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Can Low Fee Schools Successfully Mimic the Language Policies of Their Elite Counterparts

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In the Pakistani society, the English language has earned a prestigious place more in the minds of the people than it is in effect. The ability to speak English is what a layman would use to differentiate between educated and uneducated citizens. As much as learning English is a matter of earning respect at your workplace or the society in general, over time it has become the most important language in Pakistan taking over as the official language and the means for all or most business correspondences. Acting accordingly, the government made English language learning compulsory in all schools. This escalated to the point when English became the medium of examination at intermediate levels and above for most subjects. What this implied was that basic knowledge of the English language – or more accurately, the ability to read, write and comprehend English is a basic necessity for students. This, however, did not go well with schooling structure at primary and secondary levels as government schools could not afford or provide quality English teachers. It is arguable that this was one of the major reasons why the private schooling systems received a massive bloom in the society. With their relatively much higher fees, they could fill up that vacuum and provide what could be considered a quality education – an English based education. The Pakistani society now faced a new dilemma. Private schools were too expensive but government schools were not good enough. For the underprivileged, who still wanted what in their minds was a necessary quality education, the next venue that opened up was of the low-fee private schools. Mimicking the structure and curricular setup of “high-fee” private schools on a low profile, these schools promised to bring the same quality and standard of education and English learning at a much lower price, instantly attracting a large economic class of customers. The delusion that both these institutions and their customers indulge themselves in is that anything cheap can match up in quality. Low fees mean low salaries for teachers which consequently mean sub-standard teaching. The best way to describe these schools would be a blend where the problem with government schools is not entirely solved, but they managed to cover it up to an extent where there customers could be satisfied. What was completely overlooked by local schooling systems was the social lives of children and exactly how much their interaction with English was going to be. The popular culture introduced by the high-fee schools and later copied into the low fee schools was to begin the child’s schooling with the English language i.e. the first thing he has to learn at school is English. Considering how English is always going to be a second language, this approach is highly questionable. An alternate approach that is rarely practiced in Pakistan would have been to begin education in the children’s mother tongue and after a certain level of proficiency in that language – or more precisely, after they have passed their critical periods, they could have been introduced to English. This of course comes with public displeasure as the views on English described above are hard fastened. Parents and teachers alike seem unwilling to try out the new strategy as in their minds the basic or foremost purpose of education is to learn English and what better way than to get right into it from the beginning. In this research, we aimed to see exactly how fruitful the current approach to learning English has been in two distinct socio-economic classes. For this purpose, a test that would examine the child’s basic understanding of and expression in the English language was devised. Students of grades 3 to 5 were given a series of pictures, and they were asked to describe and explain them in English Key-Words: Elite Schools, Low-Fee schools, Proficiency in English, Mother-tongue, Urdu, Middle-Class Families, Upper-Class Environment, Alien Language, Language Policy, Schools in Pakistan, English.

2.Theoretical Framework This research focuses on the effectiveness of School Policy in the development of proficiency in English; and the impact the budget of said schools has on the implementation of the said policies. It also considers feasibility of low-tier schools mimicking the policies of their elite counterparts, and whether these policies sit in with the socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds of students.

3.Case Study 1: High-fee private schools:

3.1 Introduction We’re not defining what we classify exactly as a “high fees”, but schools examined generally charged a total of between 18000 and 30000 for a quarter with four quarters of schooling. Target customers for these schools include a wide range of households – from wealthy businessmen to the settled working class – and economically speaking, middle-class and all above. This range includes what one would call the “elite” schools and those that generally aspire to be so. Considering again the families that avail these institutions, in the urban areas of Punjab where this research was targeted, one could say that the children are orphaned in the heritage of their mother tongue. The parents – normally themselves educated – will not use said language in their household instead opting for the more “civilized” Urdu. At the same time, parents make as best of an effort as they can to indulge the child in the use of English since an early age. Among the first words the child learns in these households would be common nouns, verbs and counting in English. Conveniently enough for these children, the two languages taught in all schools at primary level and the basic medium of instruction are English and Urdu. Another factor in the child’s development in the use of English outside of school would be the television. For said households and economic classes, the provision of a television set is a basic necessity. Not only does it become the main source of entertainment, it also becomes the growing child’s friend and teacher. With much of this source of entertainment i.e. cartoons being in English, it is deducible that the average child from these households is well equipped in the use and understanding of English; much to the delight of the educational institutions under consideration. What this means is that English being a medium of instruction since day one does not become a big issue as a second language for these children and with the right curriculum, schools can capitalize on these grounds to fulfil their promise of “a quality education” – an English-medium education. Still, it must not be forgotten that the above scenario has used a lot of generalizations and has painted the picture with a thick brush. Even among these institutions, there would be students who would not grasp a second language so early in their life, and eventually suffer. Not only do they fail to use or understand the English, they inadvertently suffer in all their subjects as the examinations as with the medium of instruction are in English. Of course, under the pressure of their parents and the school, what this means is that they will eventually resort to wrote learning until a much later stage of their life when they can finally get a grasp of the language they had been subjugated to their whole lives. The policy of adopting English language teaching from nursery or kindergarten would have then failed. So while the institution lives up to its promise of providing quality English based learning to some or most of its students, it would have failed to do so equally and create a distinct education barrier among its generation which would define these children for the rest of their lives. In this part of the research, three high-fee private schools in the cities of Lahore and Sargodha were examined. The test described on the abstract above was conducted and some teachers and principals were interviewed to obtain their opinions in the matter.

