, she was told that the students did not know English and that she would have to start with the alphabets. “I had to begin with A-B-C-D and cursive writing. I would bring kindergarten-level books for students of Classes 6 and 7,” she says.
With preparations for the switch initiated only late November, school principal Girish Patel has had to hit the ground running. He has divided the daily schedule into two halves — the first when regular classes in Gujarati are held, and the second for the English bridge course. So far, the English course has covered cursive writing, phonics, vowels, tenses and vocabulary.
Two months on, there has been some progress. Goyal’s students, a total of 113 in Classes 6 and 7, can now write simple sentences. But there’s still a lot of ground to be covered — they cannot speak or respond to their teacher in English, yet.
“First we focused on reading. They are also learning the vocabulary. Children had trouble writing too, but they have gradually picked up — from writing sentences, they can now write poems and longer passages,” says Renu Sharma, who is today using a Class 1 textbook to teach students of Class 7.
But it’s not just the students who are making the transition — all the teachers had to be trained to teach in English.
Recently, four teachers of the Ambaji schools, along with 110 other Ekalavya teachers, took part in a 21-day bridge course in ‘English language and NCERT curriculum’ at the Indian Institute of Teachers Education, Gandhinagar, where they covered topics in English, math, science and social science.
Ravindra Prajapati from the Ambaji school, who attended the bridge course between December and January, teaches English to Classes 9 and 10. “Our training session had tips from motivational speakers, followed by lessons on how we could motivate students so that they do not feel lost in class and drop out. We were told that we have to get the children to understand that the syllabus is more or less the same and that the only difference is English, which they will soon master,” said Prajapati.
Divya Patel, who teaches math and science to Classes 6 and 7, said, “We also took classes in English and were taught about pedagogy and content — how to teach students, the right terminology, how to communicate with parents.”
The shift to English medium has come in for criticism given that it is seen to be at odds with the new National Education Policy that recommends that “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language”.
Adhir Jhingran, Founder Director of Language and Learning Foundation (LLF), a non-profit focused on improving foundational learning of children in government primary schools, said the medium of instruction should be a language that the children understand, “else this approach will result in rote memorisation”.
“There can be two approaches to switching from regional language to English in Class 6. The first is to start early and teach English to students in Class 1, so that by Class 6 they have a reasonable understanding of the language. The other is the bilingual approach in which concepts should be taught in a language the student understands and then the same content is taught in English. A clean break from regional language to English is not going to work. To my mind, the transition being made by Ekalavya schools for students who have very weak understanding of English will be very difficult. This (transition) requires at least three to four years,” said Jhingran, who is also a member of the National Steering Committee set up by the Ministry of Education to draft the National Curriculum Framework.
Central officials, however, deny that the transition will be forced on children. “Please remember, this change is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be very gradual because we are mindful of our catchment area and the fact that students coming to Ekalavya schools sometimes don’t even speak the regional language,” said an official.
Despite the challenges, students are excited about the shift since an English-medium education is often perceived as a ticket to a better life.
“After Class 12, college will anyway be English-medium. It’s good that we learn English now so that we do not face problems later on,” says Himanshi.
Sandhya Rathod, 17, a Class 12 student from Sabarkantha district who joined the Ambaji school a year ago, wishes the scheme was around when she was younger. “I will leave school soon. I wish I had studied English in school. Those who are learning the language from the beginning have it easier.”