Tamil Nadu

Mark machines

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Students preparing for Plus Two examinations at a school in Chennai. Photo: V. GANESAN

Members of the SFI stage a demonstration in Chennai on June 15 demanding the appointment of a person to head the Private Schools Fee Determination Committee. Photo: G. Sribharath

S.S. Rajagopalan, a veteran educational activist. Photo: V. GANESAN

E. Balagurusamy, former Vice Chancellor of Anna University. Photo: M. PERIASAMY

P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secreary of the State Platform for Common School System.. Photo: K. PICHUMANI

There is a sharp decline in the standard of education in Tamil Nadu, a State which once boasted fully trained teachers even for primary schools.

AT a school affiliated to the Tamil Nadu board of Higher Secondary Education, a young physics teacher was enthusiastically explaining the concept of density to Class XI pupils. Pointing to a steel tumbler and a ball made of steel, he asked them which of the two had more density. Most of the students answered wrongly that the steel ball had more density than the steel tumbler. “It was clear that the boys thought that the steel tumbler had less density because it is hollow.”

The same teacher, in another classroom, showed his pupils a pencil, cupping the eraser at the bottom, and asked them to name the object. All of them answered “pencil”. However, when he upturned the pencil, revealing the eraser, and asked them what it was, many pupils were unable to answer that it was a pencil with an eraser.

The teacher, who is now the headmaster of an aided school, affiliated to the State Board of Higher Secondary Education, said: “If a question is put in a different way with a twist, as in the case of the inverted pencil, students are unable to give the correct answer.”

It is no exaggeration to say that school education in Tamil Nadu today is in a deep rot. A host of factors have contributed to the steep decline in the standards of both secondary education (up to Class X) and higher secondary education (Classes XI and XII) affiliated to the State Board. The factors include failure to teach concepts in physics, chemistry and mathematics properly, encouragement of rote-learning, giving excessive importance to “scoring centums and cut-off marks” to somehow gain admission in engineering and medical colleges, and hyper commercialisation of education by private, unaided schools affiliated to the State Board. (These private schools are now moving to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) stream following the introduction of the Uniform System of School Education, or Samacheer Kalvi from Class I to Class X in 2010-11.) The widespread practice in a majority of private schools is to “straightaway” teach Class XII lessons in Class XI. In other words, what should be taught in Class XI is not taught and Class XII portions are taught for two years, with an eye on better pass percentage in the board examinations. What has worsened the situation is the dilution of the syllabus to suit the level of pupils living in rural areas instead of raising the bar of school education.

Worsening the situation is the fact that teacher training has become a commercial venture in the State. There are about 725 institutes offering Bachelor of Education and Master of Education degrees, and most of them do not have qualified faculty nor do they have any enabling infrastructure, including libraries. As a result, less than 10 per cent of the trainees emerging from these institutions pass the Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET) for appointment in a government or aided school. A report of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry accused the State government of “not yet” starting the civil works in 896 of the 1,096 newly approved schools. No civil works for strengthening 2,038 existing schools had been taken up to date (May 12, 2014) except for the building of toilet blocks and drinking water facilities, approved in 2010-11, the report said. “The reason cited by the State is escalation of rates,” it added sarcastically.

The cumulative effect of all this is a situation where students, who have passed the Plus Two examinations of the State Board with high marks, including centums in mathematics, are unable to crack the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the National Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology. The State Board students are also mostly unable to pass the examinations for admission to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi; the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER), Puducherry; and the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune. For instance, out of the 26,546 students who were ranked in the JEE (Main) and JEE (Advanced) examinations in 2015, only 33 students were from the State Board. During the first four years after the founding of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Valiamala, Kerala, in 2007 (a deemed university set up by the Department of Space), no student from Tamil Nadu could gain admission. Virtually no student from Tamil Nadu who has passed the State Board examination gains admission to the AFMC.

E. Balagurusamy, former Vice Chancellor, Anna University, said: “The State Board syllabus is not up to the national level in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. So our students are not able to pass the IIT-JEE examinations, unlike students from the CBSE stream.”

