Unnoticed by the nation and even in its neighborhood of the East and North East India, Assam has embarked on radical reforms in school education in this year that has the potential to become a game changer and is therefore worthy of a serious notice. This reforms package is based on recognition of the reality – the importance of the English language proficiency based education in today’s rapidly expanding globalised economy and even the national economy. It includes first, introduction of English as the medium of teaching Maths and Science subjects in all schools at the Higher secondary level, that is at class Eleventh and Twelfth, and setting up of one ” English medium” school of the Higher secondary level in all 128 Assembly constituencies.
Quite expectedly this decision has provoked a raging debate especially in a section of the Assamese language media expressing strong views from outright rejection to welcoming the same as a move to raise the standard of school education and therefore the capabilities of the students to face the challenges of life. In a recent article on the subject carried by Dainik Janambhumi, Jorhat based Assamese language daily, the author narrated that when asked about schooling of children in a village he visited, he was told that they were attending a ” medium” school meaning only English medium schools! Implicit in this statement is not just plain humour but shows how the word ” medium” has acquired a new meaning in Assam today especially when one recalls that in 1973 Assam saw what came to be also known as the” medium” movement on the issue of medium of instruction at the Guwahati University which the agitators demanded should be Assamese . Those opposing the reforms now introduced by the government led by Himanta Biswa Sarma never fail to recall the” medium movement” of 1973 and that English continued to be the” medium”. Nevertheless it will be useful to look at the facts and circumstances which might have now prompted the BJP government of Assam to adopt these measures.
The usual argument such as proficiency in English will equip the students to face the All India competition for entry into IAS and other top civil service cadres of the state and the central government apart , there is now in Assam and elsewhere in the North East and the country what may be called mushrooming of ” English medium schools” run by an assorted group from established network of Christian missionary schools like the Don Bosco or well known groups like the Delhi Public school following either CBSE or ICSE curriculum up to Class12 but not State Boards; and there are other players who make it a point to give high sounding names such as Oxford or Cambridge only as a marketing strategy even when they run schools as per the local state board Secondary and Higher secondary curriculum with English as the medium from class 1 itself. Since the USP- unique selling point of these schools is proficiency in English, the students are liable for punishment if they are found or rather caught in conversing in their” home language”! Nevertheless such is the fascination with ” English medium schools” that even a recent press report that an Assamese boy was penalised at such a school in upper Assam for speaking Assamese in the school premises didn’t provoke any serious protest. This could also be the reason for lack of adequate information in the public domain about the spread of such schools in Assam and elsewhere in the North East with necessary details nor any system in place either under the state or the union Government to monitor and evaluate the performance of such schools or the profits they might have earned annually as these are mostly privately managed . It must be noted that this issue wasn’t addressed in the National Education policy 2020 and has been apparently left to the market forces.
As a corollary of this policy, the Government of Assam has also done away with the compulsory requirement to secure the qualifying marks in one of the three languages- Assamese, Bengali and Bodo for candidates seeking entry into the Assam civil service and allied cadres through the annual competitive examination conducted by the Assam Public Service Commission. Interestingly the ground cited by the government for the decision is to ensure that candidates from Assam who might have studied at these ” English medium schools” do not suffer from the handicap of not knowing Assamese well enough to score even the minimum qualifying marks in the APSC civil service examination, and hence removal of this requirement is expected to encourage such aspirants to appear for the civil service exam. However there are many in Assam who won’t buy this argument and feel that this measure only reflects the lukewarm approach of the government to the implementation of the state language policy in its true spirit which enjoined use of the state official language in administration.
However the decision to impart teaching of Mathematics, all Science subjects in English in all state schools from class 10 to 12th -higher secondary level is unique as it will restore in some form the Intermediate course in Arts and Science conducted at every Degree college prior to the introduction of Twelfth class Higher secondary system. This is really the master stroke of Himanta Biswa Sarma as he has in a way restored the old ” 2 year Intermediate course” to empower the students at the formative stage with English language skills which would enhance their capabilities. The old timers would recall the huge usefulness of the intermediate level exam as it was a kind of bridge course that prepared the students for undertaking a rigorous course at the graduate level as it meant a total break from school level curriculum .The Higher secondary course being imparted at the school environment itself didn’t provide this sort of intellectual break in terms of quality of teaching or the curriculum capable of widening the horizon of the students. One would therefore only wish Biswa Sarma all success in this bold experiment.
It must be noted also that this issue- mushrooming of ” English medium schools” across the country should have been examined by makers of the National Education policy and a road map for its role and future growth laid down in the policy itself to avoid any confusion at the state level keeping in mind the fact that under the constitution the subject of education is both in the State and the Concurrent List which demands coordinated efforts of the States and the Union of India.
The reported move of the Government of West Bengal to go for private public partnership for upgrading the school education system which includes in suitable cases switch over to English as medium of instruction in schools , and its decision to start 100 English medium schools in north Bengal in Rajbangshi inhabited areas show this trend which cannot be wished away.
If the ” neo liberal” argument of leaving education to the market forces is accepted it would put in place a profit making school system accessible only to the rich and upper middle class, promote elitism ,weaken the state funded schools under the state boards as the CISCE Council for Indian School Certificate Exam or CBSE(Central Board of Secondary education) will be the preferred systems in English medium schools and thereby deny the children of others and especially underprivileged access to an equitable system of school education . There is no doubt that this is a grey area of India’s educational landscape as the outcome of this ” one state two education systems” on what Amartya Sen defined as the object of the state – human capability advancement has been damaging. There is thus a need for an informed debate on the subject and formulation of a national policy to put in place a just and accessible school education system geared to meet the challenges of knowledge based growth of the economy and society.
The issues thrown open by “the mushrooming of English medium schools” across the country cannot be any more kept below the carpet in the interest of what might be called” educational justice “, and building up of data base of these schools at the state level and putting in place a system of monitoring and evaluation of its work in coordination with the bodies these schools are affiliated with might be the first step towards integrating this segment into the education system. Since Assam has already taken a lead in this regard in the country to expand the reach of English medium school education, the state is in the right position to carry out a Policy planning exercise based on its performance. North Eastern Council might also support the endeavour as it is well within its mandate of “regional planning” and because of its relevance to other north east States as well.