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Column: English From Class I- Cosmetic Changes Will Not Do

By Sandeep Sahu

At a time when the rest of the world is moving towards primary education in mother tongue, the Odisha government’s decision to introduce spoken English from Class I defies logic and betrays a gross misunderstanding of the problem that bedevils our primary education system.

While announcing the decision yesterday, School and Mass Education minister Samir Ranjan Dash said it would ‘improve’ the standard of English among school students and wean their parents away from English medium schools. Far from doing any such thing, the decision actually has the prospect of weaning children away from school altogether and increasing the drop-out rate. The minister has attributed the decision to the ‘desire’ of parents. But are the parents necessarily the best judge in such matters? The findings of several exhaustive research studies suggest that children, especially in far-flung areas, are scared away by the insistence on teaching them in Odia,. This being the case, which is the language of the state, what chance does the introduction of English from the word go has of retaining them in school, forget ‘improving’ their English?

There can be no two opinions about the need to improve the general standard of English among our school students to prepare them better for the life ahead. The fact that 72% of students who failed in the high school certificate (HSC) examination last year failed in English underscores the gravity of the problem. But is introduction of English, even if only in the spoken form, in Class I the best way to go about setting it right? Let’s face it. For the vast majority of primary school students in our state, English is a ‘foreign’ language and it’s not easy for them to learn the language, even more so at such a young age. In my view, the old system in which school students were introduced to English alphabets at Class IV was the best. By that time, the students are expected to have learnt the basics of numbers and the Odia alphabet and are thus mentally primed to acquire a new language.

In any case, our students are doing poorly in English not because they are introduced to it late but because the quality of teaching is poor and the teachers are neither competent nor keen. If the former is the case, how it is that the earlier generation of students acquired a reasonable level of proficiency in English even though they started learning the language in Class IV? Here is another poser for the framers of our policy on primary education. If the standard of English of our students is poor, is it any better than their proficiency in Odia – or, for that matter, mathematics, science or any other subject? The fact of the matter is the vast majority of students, even at the high school level, are equally poor in Odia and cannot write a full paragraph incorrect Odia. The introduction of English at Class I level is certainly not going to improve their competence in other subjects. The decision thus is prompted by a wrong diagnosis of the problem.

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The focus, therefore, should be on improvement of the general standard of teaching in our primary schools. Given the depths to which our primary education system has sunk, it is obvious that it cannot be done overnight and will be a long-drawn affair. It would involve meticulously planned and painstakingly implemented measures to improve the general standard of teachers through a rigorous process of recruitment, training and supervision. The emoluments and service conditions should be attractive enough to attract the best in the business. Simultaneously, all efforts should be made to make learning fun for the children. Planners should study how students of Saraswati Vidya Mandirs, who also study in the Odia medium, are doing so well in the board exams while students of government schools are proving to be laggards.

The state government is resorting to cosmetic changes like introduction of English because it doesn’t have the will or the capacity to undertake the painstaking efforts needed to improve the standard of our school students, But such changes will take us nowhere.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)

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