Need for exam reforms

The veteran educational activist S.S. Rajagopalan criticised the demand that “the State should adopt the CBSE syllabus”. The State syllabus was as good as the CBSE syllabus and “it is the examination system that has to be reformed, not the syllabus alone”, he said.

Rajagopalan, 86, was the Headmaster of District Board High Schools from 1956 to 1966; Headmaster of Sarvajana Higher Secondary School, Coimbatore, from 1966 to 1989; a Member of the Senate and Academic Council of Madras University; and Member of the Senate of the Bharathiyar University, Coimbatore. Before the nationalisation of textbooks, private publishers published them and there were about 30 to 40 textbooks for every subject for every standard. After nationalisation, there was a committee to approve textbooks for use in schools and it had set rigid standards. All the books were based on the departmental syllabus. Textbook writers interpreted the syllabi in their own way. Rajagoplan said: “The SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate] public examination question papers would be based on the syllabus and not on any textbook. The teacher, therefore, had to train the students to face any kind of question. Classroom instruction would be geared accordingly. After nationalisation, there is one and only one textbook for each subject for every standard. Teachers began to coach, not teach.”

The Namakkal pattern of schools exerted influence on the Education Department for children of department officials were sent to these schools to teach, he said. Under their influence, the practice of asking questions only from the textbook came into vogue. “The blueprint of question papers was in the public domain and the public examination question papers had to adhere to this blueprint. The paper setter had no other option. Further, the Parent-Teachers’ Association, an auxiliary wing of the department, published question banks and guides. Examinations became a memory-testing activity. Slowly and steadily, the standard of education declined,” said Rajagopalan.

Balagurusamy, R. Rajkumar, headmaster of the Dharmurthy Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunna Chetty’s Higher Secondary School in Perambur, Chennai, and K. Ilango, a former teacher in a private school affiliated to the State Board, stressed separately that teaching and learning of concepts would have been a game changer. But it hardly happened. “If a boy understands a concept and writes it in his own words, he will never forget that concept. The examination and evaluation systems should be changed to encourage learning of concepts and original thinking,” Balagurusamy said.

Rajkumar said: “In Tamil Nadu, we are more bothered about centums and cut-off marks rather than teaching and learning of concepts. We are not teaching concepts to students. If at all, it is done only in government schools and aided schools. Private schools do not concentrate on Class XI syllabus. They teach Class XII syllabus in Classes XI and XII. Rote-learning is given importance. Students vomit the answers in the examinations because their future is based on marks.”

Ilango, who was Controller of Examinations in a private school where he taught commerce, said questions in the State Board examinations were based purely on prescribed textbooks. If an ingenious question paper setter were to ask questions with a twist, there would be a hue and cry from parents and their wards that the paper was “tough” and so grace marks would be awarded. The CBSE does not have a hard-and-fast rule that questions should be based only on textbooks. “Questions are often based on concepts in the CBSE examinations. The CBSE system encouraged independent thinking and intuitive way of answering questions,” he said.

T. Padmanabhan, headmaster of Pennathur Subramaniam Higher Secondary School in Mylapore, Chennai, said: “The State Board syllabus has no depth. The State Board students who pass Class X are not enthusiastic about joining the science stream at the higher secondary level. We are not getting enough students for the science stream.”

This observation indicates a changing trend: students are now looking at commerce, humanities and science at the degree level and not at engineering alone. This is clear from the fact that one lakh seats fell vacant in various degree courses in the 539 self-financing/private engineering colleges in the State in 2015-16. The trend was noticed in 2011-12 when 45,062 seats in different engineering courses remained unfilled. The number of unfilled seats went up in the subsequent years: 50,000 in 2012-13; 80,700 in 2013-14; and more than one lakh (1,00,819) in 2014-15. If this trend continues, there will be no takers again for one lakh seats in 2016-17.

This is reinforced by the fact that only 1,34,722 students have applied to Anna University under the single-window system for admission to engineering colleges in the State for 2016-17 compared with 1,54,000 in 2015-16 and 1,73,000 in 2014-15.

