A standout feature of the recommendations made by the Group on Education and Social Development, a panel of government secretaries, towards the revamping school education is the focus on English. The panel has suggested that English be made a compulsory subject in all schools, beginning from class six, and the government start at least one English medium school in each of the 6,612 blocks in the country. The emphasis on teaching English is welcome. English, being the the language of the global knowledge economy, is a passport to better social and economic prospects. Education policy in India has so far tended to downplay the primacy of English in learning due to political reasons: The national movement looked at English as the language of the coloniser and emphasised learning in Indian languages. One outcome of the discrimination against English in state-run schools has been the development of a large sector of privately-run English-medium schools. In effect, the policy discriminated against a large section of the population that could not afford private schools. The proposed policy change could help remove this anomaly.
But English-medium is no magic bullet that can transform India’s broken-down school system. Numerous surveys and studies have found that our students lag behind in the basic Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic — when measured against global standards. The state response to these findings has been to accuse the surveys of linguistic and cultural prejudice. The panel’s suggestion that India participate in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), a global initiative which, in 2015, was taken by over half-a-million students representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries, indicates a welcome change in approach. Two Indian states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu had participated in PISA 2009 and finished at the bottom in the rankings. The HRD ministry claimed that the test was prejudiced against Indian students and withdrew from PISA. However, PISA results only confirmed what many other Indian studies had revealed: Our school system has been a failure in equipping students with basic learning skills. The first step towards fixing these problems is to admit that they exist.
In recent years, the focus of the government was on building physical infrastructure. This, of course, was necessary. Now, it must pay attention to outcomes. This calls for reforms in learning methods, teacher training and so on. Teachers will have to be better trained and paid and more motivated if learning outcomes are to improve. There should also be zero tolerance for teacher absenteeism, delayed salary disbursals and shortfall in study material. Central and state governments must treat education reforms as a priority.