The Lede
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The disappearing fifth standard
The disappearing fifth standard
Andhra Pradesh

The Mystery Of The Disappearing Fifth Standard

A few days into each academic year, one fine morning, the entire classroom disappears in a school. Why?

Jinka Nagaraju

Jinka Nagaraju

The Andhra Pradesh Assembly passed a bill meant to amend the Andhra Pradesh Education Act, 1982 for the second time. The bill aimed at making English as the medium of instruction mandatory amid uproar over the move by many Telugu lovers, who are mostly retired teachers, professors, and writers.

The bill was introduced in the last session too and the Legislative Council returned the bill with some amendments. But last Thursday the bill was again tabled in Assembly and it got the nod without any amendment.

The move was by and large welcomed by the general public, who want their wards to study in English medium schools. If passed the bill would convert all government schools, which serve basically children of poorer sections in rural areas and urban slums, into English Medium Schools.

These schools are shunned by educated families who send their children to corporate schools. The lure of corporate schools which promise to prepare the children for IIT and MBBS entrance tests is irresistible even though they collect exorbitant fees.

There has been an enormous demand for English medium schools in society. Chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy’s bill is seen as a welcome move against this backdrop. Noted political scientist Prof Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd says Jagan was only responding to the collective demand of the poorer sections.

“The English medium alone can improve the employability of poorer sections, mostly the OBCs and Dalits. Any opposition to the bill is anti-poor. Even Prime Minister Modi’s proposed Ambedkar Navodaya Residential Schools for Dalits are welcome provided the medium of instruction is English,” Prof Ilaiah told The Lede.

The situation in Andhra Pradesh is no way different from the one that existed in these parts in the late 18th century. Writing about the unusual demand for English education, historian Robert Eric Frykenberg said “… wealthier families, in anticipation of career advantages which might be gained, actually employed English tutors for their sons, while their poorer relations had to seek admission into special schools, whether in the city itself or in surrounding towns, where English could be learned”.

To meet the growing demand for English, hundreds of English schools (comparable to present-day convent schools that appear at every street corner) sprang up in Madras’ Mount Road.

Quoting Vennelakanti Subbarao (1784-1830), a first-generation beneficiary of English education who rose to become the chief interpreter of Madras’ Sadar Adalat, Frykenber said there were about 500 such English schools along Mount Road alone claiming to give ‘Best’ instruction in ‘English’.

Subbarao learned copying English from his relatives who were clerks in local government offices and got his first job 1799 as copying assistant in Guntur town under a company official Henry Wilson with a salary of Rs 5 per month.

This situation in Guntur (or Andhra Pradesh) district is no way different in 2020 from the days of Subbarao with the difference being in the 1800s, the demand for English was greater among Brahmins.

Now the poorer sections also want English education as they perceive this as a way to join the race for jobs in the private sector, mostly the IT sector. Some dream of sending the children to the US for higher studies and good jobs like their “upper caste” counterparts.

A Model School With A Disappearing Class

The RCM Primary School (RCMPS) in Guntur district stands testimony to this amazing English phenomenon.

A government-aided school, the primary school is located in Bodepudivari Palem, 100 km away from Guntur town. The school caters to the needs of families of agriculture labourers, mostly Dalits and other OBCs from 10 villages.

RCMPS School, Guntur
RCMPS School, Guntur
Students at the RCMPS School
Students at the RCMPS School

Compared to many government schools, RCMPS is a well-run school with clean classrooms and a decent garden and is in no way inferior to any private school.

But every year, a few days into the new academic year, the fifth class of the school suddenly disappears on one fine morning. And throughout the year the classroom earmarked for the fifth class remains vacant. Where do they disappear?

According to Headmistress Shika Margaret, the room has been lying vacant for ten years. The reason - all 60 students get admission into the English medium Gurukul Schools run by the state government.

Headmistress Shika Margaret
Headmistress Shika Margaret

Gurukul Schools, which offer free education in English medium with hostel facility, conduct a competitive test to select students. RCMPS has the distinction of being the only school in the state which sends the entire class of 60 students to the Gurukul system, a rare achievement indeed.

Normally government primary schools seldom have a strength of more than 100. But the RCMPS strength rose to 350 from 57 in 2003.

“Every year 98% of class four students get admission into Gurukul from our school. Parents admit children in our school with a condition that they should be trained to crack the Gurukul entrance test. They want to see their children study in an English medium school. Getting admission into Gurukul is the sole aim for the parents. Only one demand, English medium, crops up in every parents' meet,” Margaret told The Lede.

The school teachers start orientation classes from the fourth class itself. The school also hires a couple of volunteers to coach the students and prepare them for the entrance test.

“We don’t allow students to read guides. The textbook is our student's guide. Coaching is given daily and the preparedness is tested weekly by mock exams. We don’t use coercive methods. Corporal punishment is unknown,” Margaret said.

Florence Nightingale, another teacher, who shifted to a different school recently, was all praise for the students’ determination to crack the exam.

“This rare achievement has made the school the most sought after among poorer sections. Of the 60 students, every year only two or three students fail to crack the exam. Since we can’t run the class with only two or three students, we would get them admitted into other best schools in the area,” Nightingale said expressing displeasure over her transfer to a far-off place.

It’s a painful experience to lose an entire fifth class from the school, admits Margaret. “But we are extremely happy that our students are there everywhere in Gurukul schools in our area which take care of their education up to tenth class without levying financial burden on the parents. Above all our boys are studying in English medium, fulfilling the dreams of their parents,” Margaret said triumphantly.