The falling standard of engineering education in Tamil Nadu, uncontrolled expansion of engineering colleges, aided by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), and the deplorable quality of teaching are the reasons for engineering seats remaining unfilled.

As Rajkumar said, a student who scores 200 out of 200 in mathematics and high marks in physics and chemistry in Plus Two examinations invariably failed in core subjects, including mathematics, in the engineering course. “Does this mean the system is wrong or the examination pattern is wrong? Or is the way of framing the questions wrong? Or is the student at fault?” asked Rajkumar.

Another anomalous situation is pupils who scored centums in mathematics and science subjects in Class X struggle to get good marks in the Plus Two examinations.

Rajagopalan, who is a founder-life member of the English Language Teachers’ Association of India, disagreed with the suggestion that a weak curriculum in the Plus Two course of the State Board was the reason behind the State Board students not passing the IIT-JEE, JIPMER and other examinations. “The first three ranks [in the IIT-JEE] went to students who were from coaching centres. That means the school curriculum has not played any major role in the selection of students,” he argued.

Loss of local control of schools

Rajagopalan said the decline in the standard of school education began when local bodies lost control over schools. Until privatisation of school education started, the State government was not associated with the management of schools, he said. Local bodies, such as the panchayat unions and the district boards, ran schools. Besides, there were aided schools. Government schools were linked to teachers’ training institutions. For instance, the Model High School at Saidapet, Chennai, was linked to the adjacent Teachers’ Training College. What helped in the smooth running of the schools coming under the panchayat unions or district boards was that the headmasters of these schools had easy access to the panchayat union leaders and district board members and could inform them about the need to appoint more teachers, buy lab equipment or furniture for the schools. The headmasters’ requests were met. “In fact, Tamil Nadu was the first State to have fully trained teachers even for primary classes. So the quality of teachers went up,” Rajagopalan said.

In 1958, the Panchayat Union Act came into force and district boards were abolished. All the primary schools that came under the district boards were transferred to panchayat unions. High schools under district boards were taken over by the Education Department. After M.G. Ramachandran became Chief Minister in 1977, elementary schools were also taken over by the Education Department. Rajagopalan said: “There was, therefore, no local control of any school from the primary level to the higher secondary level. This led to the ruin of government schools. People lost contact with local schools. When schools were under panchayat unions, people would proudly declare, ‘This is our school’. I taught in a district board school for 14 years. District board members would often visit the schools.”

Since the primary responsibility of the Directorate of School Education was to improve the quality of education, it had personnel to inspect schools. “These inspections have more or less stopped now. Inspectors are not doing a thorough job of inspection. They are doing it nominally,” said Rajagopalan. He said a few days after he took over as the headmaster of the District Board High School at Punjai Puliyampatti in the present-day Erode district in 1956, Dr H.S.S. Lawrence came to inspect the school. (Lawrence became the Director of School Education in 1976.) “Our school strength was 850 pupils. So Lawrence did four days of academic inspection and he inspected the school’s office on the fifth day. Now, for a school with a strength of 2,000 pupils, the inspection does not even last half a day. What will be the quality of inspection?” Rajagopalan asked.

Rajagopalan said the State Education Department did not have the expertise or the skills to run more than 50,000 schools.

Skyrocketing fees

Another important factor that has led to the rot is the commercialisation of school education, with about 11,000 private schools affiliated to the State Board. On June 15, members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), laid siege to the office of the Directorate of Public Instruction in Chennai, demanding appointment of a person to head the Private Schools Fee Determination Committee to fix the fees to be charged by the private schools. These schools charged Rs.1 lakh as donation for admission to lower kindergarten (LKG) and a few lakhs of rupees for admission to the Plus Two course, P. Uchimakali, secretary of the State SFI, and V. Mariappan, its president, alleged. “No receipts are issued for these amounts. The government, which should stop this robbery, is merely looking on,” they said.

