Fifteen-year-old A Ramya prepares for school at the crack of dawn, learning by repetition for the third mock Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination at her school. A class X student at a government Adi Dravida High School in Chennai's suburbs, Ramya goes through three books – the prescribed textbook and two sets of guide books recommended by her teachers – in preparation for the board examination set to start in late March.

She leaves for her school at 8 am to sit through the mock examinations. She will then answer exam papers from the question bank repetitively till they become her second nature. The teachers drill the students on how to answer questions, starting from how many words to a line, to a page to how to pack in all information in the first two paragraphs.

Minutes before the state board examination, students of Corporation Higher Secondary give their books a final go, after three revision exams and countless hours of in-school preparation during their study leave. Pic: B A Raju.

Another set of tests are held at 4 pm, when the rest of the school closes. She returns home after spending 10 hours at school, to do more preparation for the test to be held the next morning. This has been Ramya's schedule since September last year. A tedious grind to many, Ramya looks at this preparation as an opportunity for a higher education that a Dalit girl whose parents are migrant labourers might not otherwise receive.

Despite her obvious diligence, Ramya's confidence is shaky. She hopes to score at least 60 per cent and take up the science and mathematics stream in grade XI. “I don't have a plan for my future because I am not sure how much I will score in SSLC exams,'' says Ramya. Poor scores could mean she could drop out of higher secondary school: “I may not get admission to a school nearby.

Tamilnadu claims a gross enrolment ratio of 100 percent till the upper primary levels

 •  School choice looms for students
 •  ASER shows measurement matters

Though the state government does give a cycle (to Dalit girl students in class XI), I won't be allowed to ride it on Chennai's roads," she frets. Nor does she know what opportunities lie outside of the science stream. Ramya's school has neither a counsellor nor a good pass percentage record. In 2007-2008, nearly half a class of 20 students failed the social sciences paper. The average score (percentage) was in the high 50s, despite a couple of near-100 scores in Mathematics.

To Aruna Rathnam, Project Officer, Education, UNICEF, Ramya's is the story of students from deprived communities. Despite their best intentions to educate themself and become socially upwardly mobile, Ramya does not have an equal opportunity without English language education.

“Government schools for the marginalised come with poor infrastructure in cities also. If the students then reach grade X, it has already been against all odds," she says.

At another Chennai Corporation-run public middle school in southern Chennai, another 15-year-old prepares for a remedial class. Mohammed Salim quickly glances at the “active learning methodology” (ALM) mind map flowchart of his class VIII science lesson on environment. It gives him a quick pointer that deforestation leads to droughts. I ask the class to explain how a forest influences rainfall. Salim repeats verbatim from his textbook that deforestation leads to soil erosion and depletion of natural resources.

I push him for a more accurate explanation; after a few minutes. Salim comes up with how forests bring down temperature and how that induces precipitation. “This is not in the chapter. But I made a connection," says Salim in way of explanation for the delay in answering. Having participated in student science exhibitions, Salim can confidently answer questions. That already sets him apart from his class.

Salim's father has completed grade X and is a butcher by profession. Salim hopes to be a scientist. Like Ramya, Salim is happy to put himself through the grind despite the obvious lack of classroom educational material like an encyclopaedia or a good library that goes hand in hand with the Active Learning Methodology implemented in government schools.

Swap flowchart for book, and learn by rote

Balaji Sampath of AID-INDIA, the NGO that provides educational material to Chennai Corporation run schools, says that the mind mapping scheme was introduced without any testing, after officials came up with a model based on other countries. The ALM scheme envisages a child-driven, participative learning; but is operating in a vacuum without education materials or even libraries. The teachers are given a key for every module, which they are supposed to map out on charts. Without additional materials, the teacher reads out from the textbook, he says. Instead of learning the book by rote, the student then learns the flowchart by rote.

Such practices have diluted educational standards in the state. The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) 2008 suggests that, in Tamilnadu, only 66 percent of students in class VIII could read at grade II level. In basic arithmetic skills, only 49.8 percent of grade VIII students could do long division. Though this study was done at rural homes, similar surveys done in Chennai in 2006 (as part of a study that did not finish) had given indications that children in the city's schools were not faring particularly better.

Says Gomathi, one of the teachers in ASER's remedial classes run at Salim's Corporation High School in south Chennai: “There is automatic promotion till class V; students' skills or knowledge are therefore not tested. At grade VI, most children begin to find school a lot more hectic. There start the drop outs. But the teachers still hesitate to retain students in the same class because their own performance and transfers depend on it. The government's policy of punitive postings to non-performing teachers has backfired with the teachers inflating marks and pass percentage." Gomathi spoke on the condition that the school not be identified because ASER staff were working at the school.

