February 20, 2020
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Marx And The Lost Out Classes

Generations of graduates miss out on jobs and opportunities due to the ban on English in West Bengal's primary schools

Marx And The Lost Out Classes

LIKE many of his friends, Goutam Pal dreamt of getting an MBA and eventually managing a firm. But after majoring in commerce from a Calcutta college last year, the sprightly 22-year-old realised that dreams die easily. Pal, who schooled in a government institution that did not teach him English at the primary level, found out that a ticket to a business school was a no-no with his shaky communication and writing skills in that language. "English frightens me. How can I do an MBA with such an acute language problem?" he asks.

Nasima Mir had no such ambitions, but English remains her biggest stumbling block. The humanities graduate was luckier than Pal: her primary school in Mullickpur on Calcutta's southern outskirts taught the language 'unofficially' from Class III. "But my friends who went to private schools have an edge over me," says Mir, who is daunted by the 200-marks English papers she'll have to give when sitting for the state civil services examination next year.

Pal and Mir's predicament is shared by thousands of school students in West Bengal. Ever since the Left Front government abolished the teaching of English at the primary level in government and government-aided schools in 1981, an entire generation of students have lost out on, as a teacher puts it, "a window to the world". A world where more than 750 million people speak English, three quarters of communication modes use the language and half of technical and scientific journals are written in it. Consequently, Bengal's English-shy students belong to a Lost Generation, unable to compete for the best jobs in town. "We have created a generation of students totally illiterate in English," says noted educationalist Sunanda Sanyal.

And the situation continues. Some 85 lakh students enrolled in West Bengal's 51,000 government and government-aided primary schools will only start learning the English alphabet from Class V onwards, a marginal improvement on the original 14-year-long policy of teaching the language only from Class VI. This unless their parents teach English at home or rustle up money to get the child admitted to the friendly neighbourhood coaching centre.

There is little option: the government which banned English at the primary level has made the language paper an imperative in all its recruitment examinations—of the six compulsory papers carrying 100 marks each in the state civil service examination, two are English papers. "Isn't it utterly strange that even when government jobs here require proper knowledge and use of English, we don't teach our students the language from the primary level?" asks an exasperated Tarun Tapas Majumdar, retired headmaster of the prestigious 175-year-old government-run Hindu School.

Nobody in the Left Front government wants to face this uncomfortable home-truth. In a sustained movement which exalted feel-good virtuousness over any virtues of knowledge, CPI(M) ideologues, egged on by eager-to-please party-friendly academics, abolished English teaching in primary schools. Reason: expanding educational opportunities, arresting the high rate of dropouts and bringing in thousands of first generation learners from Bengal's 36,000 villages where 72 per cent of its 68 million population lives. Noble aims for a government which felt English was scaring away a lot of potential first-generation learners. But the upper classes continued to send their children to private schools to learn the language from the primary level. "It encouraged dualism in education with children of affluent families blessed with an opportunity of English medium schools and the underprivileged majority denied the scope," says Dr Ross Mallick, a Cambridge University social scientist.

NOTHING Marxian about it, but this overzealous experiment has gone horribly  awry. The 1992 Education Commission headed by economist Dr Ashok Mitra to examine the state of West Bengal's education found that 78 out of every 100 students dropped out at the end of Class IV. (Today, the government claims, 40 out of every 100 students drop out at the primary level.) According to one estimate, some 250 government and government-aided primary schools have closed down during the past decade as parents prefer to send their children to private schools. Even admissions to government-run primary schools had dwindled from 25 lakh in 1978 to 24 lakh in 1986 in spite of West Bengal's population recording a 2.3 per cent average annual growth rate during the same period. "It's a frightful situation, and mostly linked to the ban on English at primary levels," says Kartick Saha of Save Education Committee, a pressure group.

But this incredible policy did not only stop at banning the language. The commissars decided that traditional methods of teaching also had to go when students were finally acquainted with the language at Class VI. So the syllabus was turned on its head: out went the time-tested methods based on slender prose and verse anthologies and cramming of grammatical rules; in came the much touted state-of-the-art 'functional-communicative' method which encouraged students to correct their mistakes through mutual discussions in the classroom. Some 18,000 teachers were 'retrained'. "The new syllabus didn't belong to our culture, it was too modern and our teachers couldn't handle it. In the end, it did more harm than good," says Sanyal.

