India’s nightmarishly tough schools might finally cut down the workload

GlobalPost
Now that's excitement. 
NOAH SEELAM

NEW DELHI, India — Indian schoolkids may be enviably precocious in some respects — think mathematics, science, and lightning-fast mental calculation — but they are also horrendously overworked.

Kids go to school at 7:30 a.m., haul pounds of textbooks for a dizzying number of subjects, and by the age of ten are expected by the Central Board of Secondary Education to know the name of the microbe that causes tuberculosis ("mycobacterium tuberculosis," or Koch’s bacillus) and what natural process is responsible for dispersing xanthium seeds (sticking to animal fur).  

By 12, students should be to be able to accurately identify and draw the functional components of electric generators, and speak fluently about the political and cultural activities of the Chola dynasty in 300 BC southern India.

Children exhausted by years of brutal demands are tentatively rejoicing now that the Delhi government has proposed reform to lighten students’ burden.

On Sept. 5, India’s Teachers Day, the Education Minister of the Delhi state government announced that children from the first grade to the eighth will now have to study 25 percent less material than was previously prescribed.

“The future of children cannot be allowed to be burdened by their heavy school bags,” said the minister. “The outdated and obsolete syllabus will be replaced by skill development, theater, art, music and sports.”

The Delhi government has also proposed to reduce coursework for higher classes by 20 percent in the next academic year. This would be a much harder task to pull off, as the crucial standard examinations for 10th and 12th grade are standardized by the central and state boards, and are infamous for their insane difficulty and decisive effect on students’ futures.

By 12, students should be to be able to accurately identify and draw the functional components of electric generators, and speak fluently about the political and cultural activities of the Chola dynasty in 300 BC.

Unfortunately, the impact of the reduction is likely to remain limited. Only a small fraction of India’s schools fall under the central board, which Delhi follows, and private schools have near-free rein up until the 8th grade.

“[Private schools] have a well-built system. We know what to reduce, what to do. In case of government schools, they have to take permission, the teachers can’t do anything,” said Dr. Uma Ram, the principal of Laxman Public School, one of Delhi’s top-ranked private schools. The flexibility of private school curriculum allows her school to assign fewer books for younger students and introduce “smart classes” that reinforce concepts through technology.

Yet since public schools can’t take such measures, Ram supported the policy of cutting redundant coursework, which would allow government schools to focus more on language and basic mathematics skills. “If the course [load] is reduced, then automatically there will be more stress on the basic skills that are required,” said Ram.

Part of the difficulty is that private schools — as well as many parents — are often not eager to drop coursework that they feel could give their children an advantage.

At Vasant Valley School, another prestigious private school in the city, a “Raise the Bar” program adds on additional books in almost every subject, according to one parent.

“Irrespective of whether the children have completed the basic part of the syllabus, they insist on them following the ‘Raise the Bar’ syllabus,” said the parent, who asked not to be named. “For the English syllabus from class eighth onwards, our children are doing Shakespeare and another novel with it. In eleventh, every term they are doing two novels.”

These heavy demands are matched by some parents’ enthusiasm for them. An excellence award introduced in the school had to be revoked when the frenzy for accolades led parents to push their children even harder, hiring after-school private tutors.

"There is so much syllabus that everyone is just rushing through. If the child doesn’t understand the concept, nobody takes the time to explain it to them."

It has become common in Delhi for parents of children as young as eight to hire tutors to help them understand and tackle the massive workload, which teachers have not covered well. “There is so much syllabus that everyone is just rushing through. If the child doesn’t understand the concept, nobody takes the time to explain it to them, because they have to finish [the concept] in those two days,” said the parent.

Despite the obvious need for relief, some are still unsure about the course reduction being a positive step. Ram points out that what is being removed cannot be ignored in the euphoria over a more manageable load. Critics of the proposal have also expressed concern about government schoolchildren being left behind academically while their private school counterparts continue piling on the material.

It's not just the teachers and administrators who are worrying about the course reduction. The children of a government school in Delhi, where the lessons are taught in Hindi, wanted a shift in educational focus rather than a blanket reduction. “There should be more focus on English grammar. We reach the 11th standard and we still aren’t comfortable with grammar,” said one 11th grader.