(Chennai Corporation has 119 high schools including 4 urdu language schools in the four zones - North, East, West and South. This roughly translates to 29 high schools in each zone.)

When the remedial classes first started at the school, the head of the school was reluctant to allow NGO intervention: Gomathi and her team, V V Kalyani and N Devi, told teachers that they will assist in completing portions. But when they started the module on geometry, they found that the students of class VIII could not differentiate between acute and obtuse angles, the basics taught at grade VI. “The teacher's immediate response was that was taught two years ago, how can you expect the child to remember," says Gomathi in despair.

At the Corporation High School in Adyar, Natrajan Raman, Kavitha Thyagarajan, Sreeja, Shyam Shivalingam take the class of grade VIII students through a lesson in English Grammar. A couple of months ago, the remedial class of 30-odd students barely could name the months, days of the week. Dream India team of IT professionals tells me: "Some of their writing is at the level of grade III students. Many could barely spell the numbers. The reading level is poor and many are afraid to put a pen to the paper."

I witnessed a class about letter writing and tenses. As the threesome move among students looking at their exercises, some more challenges arise. A handful of students do not know how to conjugate simple verbs. "Sixty percent of the class has picked up, but the rest are lagging. Everytime we start a day with lesson plan, we realise not all can be taken along and we have bring it down a notch," says Shyam.

Other volunteers have turned their attention to helping the trailers with one-on-one attention. "A few in the class can barely sit through a class of one hour. It's a mystery to us how they've been promoted all long," says Kavitha. A few of them do have lofty goals of entering civil service or being a physician, but have no assessments of how good they are. "They have no contact with the outside world. Though they have computers in the school, students hardly get to use it. After the last monsoon, the room was flooded and Dream India volunteer had to clean out a foul smelling room. Currently, we have not been able to conduct computer classes because of power disruptions," says Natarajan.

Working in three of the Corporation-run schools in Chennai, Dream India now plans to expand their language, softskills and computer education programme for High School into secondary and higher secondary grades.

Skipping to high school

The faulty education policy has also meant poor gross enrolment ratios in the high school in Tamilnadu, after achieving a near perfect enrolment in primary levels. According to the 7th All India School Education Survey (AISES), of a 100 enrolled in grade I, only 53 boys and 55 girls are expected to complete grade X. Tamilnadu claims a gross enrolment ratio of 100 percent till the upper primary levels; however the AISES suggests that enrolment start dropping after grade VI from the high 90 per cent range to 85 in grade VII to 76 in grade VIII to 68 in grade IX to 54 in grade X.

Drop out rates spike again after class X, say Balaji Sampath and Aruna Rathnam, with average pass percentage of around 80. “For girls school education is a gamble still. Between classes VI and X, the number of girls who drop out goes up. Once in high school, girls do much better than boys. They are socialised into a culture of heeding the teacher and the secondary education system is more suited to their development,” says Aruna Rathnam portending a higher drop out rates amongst boys in the next five years.

Uninspiring curriculum and increasing service industry presence is going to mean a lot of boys will leave secondary schools for work. “In Chennai, drop outs are more common in the migrant labour population, though no neutral enumeration has been done. Attendance in school is strongly linked to peer groups. A child who is afraid of fractions and does not have his friends in the new school, is going to think why bother. He is more likely to have a grand time working at the mechanic shop,'' she says only half-jesting.

The final reckoning? For 12 years, the students are prepared for this moment. The examinations will test their textbook knowledge. But are they ready for higher education and employment? Pic: B A Raju.

UNICEF, which currently provides direct support to activity based learning in Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (universal primary education programme which is funded till the end of 2009-2010 by the central government), says Tamilnadu needs to keep the curriculum in perspective while implementing secondary education (Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhiyan). To retain children in school, vocational courses need to be re-invented to meet the needs of growth sectors.

“They (Industrial Training Institutes) are stuck in the 70s with antiquated machinery for hands-on learning. A child will learn more from the roadside mechanic. Even a diploma from good ITIs, polytechnics mean little when they will be paid less than say a Bachelor of Engineering from a very bad college,'' she says of the need to rationalise curriculum.

These facts are telling, given that Tamilnadu is ranked in the first 5 states in the Educational Development Index prepared by the policy advisory body, National University for Education, planning and Assessment. G Palani of the Tamilnadu PG Maths Teachers Association says that Tamilnadu has a healthy teacher to student ratio of 1:40 and Chennai has no teacher shortage. Palani teaches in Chennai's suburbs. “Infrastructure is among the best in the country with computers given to every secondary and higher secondary schools and linked to the Internet. With the implementation of the IT policy of 2002, ICT-based learning is being brought into effect," he says.