3.2 English teaching policies and methodology English language teaching begins the day the child enters the school. While the curriculum may be restricted to alphabets and numbers or the written script, a lot of focus goes into the spoken prospect. Teachers encourage students to speak in English, while they themselves use it as much as possible to enhance the students’ understanding. Storytelling and reading picture books has become part of the curriculum. The child learns to say common words and general sentences in his first year or so. Slowly, he would have to conduct all communication on campus in English and mostly this is part of school’s education policy—discourage the use of any language other than English in the school. At the primary level, the curriculum includes stories for reading practices and creative writings are introduced as early as grade one to get the child to be able to express himself. This of course will now go hand in hand with lessons on grammar, sentence structure and such all the way till the end of the students’ secondary level schooling. By the time the students reach the first grade, it is imperative though that they can at least read, write and understand English to some extent, as every other subject in his course will now be in English. So by making it a necessity to virtually attend school beyond this point, these schools make English language learning the most important part of their curriculum, especially before this point in time. Realizing this, both teachers and parents put the most of their efforts in this subject in the child’s grooming years – the critical period.

3.3 Teachers and School Principals We asked two principals and one English teacher from these high-fee schools about how they teach their students an alien language and what they think about the alternate approach – not teaching a second language until a child has crossed their critical period. Some excerpts are included below: “It’s a commendable theory, but looking at our students, I don’t feel like we need to change anything. Most of our students in 8th grade and onwards in fact feel more comfortable with English than with Urdu when it comes to writing. I think this is a sign that things are going the right way and our approach in their primary schooling has paid off. Yes, maybe it undermines their abilities in their mother tongue, but objectively speaking, these children will need English a lot more later on in their lives and as a teacher, I’d want my students to be out there with the best. Make a name for themselves and achieve great things and in the global world that we are today, English is the most basic tool for success no matter what field these students go to.” –Principal 1 “We try to make learning as fun we can. I mean, these children are no older than my kids so I know what this age means for children. And I tell you, I feel happy when I see these kids actually excited to come to school. That’s how it should be. And they enjoy their time with English as well. I tell them they have to speak in English even when it is not English class because they have to try to actually be comfortable with it. It’ll take time, and every class they make a ruckus telling me “Ma’am, Bashir spoke in Urdu yesterday. Ma’am Saira doesn’t speak in English. Ma’am he just said a word in Urdu.” It’s amusing. I help them of course, telling them how to communicate and such. They tell me what they want to say or write and I help them translate that to English. These children are quick learners by the way. I think they’ll get a good hang of it by the end of the year. I hope (chuckles).” –Teacher “It would be too late by then. I mean, first off there’s no definite time when you can say that, “Okay, now they’re proficient enough in Urdu, let’s start teaching them English.” Even if we do, that would be about sixth or fifth grade right? It’s too late and it would be too chaotic. All this time they’re studying subjects in Urdu, giving exams in Urdu, then we introduce a new language, teach it to them first, then convert all their knowledge in English, make them take all examinations in English, because at the end, whenever they sit in centralized examinations, they need to be able to do that. Maybe if you change the whole educational structure, it’s possible, but that’s too much work and too much risk really. I wouldn’t take that.” –Principal 2 3.4 Observation of Results—Questionnaire: In general, students showed a good understanding of the pictures given to them, and even managed to produce creative responses to them. Errors in spelling, sentence structure and grammar were common, but most students were able to convey their thoughts properly. As mentioned in the introduction, there were clear distinctions among these students of those were lagging far behind the rest of their peers, especially towards the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum within this category.

