The process of education starts with getting children into schools. Having one of the largest elementary school systems in the world, India has had a challenging task with respect to ensuring that all children are in schools. Thus, in 2009, when the Indian Parliament implemented the Right to Free and Compulsory Education for children (RTE) between 6 and 14 age group in India, the country was taking its first step to making education a fundamental right of every child.

In addition to providing free education, RTE proposed to implement measures such as building public schools at close proximity and improving school infrastructure such as library, computer labs and toilet facilities, to bring an estimate number of 40 million out-of-school children into the process of learning and education. While such measures led to an increase in Gross Enrollment Rates (GER) for all persons in elementary education from 81.6% in 2000-01 to 96.9% (provisional figure) in 2014-15 and a decrease in dropout rates at primary level, from 5.62% in 2011-12 to 4.34% in 2013-14, it failed to provide any insight on why children failed to continue education after six or seven years of schooling. Inspite of rigourous government interventions and policies, there was a general reluctance towards attending schools and often this wasn’t an outcome of parental resistance or lack of resources.

What then kept children from being in schools through their formative years?

In India, any person who is 7 years of age and above, who can read and write in a language, is literate. Therefore, early childhood years is an important period where a child develops across physical, social, emotional and cognitive domains and acquires skills pertaining to literacy and language development. While the rates of development are unique to each child, their immediate environment is mediated through social and cultural interactions within their communities of practice (COP). These transactions between the child and parents/external family/neighbours is carried through the home language, which have sharp identity markers related to religion, caste, class and ethnicity. However, when the child enters a school, she is exposed to a secondary speech community comprising of her teachers and school admins. Suddenly, the child is placed in an environment that has linguistic cues from an alien language. From then on, she fails to pick cues and make word-meaning associations from a system of English language teaching that is largely conservative.

The biggest obstacle to ensuring quality education remains to be the language disconnect that a non-native speaker of English faces as soon as she begins the process of learning. With the mushrooming of English Medium schools and the decline of Regional Language medium schools, there is an implicit assumption that a student hailing from an English medium school will do relatively well as compared to a student from a regional language medium school. While this could be true with respect to learning outcomes, consider how this is happening on an unfair note with respect to government schools with minimal resources. Add to it, the dearth of English language teachers with appropriate levels of proficiency in English.

All policy decisions have emphasised the importance of introducing English at a later stage, to ensure that the integration of the foreign language was a seamless. Yet, with the growing demand for an ‘English medium education’, introduction of English happens as early as pre-school. This early introduction to a foreign language is also an outcome of ensuring that the child is ahead of his peers when he joins a school at grade one. This is a legitimate fear given how an ‘English education’ ensures opportunities and employment, simultaneously opening doors to upward social mobility.

A solution to the present predicament starts with a dual model of teaching where children are exposed to both languages, in equal measure. It would be useful if a pre-schooler is taught in his mother tongue but is also subjected to a mild introduction to English. At grade level, the child can have exposure to English through one subject and gradually, the number of subjects can increase as the child progresses to higher grades.