Parents have ensured the number of children in English schools has doubled in just five years — from 61 lakh to 1.5 crore. But there are concerns that the growth is still not fast enough and that China may soon take away the language advantage.
Maniram Sharma studied in Hindi medium and took the civil service examination in that language before clearing all the tests to become an IAS officer. He is very clear, though, that he wants his two children to study in an English school. "I respect Hindi, my mother tongue," he says. "But English is the language of the future and it opens up the whole world to you."
It is this realisation of opportunities which English offers that is persuading a growing number of Indian parents to opt for sending their kids to English-medium schools. And the poor are often more desperate to do so, rejecting the option of free education in a government school, where the medium of instruction is usually Hindi or the primary language of the respective region. They willingly bear the burden of not-so-cheap private school education to have their children learn a language that might take them where they, their fathers and grandfathers never went. People like Sunita Devi, for instance. "Since I cannot afford to put both my children in a private English medium school, only my son is going to one," says the woman who works as a domestic help. "My daughter goes to a government school. But if I manage to earn more, I will put her also in a private school."
Official statistics on the number of children enrolled in recognised English medium schools in the country show that it has more than doubled within just half a decade from over 61 lakh in 2003 to over 1.5 crore in 2008. Data collected by the National University for Education Planning and Administration (NUEPA) shows that the number of those opting for English medium from class I-VIII has grown by 150 per cent in these years, while the number of students opting for Hindi grew by just 32 per cent.
Several studies have shown that a large number of students study in unrecognised schools as well. Prof Arun Mehta of NUEPA conducted a study in seven districts of Punjab in 2005 to find that out of 3,058 primary elementary schools, 2,640 (86 per cent) were unrecognised. And most of them are English medium. "In most states, there are thousands of unrecognised schools English-medium schools. Hence, the number of those studying in English could actually be a lot more than what the official data indicates," says Mehta.
A British Council study cites government figures to show that the big shift from public schools to private schools in India may be because parents are aware of the importance of English-medium education. According to the Annual State Education Report 2009, 26 per cent of children in rural areas study in private schools, an increase of 9.6 percentage points since 2005. In 2006, English as a medium of instruction was fourth — behind Hindi, Bengali and Marathi — but by 2007, it had climbed to second place and grew even further in 2008, beginning to eat into the Hindi numbers.
Ironically, despite all these figures showing a steady increase in the number of people learning English, studies show that the growth is still not fast enough and the skill level remains poor. The British Council study pointed out that the rate of improvement in English language skills of the Indian population was "too slow" compared to many other countries, especially China. It says that a "huge shortage" of teachers and quality institutions is hampering India despite a growing demand for English skills. The study further states that China may now have more people who speak English than India. This could threaten India's English advantage in the global market.
On its part, the government seems aware of the need to retain the English advantage. "An English speaking skilled work force" is listed among India's strengths in a brochure titled 'Advantage India' — brought out by the ministry of communications and information technology. The seriousness with which the need to acquire English is regarded can be gauged from the fact that even the Supreme Court thought it fit to warn the government that China would overtake India as the largest English speaking country if the government did not pay attention to the education sector.