In fact, the result has been an unmitigated disaster. The government brought out Learning English, a series of textbooks for teachers and students alike, where the first 11 lessons formed a teachers' manual. The manual suggested frenetic classroom activity: group work and letting children hop, run and play in classrooms while learning English. All this in a state where 30 per cent of primary schools have derelict one-room classrooms that are cramped for space. A 1995 Class V primer, A Step To Learning English, which Sanyal describes as an "insult to a child's intelligence", made matters worse. For one, the primer is littered with mistakes. The teaching methods have a touch of the bizarre. For example, the primer suggests that students should keep 'looking at and reading' three words, such as 'mat, cat, and rat' for three 40-minute lessons over three days!

THE upshot: students with the highest marks in English at secondary levels in the state would fare poorly in comparison with their counterparts in other parts of the country. So when a reputed school asked candidates vying for its higher secondary course last year to write an essay on 'my favourite animal', they got a shock. Samples from the essays written by 17-year-olds with over 80 per cent marks in English in secondary examinations:

  • When the bad man entire house, the dog warn bhuk bhuk.
  • Just after brest milk the cow's milk is very much necessary for the baby.
  • By the help of the cow often we plough in the fild...By the cow dunk we make 'Ghute' a kind of inflemable thing, this is used in the rurral side for cooking.
  • In my child-hood, when I was very little our pet dog save me from water, though it is not up to present in memory. I have hard it from my mother.

The government has now begun to panic over the dismal standards—and consequently, things are becoming worse. Instead of lifting the ban on English at primary levels, it abolished the compulsory language paper from the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE) for admission to the state's medical, engineering and technology degree colleges in 1995. "Why should the English language come in the way of a technical aptitude case?" argues Dr Sparshamani Chatterjee, director, Bengal Engineering College, who also heads the JEE board. Result: candidates from district schools qualified for 70 per cent of the engineering and 75 per cent of the medical seats last year. This should be happy tidings for the government—if it weren't for the fact that most Indian companies bemoan the sub-par communication and writing skills of Bengal's engineering students.

The majority of companies who visited Dr Chatterjee's college last year during the campus recruitment of students proved that—they rejected candidates for their poor command over English. "The general technical knowledge is sound," said Electrical Manufacturing Company in the 'feedback book'. "But communication skills—verbal and written—are poor. This is an impediment for all-India placement and participation in projects." Usha India found the students "shaky and tongue-tied". "Good communication skills in English are today essential for good technical jobs," agrees Dr N.C. Chatterjee, who supervises placement of students at Jadavpur University, the premier engineering university.

Not surprisingly, scores of fly-by-night English coaching schools are mushrooming in the state, as worried parents rush in their children to learn English. Any means of catching up on English is being grabbed: BBC's English language tapes, Tiger's Eye and Step By Step, which cost between Rs 300 and Rs 500 a series, have sold 7.2 lakh copies in West Bengal in the past five years—higher than any other state in India. Ghore Boshe Ingreji Shikha (Learning English At Home), a 13-minute-long biweekly BBC Bengali Service programme is a hot favourite—83 per cent of its listeners tune in from Bengal's villages.

Clearly, students from government schools don't want to be discriminated against. In a survey of secondary students conducted by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in collaboration with the Indian Statistical Institute in six Bengal districts, as many as 97 per cent of 2,707 respondents said they were interested in learning English. Six years ago, students, guardians and teachers sent a truckful of postcards to Chief Minister Jyoti Basu demanding the removal of the ban. And last year, the Save Education Committee collected 1.12 crore signatures in under a month to support a memorandum to Basu demanding reintroduction of the language at the primary level. Basu, who has been making accommodating noises for some time now, told a college gathering earlier this year: "English needs to be given due importance".

This has fuelled a lot of speculation in academic circles that the Left Front government will finally own its mistake and lift the ban. But School Education Minister Kanti Biswas squelched such speculation last week. "There is no proposal to reintroduce English at primary level," he told Outlook. "It's all gossip." The dyed-in-the-wool ideologue, who has been presiding over the department for over a decade, insists that the experiment with English "has worked out fine, and all opposition to it is politically motivated".

Which does little to bring hope to the harried students of West Bengal. Moans Ashish Mondal, a Botany graduate who has been turned down at several job interviews for poor communication skills: "We've become guinea pigs in a doomed experiment."

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