Towards CBSE

What is worrying educationists is the exodus of private schools affiliated to the State Board to the CBSE. There are two reasons for this. One is that the Uniform System of School Education did away with four State Boards —Matriculation, Anglo-Indian, Oriental and SSLC—and introduced a single system of education. Two, these schools want to continue charging exorbitant fees and donations. In other words, they want to dodge the Private Schools Fee Determination Committee’s stipulations on the quantum of fees they can levy every year.

P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary, State Platform for Common School System, said this “exodus” “is purely on a commercial basis, without their doing any comparative evaluation of the syllabi of the Uniform System of School Education and the CBSE.

Before the introduction of the Uniform System, schools in Tamil Nadu offered education in four streams up to Class X: Matriculation, Anglo-Indian, Oriental and SSLC. The Plus Two course came under the State Board of Higher Secondary Education. Besides, there are private schools affiliated to the CBSE, the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education/Indian School Certificate, and the International Baccalaureate.

Two crucial moves

There was a persistent demand for a single board up to Class X and a uniform system of school education. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government set up the S. Muthukumaran Committee in 2006 to prepare a report on the introduction of the uniform system.

The committee, set up a subcommittee comprising specialists in education to prepare a comparative, comprehensive report on the syllabus of various boards in different States and also the CBSE and other boards. “The subcommittee pointed out that the contents of the syllabus of the various boards were the same but only the name differed,” Prince Gajendra Babu said. The subcommittee’s report became part and parcel of the Muthukumaran Committee’s report.

While this formed one part of the committee’s work, another pertained to the evolution of the syllabus for various classes under the guidance of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). About 150 persons from the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) were involved in the framing the syllabi for Classes I to X.

The SCERT, in preparing the syllabi, took into account the perspective of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005. “The NCERT scrutinised the Uniform System of School Education and it was found that it was as per the perspective of the NCF. So there is no truth in the argument that the syllabi under the uniform system are substandard. People who argue that it is substandard do not point out any lacuna in the syllabus,” Prince Gajendra Babu said.

As a corollary to the submission of the Muthukumaran Committee report, the Assembly passed the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education Act in 2010. On another front, the DMK government wanted to regulate the fee collection by private schools affiliated to the State Boards and enacted the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Act, 2009. This Act took away the right of unaided, private school managements to charge whatever fees they wanted. Under the law, a committee headed by a retired High Court judge was appointed to fix the fees for each school on the basis of certain parameters obtained from the school.

Thus, two important developments took place in 2009 and 2010: a cap on the fees that the private, unaided schools attached to the State Boards could charge and the introduction of the Uniform System of School Education.

The Supreme Court, in May 2010, dismissed at the admission stage itself a batch of appeals challenging a Madras High Court judgment upholding the validity of the Fee Act of 2009. The Supreme Court also blocked the efforts of the AIADMK government in 2011 to defer the implementation of the Uniform System of School Education. On August 9, 2011, the Supreme Court directed the AIADMK government to implement in 10 days the Uniform System for Classes II to V and VII to X. (Private school managements had also challenged both the Acts.) Defeated on both the fronts, private unaided schools lost no time in switching over their affiliation to the CBSE.

Prince Gajendra Babu said: “The government is allowing the mushrooming of CBSE schools because it wants to wash its hands of the responsibility of providing education... . The silence of the government to the switchover of schools to the CBSE stream is tantamount to betraying the people.”

He flagged another issue which, however, pertained to the syllabus of the Plus Two course. A new syllabus for the Plus Two course was finalised three years ago and textbooks were written on the basis of this syllabus. “But the textbooks were not given for printing. It is anybody’s guess why it is so. Till today, we are continuing with the decade-old syllabus for the higher secondary course.”

Prince Gajendra Babu wondered why students from the CBSE and the ISC Boards should join coaching centres to write the IIT-JEE, JIPMER and other examinations if their syllabi were so good. In government schools, students received no guidance on how to prepare for these examinations, how to apply online to appear for them, and so on. “So my question is, with such unequal opportunities, how can one common entrance examination such as the NEET [National Eligibility cum Entrance Test] be a solution to produce highly qualified doctors or engineers?” he said.

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