Macro indicators of Goa's performance in education and employment conceal a darker side. Despite the state's high literacy rate - 82 per cent - and the second highest per capita income in the country, youth, particularly in the rural areas, face a bleak future. Some disturbing indicators of this failure are apparent in an excessive rate of failure in school examinations, a high rate of school drop-out, low enrolment in higher education, and rising unemployment. "Literacy is not just about getting a secondary school certificate. We do not see a corresponding rise in higher levels of education, awareness, ability to fight for one's rights, or a knowledge and skills base", said Ramesh Gauns, a teacher in Bicholim taluka, north Goa district.

A key issue in this paradoxical inability of the education system to engage the youth and develop the state's human resource potential, is the continuing uncertainty over the language of instruction to be used in schools. As elsewhere in India, here too language is a controversial issue that no one wants to touch, for reasons rooted in the State's historical past, as well as unacknowledged caste, communal and class tensions, plus the political divide. But clearly, there is a heavy price being paid by the children; a cross-section of teachers interviewed in Goa schools say the state's inability to evolve a rational transition policy for medium of instruction in schools has "made a mess of the education system" and is "damaging the future of Goan children". Their classroom experiences, they say, reveal that children are not able to cope with the drastic transition from the use of their mother tongue at primary level, to the use of English in middle school.

Unlike other states that offer children a choice over the medium of instruction, Goa's education system emphasizes the use of an Indian language - Konkani or Marathi - at primary level up to class four. Thereafter the sudden transition to English from class five onwards, is abrupt, and particularly creates difficulties for the rural children who have no previous exposure to English and are first generation learners.

The transition to English medium of education in class five puts first generation learners, who are unfamiliar with English, in great difficulty. The parents of such children are eager that they receive an English education, but can do little to support them because of their own illiteracy and lack of means to hire tutors. The child's acute difficulty in comprehending subjects taught in a foreign language comes to a head in class eight when schools start gearing students for the Board exam and pressure to perform is intensified. At this stage the crisis becomes so great that the child has to drop out of school.

The general chaos of the language transition makes it difficult to detect other problems children may have. "It is difficult to distinguish between children who face a language problem and those who have learning difficulties because of a disorder", a Don Bosco teacher said.

 •  Mother tongue or English? Says Vanaja Vijayan, principal of Dona Leonor memorial High School in Porvorim, north Goa: "The language transition from class five has created a big problem in the state. Children are traumatized and find it difficult to continue their education because they cannot cope with the language change. The state's high rates of school drop out and exam failure are because of this language problem. Children, particularly from the scheduled castes and tribes have no background in education, let alone exposure to English, and are the worst affected. For others in rural areas, English is a new language, their home and social environment is entirely rooted in Indian languages. I see a lot of confusion in their mind. This is very clearly evident in the fifth standard".

While Konkani is the spoken language of daily communication in Goa, it has lost ground to Marathi as a medium of education and written communication. Primary education, since the time of Goa's liberation, has been dominated by Marathi. Even after declaration of Konkani as the official language of the state, its support base in schools is mainly restricted to the Christian and Saraswat communities. The wider mass of Hindus - who make up the great majority in the rural areas - preferred to read and write in Marathi at first, but now hanker after English as a medium of instruction and means of upward mobility. Hindus constitute the majority (around 65 per cent) of Goa's total population, followed by the Catholic Christians, who constitute another 30 per cent.

Konkani, historically without a script of its own, has faced problems in being introduced in schools. Politicians have tried to whip up communal passions over which script is to be used for the Konkani language - Devnagari or Roman. The educated elite of Goan society have tried to stay out of this controversy, but the resulting silence over this controversy has left learners in the lurch.

As in the rest of the country, parents in Goa have sought English language education for their children because they see it as the only means of achieving upward mobility. Many private schools came up in response to the demand of parents for English as a medium of instruction. This perception was further reinforced when the government made English the medium of official communication; the aspiration for government jobs naturally increased the already rising demand for English-medium education. In the end, the state may have to choose between the two pressures - to teach children in English and promote their opportunities for employment and mobility, or to attempt to strengthen Konkani and Marathi.

In 1990 the Goa government attempted the latter, and announced a policy to provide aid to private schools that switched to the mother tongue - either Konkani or Marathi - as the medium of instruction in primary classes, and used English only from class five onwards. As a result, many schools such as the church-run Don Bosco in Panjim, which had until then been teaching all classes in English, made the switch to Konkani at primary level. The teachers said they wanted better salaries through the financial aid that the state offered.

