Written by Paul Beckett, the WSJ’s bureau chief in New Delhi
By the middle of this month, almost 90 schools across the country will open their doors for a new year of teaching to about 18,000 predominantly Dalit schoolchildren. Their parents will pay tuition of 100 rupees a month to get their kids – and this is the key – an education in English.
The organizers, known as the Operation Mercy India Foundation, have been expanding the program since the mid-1990s. Earlier this year, their Good Shepherd English Medium Schools reached a major landmark: The graduation of the first 45 Class 10 students – nine from Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, 17 from Jeedimetla near Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh and 19 from Agasand near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh.
There’s also a training program in Hyderabad to ensure a steady supply of qualified, English-speaking teachers. The dropout rate of students in the schools is just 0.7%.
Yet, inexplicably – or perhaps all too explicably—no prominent, elected Dalit politician has championed this cause. “Dalit politicians should have and could have taken a lead on this issue but they have not,” says Joseph D’souza, international president of the Dalit Freedom Network, one of the organizations involved in the program.
In fact, much of the political class remains opposed to English medium education supposedly because they fear the loss of local culture and language. It’s more believable that it’s because an ill-equipped population of voters is a malleable population of voters.
Let’s take the cultural argument. India has taken countless outside influences and made them her own by imprinting on them her unique and wonderful stamp. There is no reason, aside from a misplaced post-Colonial chippiness, that prevents India doing the same with English on a national scale.
Consider India’s flagship outsourcing and information technology industry. Does anyone say we should discourage the industry because its management practices, corporate culture and clients are American? No, because it has become a distinctly Indian business, admired around the world, that is now being replicated by other countries that want to make it their own. It is an industry that doesn’t just use English but depends on it for its very survival. Are the people who work in call centers who are fluent in English but may converse in a local language outside the office any less Indian as a result?
Moreover, there already is a strong tradition of English-medium education in some parts of India – in many of its private schools, Catholic schools, military schools and colleges. So to suggest that there is some cultural imperative that says local language must be the only medium for teaching, in effect, poor children sounds like the kind of patronizing attitude that can sometimes be heard in the (frequently English-speaking) drawing rooms of New Delhi.
It’s akin to saying that India’s villages are full of “poor but happy sons and daughters of the soil” who shouldn’t be “corrupted” with the vulgarities of satellite TV. Of course, for everyone else to be so corrupted with the joys of Twenty20 cricket and 24-hour news is absolutely fine.
Lest anyone doubt the benefits of learning English fluency, it was telling last week that Pearson, the London-based media and education company, invested $30 million as part of a push into vocational training in India. A big part of it, said Vivek Govil, CEO of Pearson Education in India, involves teaching English “because it increases employability.”
“People who know English get better paid, better jobs and progress faster,” he added. That is something parents might take as a motto in deciding on a school for their children.
If for no other reason, English should be widely used as the chief teaching language because it is the language chosen by the elite for the education of their offspring. A decent definition of inclusion – the new government’s mantra – might be: To provide the same opportunities for the masses that are enjoyed by the rich. English-medium education fits that bill. It would have the added benefit of filling up all those seats set aside in universities for the underclass which now are vacant because there aren’t enough candidates with the English skills to occupy them.
Indeed, not widening access to education in English risks highlighting the hypocrisy among those responsible for setting education policy – something that Mr. D’souza notes was a motivating factor in the Good Shepherd schools.
“We have been articulating that India and its power brokers, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not, have a double standard policy in education,” Mr. D’souza says. “The upper castes and the powerful and the rich have no problem getting westernized and English-educated.”
Fortunately, there is already some movement in a positive direction in some states. Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in particular have made recent strides in making English the language of school, or at least one of the languages that school is taught in from an early age. Tamil Nadu may follow suit. Others should do the same and fast.
If there was lesson from the last election, it is that India’s voters want politicians to push development and provide them with prospects for moving up and out. The success of the Good Shepherd schools shows there is so much demand for English-medium education that those with almost nothing will pay what little they have to give their kids a chance. (Note: despite their rather Christian-sounding name, the schools run state-approved curricula and open only in areas where they are invited by local Dalit leaders.)
New Delhi can’t issue an edict to compel the states to enforce English-language teaching in schools. But Kapil Sibal, the government’s point man on education, has spoken loudly of his determination to shake up the system. Providing incentives for states to adopt English—and disincentives for states that don’t—would be a good place for him to make his mark.