Point out the findings of ASER study to him, and Palani is quick to admit that teacher training in ICT-enabled education is patchy. “Those who have a flair for computer-aided education have done well, but its implementation has not been uniform. Science learning needs to become more activity based through laboratories and ICT and the English Lab scheme (with audio-visual resource material from State Resource Council) introduced in Corporation-run schools sould be revived," admits Palani.

Meanwhile, in Ramya's school, the computer sits in the room of the headmaster, with students having no access to it.

Despite repeated calls for improving standards, there is a policy vacuum and the state government's attitude is akin to “benign neglect”, say educationists.

Focus on increasing pass percentages

Instead of bringing the pedagogy up to date, the government is focussing on increasing pass percentages and exam scores. The board question papers are from the textbook: either from the worked out examples or from questions at the end of the exercise. The blueprint (available at for the Business maths module for Class XII is a point in case. Ninety-six marks will come from worked out examples in the textbook with the exact wordings; another 168 from the exercises in the textbook of which the student has to attempt only 104. A paltry 16 marks are assigned from application-oriented questions from outside the textbook. But only 200 out of the 280 marks need to be attempted, so the student need not look outside the textbook at all.

Palani defends this approach with the explanation that the students in state boards are from deprived communities and cannot be on a par with students in the more competitive Central examination board.

But in Chennai, the students of the Central Board of Secondary Education, considered an option only for the well to do and academically oriented, do not get off lightly either. Despite an admittedly more enlightened approach to education, CBSE schools are often judged on the basis of the number of All India ranks and pass percentages they produce. Even if they were to use explorative and peer learning techniques in classroom, they are pressurised into an exam-oriented approach in secondary and higher secondary levels.

Pankajam Sridharan is an articulate 15-year-old sitting for her All India Secondary School Certificate Examination in March 2009, and has just done the routine of three revision examinations: no extra-curricular activity the last academic year. Her school, a much sought after one in south Chennai, uses multimedia tools in classrooms. “But in Class X, we have been told you better know your textbook completely. The teachers are accessible and will explain in depth. But the preparation (in higher classes) has been rigorous." Pankajam spoke to me on condition that her name be changed her school's name not be revealed.

With her sight set on graphic design, Pankajam now faces the unenviable prospect of going through science or commerce streams first. “Chartered Accountancy, Engineering, Medicine seem to be the right things to do. If it is IIT it's even better. Very little importance is given to languages; none to fine arts. Just one school offers study of fine arts in the class XI level in Chennai, though a few colleges offer a four-year degree programme for visual communications," she says in frustration at the limited opportunities.

In another exclusive school in Chennai's western suburb, the learning has been made interactive with reading materials, audio-video presentations and computer presentations. Thirteen year old V Charulatha says though primary schooling was very easy, it has gotten tougher in the secondary levels, but not any less interesting. ”Some students chose to learn by repetition, but we are encouraged to understand and express in our words, experiment and learn. The school's library is extensive, we have access to audio visual material and the teaching involves us.”

But that's not good enough for some parents. “At a recent parent-teachers meet, some parents were less than happy about the teachers not giving full marks when the children had written verbatim what was in the textbook. The teacher's explanation that it was not an appropriate answer for the question was not accepted," says Charu's mother Shanthi.

Worrying prospects for India Inc

This unidimensional schooling experience is exacting a heavy price on the image of India Inc. A 2005 NASSCOM-McKinsey study says only about 25 percent of the technical graduates and 10 to 15 percent of the general college students are suitable for employment in the offshore Information Technology and Business Process Outsourcing industries, respectively. Other Chennai based studies have also suggested only 15 percent of college graduates are proficient in English. Pegging the manpower requirement for the BPO sector by 2010 at 2.3 million, the NASSCOM report said there will be a shortfall of 0.5 million.

Numbers apart, the study found that the students were not equipped with the necessary soft skills, language skills or familiarity with management information systems in corporate atmospheres. Knowledge workers fluent in French, German, Japanese and Spanish are also required for the Indian IT sector to expand, something in short supply, say talent hunters. Recommendations by industry bodies like CII and NASSCOM to amend educational policies have yet to be acted upon. Other changes are driven by private sector initiatives and are sporadic with a handful of finishing schools and college to corporate training programmes.

The vision document for Tamilnadu for 2025 prepared by the CII predicts that Tamilnadu will have to increase the number of vocational training institutes from 212 to 850 and add 660 arts and science colleges to its current strength of 240 to meet the human resources need. Tamilnadu will also have to increase its gross enrolment rate of 14 percent in colleges to 50 percent and quadruple its medical colleges from 30 to maintain its current growth rate, calling for huge budgetary allocation and private investment, which are yet to take place.