Revolution of hope 


Amongst a flurry of falling figures indicating India's worryingly slowed economic growth, one number's rising at a phenomenal rate. The number of children enrolled in English-medium schools has now crossed two crore. That's 274% growth since 2003-04. This development is fuelled by a tremendous boom in aspirations - cutting across classes.

Middle-class parents in India send their children to English-medium schools as a matter of habit and hopefulness, providing their young with the tools necessary for a professional career. Alongside, India's poor also send their children today to English-medium schools, hoping such an education will save them from hardships they've experienced, instead opening a diversity of employment options for their young. Several factors have fuelled this revolution of hope. Liberalisation opened the worldview of the Indian middle-class while greater migration, within and outside India, increased awareness of non-traditional ways of living and working. Alongside, a vibrant mass media literally brought home English-language programming, familiarising many with words - 'elections' to 'enter-tainment' - once limited to privileged circles.

The result? A transformation of aspirations is occurring, making ordinary people think of new possibilities, shaking the once-powerful view of Indian society being resistant to change or mobility. Today, a domestic helper sending her child to an English-medium school won't face derision. Rather, a middle-class person will most likely nod in understanding. Socially, this is hugely positive. For the economy too, this is good news. It will only help India to have greater numbers of young people educated in English, international employers finding Indians thus enjoying a powerful advantage over other Asian nations.

But there's a worrying side too. Even as the demand for English-medium education booms, supply falls way behind. Most government schools are ill-equipped to handle teaching in English. This, combined with teacher absenteeism and notable harshness towards pupils, makes poorer parents turn hopefully towards private schools. However, these come with few guarantees of quality. Limited chances of accessing the very small numbers of seats at recognised universities featuring cut-offs that defy belief. Here's the rub then - the boom in English-medium education is being driven by a revolution of Indian aspirations. If met, this will yield huge benefits by way of an enlightened citizenry and increased global competitiveness. If unsatisfied, this will cause greater frustration and choke growth. India's policymakers need to move fast in boosting educational supply towards balancing growing aspirations. As the old saying goes, a little education can be a dangerous thing.