Every visit I make to Dehra Dun, the horrors of the Indian education system become clearer to me. This is a school town but at almost every level of society there are parents at their wits’ end and children barely hanging on. Children at elite schools like Doon and Welhams, let us presume, are the luckier ones, but the rest tell a sad, sad story.
A serious problem seems to be, and it’s best to face this head on, the desperation for education in the English medium. One can understand the compulsion — English for many is the way to get ahead at a global level as well as to lift yourself up socially at the local level. The best jobs it is believed are available to those who speak and know English. But the myth that we are conversant with English in India goes only so far.
We became independent from British rule in 1947. Even then, English “as she is spoken” was available to a minority. Since then, years of various political whims and nationalistic decisions have meant that education has been on a seesaw, moving up and down keeping just about everything in mind except children and their needs. While writer Chetan Bhagat’s dismissal of the rules of English grammar is annoying, he does speak to the reality. And the reality is that in many English medium schools in India, neither the teachers nor the students know sufficient English. Yet, they are expected to teach and learn history, geography, physics, chemistry, biology and the rest of it. When this problem has been recognised, two corrective steps have been taken.
The first is to dumb down the whole system to the level of the lowest common denominator and the second is to try and simplify English literature texts. Both are short-sighted. So the life of Kiran Bedi stands as literature for the CBSE board for instance, instead, presumably of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. But in that balancing act, context probably wins over quality. Yet, you still find PG Wodehouse popping up in texts.
What is needed instead is the imparting of education in a medium that children can understand and a simultaneous effort to teach spoken and conversational English. This will reduce the time wasted in attempting to teach concepts in an alien language to children who speak some other language at home and to each other. Right now, students are being deprived of the very precious resources of knowledge and understanding. Nor can it be forgotten that most teachers themselves come from the same pool, so are similarly handicapped.
The result is a large group of half-educated children, many of whom have been frustrated or beaten down by a haphazard system and parental ambition. The tragedy of course is that the other problems which afflict all schools still remain — a proliferation of boards and standards, not enough quality teachers, a lack of consensus on examination systems, ill-conceived course curricula, unbalanced focus on academia over extra-curricular activities, little coordination with universities and their requirements.
Those who rail against the coaching class system might stop and consider that if the schools were able to do their jobs, tutorials would not exist. It is not just slow learners who use the alternative system; often it is the very clever as well.
The well-off now all flock to the IB schools and thus duck the Indian system. Those with no alternative have to make do with no school or government-run schools, which are hit and miss at best. And the vast mass of upwardly mobile or aspirational India is stuck in the middle, neither fish nor fowl.
While we figure out how to fix this, we must also address the immediate task of explaining Bertie Wooster and the Drones Club to a village child eager to take on the world.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona