The Karnataka government introduced English as a medium of instruction in 1000 government schools on a pilot basis last May.

Image for representation: Picxy/Raja Stills
Delve Education Saturday, February 29, 2020 - 13:34

The start of the academic year in May 2019 had been filled with optimism, recalls Mallikarjuna. “We announced that English-medium classes would be introduced for students of class 1 and there was a huge rush for applications,” says Mallikarjuna, the Principal of Government Board School at Brahmavar in Karnataka’s Udupi district. 

“Since most parents wanted to enroll their children in the English-medium section, we added a second section to increase our intake to 60 students,” explains Mallikarjuna in the staff room of the school. 

Pointing at a group of children playing volleyball on the grounds, Mallikarjuna says, “Now, we are facing a dilemma because we don’t have enough classrooms to have two more sections in the next academic year,” says Mallikarjuna. 

Like the Government Board School in Brahmavar, a total of 1000 government schools were identified in Karnataka to introduce English as a medium of instruction in class 1 on a pilot basis. The move to introduce English as a medium of instruction in government schools was taken in 2019 by the previous HD Kumaraswamy-led coalition government which was in power in Karnataka. The project was continued without interruption despite the BJP taking power in the state in July last year.  

Over the past year, the pilot project was received with enthusiasm by parents across the state. Almost 75% of the schools in which it was introduced had more than 20 students enrolled in the English-medium section, figures provided by the Department of Public Instruction revealed. The enrollment in the English-medium section outpaced the enrollment in the respective schools’ Kannada medium section. The overwhelming response for the initiative has prompted education officials in the state to review the status of the pilot project and discuss introducing English-medium schooling in an additional 1000 schools in the state in the 2020-21 academic year.


Primary section of the Government Board School in Brahmavar, Udupi

However, the initiative isn’t without challenges.Training teachers for English-medium instruction has proven to be an uphill task, as the need grows.Additionally, pro-Kannada activists have also expressed opposition, fearing that with dwindling enrollment in Kannada medium sections in schools, children’s knowledge of the language will fade. 

HD Kumaraswamy revives plan to introduce English medium schools

The idea of English medium schooling in government schools is not new in Karnataka. In 2012, the then Primary and Secondary Education Minister Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri of the BJP allowed government and aided schools in the state to change the medium of instruction to English from class 6. 

But between 2013 and 2018, the idea was shelved due to then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s staunch opposition to the idea of English-medium schooling in government schools. However, in an Assembly debate in December 2018, HD Kumaraswamy, who was heading a coalition government in the state, painted a grim picture of the state of public education in Karnataka.

He said that in 3,919 government schools, the enrolment rate was less than 10% and that almost 4,000 students had dropped out of Kannada-medium schools between 2010-11 and 2017-18. In the same period, he noted that English medium schools saw enrolment shoot up by more than 3,000 students. 

The Karnataka government’s decision followed similar actions taken by the Delhi, Kerala,  Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu governments. The Department of Primary and Secondary Education in Karnataka studied the way English-medium schooling was introduced in Kerala before training teachers in the state. Among the 1000 schools in which English was introduced as a medium of instruction, a majority (624) had a student strength of between 21 and 30 students in class 1. One hundred and seventeen schools enrolled more than the stipulated 30 students including a school in Bengaluru which had more than 120 students in the English-medium section.

Schools like the one in Udupi’s Brahmavar pooled in resources to add an additional classroom to accommodate 60 students in the English-medium section, which is more than the stipulated 30 students laid down by the state government. “We managed to collect books and other material from nearby schools where they were not able to fill up the stipulated 30 students,” says Mallikarjuna explaining how his school managed to get around logistical issues. The stipulated number of 30 students was decided to ensure that the student-teacher ratio remained at 30:1 as per the Right to Education Act (RTE). In case, additional students were enrolled, schools were asked to add guest teachers who would teach the students. 


Stage in Government Board School, Brahmavar which was turned into a classroom

Mallikarjuna says that parents enrolling children hold a strong belief that English-medium schooling can improve job prospects. In particular, the pilot project has allowed families from economically weak sections to provide English-medium schooling to their children at no cost. “We cannot afford to send our child to a private school for English-medium education so we decided to send her here,” Prabhakar Kachur, a parent told TNM. Prabhakar works at a local temple and his daughter Deepali is currently studying in class 1 at the Government Board School in Brahmavar.

English training for teachers 

Teachers at the school were trained to teach in English during the summer break in 2019 at the Regional Institute of English. “It was a 12-day training programme in which we were introduced to the English textbooks. We were also trained to deal with students who join class 1 without attending kindergarten by teaching with a mix of English and Kannada,” a teacher who took up the training last year says. Students in class 1 study English, Maths and Environmental Science alongside Kannada.  

No teacher was recruited specifically for English-medium classes. Instead, 1600 teachers were trained in English in April and May 2019 and over 95% of them were deployed in the same school they were teaching in, according to MT Reju, Commissioner of the Department of Public Instruction and State Project Director for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. 

However, education officials in the state admit that they are facing an uphill task training teachers in English. “It (English) remains a foreign language for many teachers and parents. The students don’t have a supportive environment to learn in English in their homes,” says MT Reju. He goes on to add that the department is planning to introduce additional learning material to help students grasp concepts in English. “They (students) need to be supported with learning material, especially since some students are from a first generation learner’s family and from backward socio-economic standard. We are trying to introduce reading cards, activity books with pictures and create a playful experience of learning in English,” says MT Reju.  

However, child rights experts say that despite the initiative taken by the government, most teachers are unfamiliar with English and are unable to teach in the language. “The same teachers who were teaching earlier in Kannada were trained to teach in English but the training was too short. Either new teachers should be recruited or existing teachers should be trained for 6-8 months before they are asked to teach in a new language. A single teacher is unable to teach all subjects for students in class 1. More teachers need to be trained in teaching in English,” says Niranjan Aradhya, a professor at the National Law School of India University and the Programme Head for the Universalisation of Equitable Quality Education Programme at the institute.  

The Commissioner of the Department of Public Instruction admitted that teachers in some schools did not meet the expectations of officials and will need to be retrained before the upcoming academic year.

Another major criticism of the project is the view that it is adversely affecting enrolment in Kannada-medium schools in the state. Pro-Kannada activists have stood opposed to the move of introducing English as a medium of education for this reason. 

‘English at the expense of Kannada’ 

“We oppose the move to introduce English-medium schooling in government schools and this was even highlighted during the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana (a state literature conference) by writers like Champa (Chandrashekhar Patil). The trend may show that English-medium education is popular but this cannot be at the expense of Kannada,” Arun Javagal, a member of Banavasi Balaga, a pro-Kannada organisation says. In the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana held in 2018, Champa, Dalit poet Siddalingaiah, Kannada Sahitya Parishat President Manu Baligar, scholar M Chidananda Murthy and freedom fighter HS Doreswamy had opposed the move to introduce English-medium schooling. 

“Students who study in English-medium schools in rural areas do not have an environment at home in which they can develop their language skills. They will be speaking in a regional language at home and speaking in English in school which does not complement their learning in any way,” adds Arun Javagal,

However, many pro-Kannada activists have allegedly refrained from criticising the decision to introduce English-medium education in government schools. “Some popular pro-Kannada activists have enrolled their children in English medium schools so they don’t have the moral right to question this,” alleges a pro-Kannada activist who did not wish to be named.

Parents of students, however, view English-medium education as an advantage. “This way, our child will be able to develop both her English and Kannada skills by studying in English and conversing in Kannada at home," says Prabhakar, a parent. 

This is in spite the fact that research in India, and across the world including by UNESCO, has shown that children who are educated in their mother tongue learn better than the children who start schooling in a new language. “With the approach adopted in Karnataka, the students will neither learn in Kannada nor in English. Research from around the world shows that teaching in the mother tongue improves student learning. This is seen in countries like Germany, Finland and China but it is only in previously colonised countries where English continues to be a medium of learning,” Niranjan Aradhya adds.

But despite the reservations, the state government, which is now ruled by the BJP, is currently discussing the introduction of English-medium education in an additional 1000 schools starting from the 2020-21 academic year. It is also looking to incorporate English curriculum in Kannada-medium schools in the state through the ‘Nali Kali’ system. “The idea is to ensure that in two to three years English education is imparted to all students in government schools irrespective of whether they are in Kannada or English-medium so that students from both sections are able to follow the same set of textbooks. It will be introduced as part of the ‘Nali Kali’ curriculum for students of classes 1,2 and 3,” MT Reju says. ‘‘Nali Kali’ (joyful learning) is a teaching strategy adopting creative learning practices. He goes on to add that it is too early to arrive at conclusions over English-medium education in schools in the state. 

If implemented, Mallikarjuna’s tasks are only expected to increase. For the 2020-21 academic year, 49 students have shown interest in enrolling in the English-medium section in his school. “At the moment, short of a miracle, we won’t be able to accommodate all the interested applicants. We have made a request for infrastructure at our school,” says Mallikarjuna. But infrastructure is the first of many concerns facing him. “We also need to train additional teachers who can teach in English or bring in a guest teacher for the same. This will be a challenge especially for higher classes,” Mallikarjuna adds.