But this move to accept government aid and change the medium of instruction created division amongst the staff in many schools, revealed Don Bosco teachers during a discussion. A number of teachers were forced to teach in a language they were not comfortable with, they said. The children's lack of previous exposure to English, coupled with the absence of quality teaching in primary classes, have created a situation where they cannot make basic conversation in English. Similarly, writing correct English sentences is impossible for them, the teachers said. These children tend to think in Konkani and are familiar with the Devnagari script. They know the answers, but when it comes to translating it into English and the Roman script, they are confused and get is wrong. This is particularly evident in maths where the transition from Devnagari to Roman script results in their writing the digits wrong.

"Education has become a mess and it is messing up whole of society", said one of the teachers. "The standard of English has gone down. The teachers are confused. In an effort to force students to speak in English from the fifth standard onwards, some schools even impose a fine on those speaking in Konkani, which is their mother tongue! A huge failure rate is seen in the SSC results, where many students fail the English exam, and have to reappear for this. This transition has been very difficult."

The general chaos of the language transition makes it difficult to detect other problems children may have. "It is difficult to distinguish between children who face a language problem and those who have learning difficulties because of a disorder", a Don Bosco teacher said. Children from migrant communities, who face still greater odds in learning, cannot hope to receive the individual attention needed to overcome this additional difficulty; class sizes are also relatively high at around 50 students a class, and this further adds to the woe.

Ramesh Gauns, a teacher in Bicholim taluka, north Goa district, has analysed official data drawn from a 2006 report of the Directorate of Education in Goa; his findings are an eye opener on the receding space of the Konkani language at primary school level, and the predominance of English thereafter. The Directorate of Education report confirms that Marathi is the most common medium of instruction at the primary level, with English taking precedence at the middle, high and higher secondary schools. Data from the primary schools show that in both the government and private sectors together, there are 834 Marathi medium schools, while Konkani medium schools barely number 57.

Gauns, a member of a government-appointed committee to examine the reasons for closure of primary schools in Goa, found that 110 schools teaching in Konkani and Marathi have closed down in the state due to lack of enrolment. This year, the state has added English to the curriculum - as an additional subject - from the first standard onwards, and the decline in Konkani instruction is likely to further accelerate as a result.

Incredibly, although Konkani is a widely spoken language, the number of government primary schools teaching in the Konkani medium are less than the Kannadiga medium schools catering to the migrant community, said Father Naik, director of The Thomas Stephens Konkani Institute.

At the level of middle school, the State has a total of only three Marathi medium government schools, with none in the private sector. Not a single middle school teaches exclusively in Konkani. 44 middle level government schools teach in both Marathi and English, while 7 schools in all teach in both Konkani and English. At high school and higher secondary school levels both in the government and private sector, English predominates. At high school level there are a total of 212 English schools in the government and private sector and 110 Konkani-English private schools. At higher secondary level English does a clean sweep with 14 government schools and 67 non-government schools.

Ramesh Gauns' analysis of official data further reveals that only 29 per cent who enrolled in primary school continue the quest for further education. This drop-out takes place in two stages – in class eight when the education system starts gearing up for the board exams, and then again at standard ten when students move into junior college. According to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Goa, the exam failure rate averaged 60 per cent in class eight and 30 per cent in class ten. Meanwhile, the drop out rate reveals 2.43 per cent between class one to five; 6.90 per cent in class eight and 40.65 per cent by class ten.

Says Gauns, "The drop-out rate, since the year 2000, has been 40 per cent in class ten, and it has never gone below that thereafter. Where are these youth going, especially in the backward districts of Goa, after dropping out? No figures are available and no one is taking care of their needs. This is a time when many forces are entering Goa with the advent of information technology and new ideas of career and management. Only some sections of Goan society are engaged at a preliminary level of economic activity to satisfy their needs. The education system has not opened the perspective of youth to the wider opportunities opening up to them".

Nagaraj Honnekeri, Deputy Director of Education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Goa, said the government recognizes some of these problems but cannot tackle them on its own. One solution it sees is seeking NGOs' help in offering non-residential courses for drop-out students from age 6 to 14, which would include children from migrant communities. These courses would train the drop-outs and motivate them to come back to regular schools. Special allocations of funds, up to Rs.25,000 for a group of 20 students, would be made for each such course.

Honnekeri hopes that village education committees too can play a role, by maintaining registers of students to record how many are attending classes, and how many have dropped out. "Our goal is to impart the minimum [necessary] education by class eight. If NGOs can find fresh students not going to school and bring them together for six to eight months training, then SSA can help", he said.