4.Case Study 2: Low-fee private schools

4.1 Introduction Similar to earlier case study, the range of fee for these schools was taken to be less than Rs. 18,000 per quarter year of education. Most of Pakistan’s student body falls into these schools, as government institutes also lie within this fee range. The family backgrounds of the students here are very similar—where there is little to no use of English outside the school. The daily life of students heavily feature the use of mother tongue, even that in the regional dialect. Similarly, the fee structure of these schools restricts the talent they can hire for their students; ultimately reducing the efficiency of the environment built inside the campus. The requirements that the families demand from these schools are very different than those of elite schools. Here education is seen as means to a job and eventually setting up a new earning source for the house. Considering the relatively milder diversity in the students of schools falling into this tier, their non-productive and productive hobbies also tend to be alike. This means that almost the entirety of media consumed is in non-English format including, but not limited to movies, dramas, and music. Ultimately, it means that both inside and outside school environment lack the need and actual use of English Language. It then, unfortunately, becomes a status symbol and is rejected sometimes on the basis of, “It’s not for us, leave it for the people with money”.

4.2 English Teaching Policies and Interviews Copying the structure and curricula from their elite counterparts, these schools introduce English language as a subject as early as grade 1, but pre-school and nursery level classes as well teach the language. Likewise, the official medium of instruction and hence most basic courses are taught in English. But unlike the students in our previous case study, these are not well equipped with English beforehand and even as part of schooling will find little interaction with the new language. Coupled with the quality of teachers available, the schooling is eventually done entirely in the child’s mother tongue, and these students have a much harder time getting a grip on the English language.

4.3 Teachers and School Principals We asked two principals from these low-fee schools about their English policies and what they think about the alternate approach – not teaching a second language until a child has crossed their critical period. They are included below: “Our schools are trying to compete with all these other elites out there (names a few schools for effect). I think you’re underestimating the abilities of these common children. They are as capable of learning English as the more privileged class. And I think to learn anything you have to give maximum exposure to the children in this age – this is their learning age. I know it’s hard but that’s why we’re here; to give them the same opportunities as those who God gave more status in this world. We are the ones who are trying to bring this society back to level grounds. You need English to study at prestigious institutions, to learn the computer, use the internet, even read instruction papers on products you use. Not knowing English from an early stage in your life renders you handicapped.” It will be appropriate to mention that the below interview was translated from Urdu and that the interviewee has qualifications in and has been a former teacher in Urdu and Islamiyat for intermediate level students before becoming principal. “All the schools need to do this actually (not teach English in the child’s critical period). Our children are forgetting the value and prestige of their local languages. It’s tear-jerking to see our youth so profound in a foreign language and yet they can’t hold even a proper conversation in Urdu? And I’ve been telling the committee that they need to do something about this as well. It’s just rotten how we’re forcing things they don’t understand down their throat. This isn’t learning. I tell my staff to communicate with them in Urdu or Punjabi when explaining so at least they’ll keep track of what they’re learning. Then maybe someday when they can properly understand English it can all fall into place. But even if this wasn’t the case – even if they do perfectly understand English maybe some now or some generations later, the problem is that we need to teach them to be proud of their culture and heritage, and we can’t do that unless we make it hold some importance in their lives. If our government and society make our local languages completely irrelevant outside of homes, these education boards and committees will continue to give English more importance”

4.4 Observation of Results: When the questionnaires were given to the elite school students, the response was quite up to the mark. These children had a very good understanding of the language and its correct usage. They were able to answer the questionnaires themselves with little or no help from the faculty members or our team. On the other hand, most students belonging to low-tier schools, showed a huge amount dependency on teachers or us to even attempt the given tests. With this it was evident that despite passing through the primary phase of their education, they had not developed enough proficiency or confidence in English to be independent in its use. Moreover, the results that we did finally obtain painted a worse picture. Mistakes in spelling, vocabulary and general use of words, phrases and sentences were overwhelming to the point where it made most answers impossible to comprehend. Another distinctive feature was the attention paid to handwriting. Unlike their counter-parts in this research, students from low-fee schools were a lot more conscious about their handwriting and even rewrote answers by tracing over a rough erasable draft. Students of high-fee schools had relatively free reigns in this regard and consequently, generally poorer handwriting.


Should low tier schools provide their English education as the elite schools? The question is still a hot debate in terms of education standards all over the country. Where the elite, high tier schools clam to provide a very good standard English education, they charge a fee that is not affordable to every family in the country. Most of the families are middle class and consequently are unable to pay the high fees of these schools due to which they turn to low tier schools which promise the same standard education as the elite schools, but in affordable fees. But how is such an educational equality even possible? When the budget of such schools is not as high as the elite schools so are their services. Less fees means less pay for teachers and so a lower English standard. The teachers are less qualified, less interested in teaching the students and so are the results. The students therefore are not as good as those of the high-level schools. When we checked the results, we came to a clear conclusion that even for the same grade and age groups, the response of children in elite schools was far better than those in these low fees affordable schools. While the students in elite schools were proficient in both oral and written usage of the English much better than what is expected from a second language, their counterparts studying in less privileged school systems had responses full of errors and mistakes. Apart from the standard the schools are providing, the children in low level schools usually come from a social class that is less concerned with the standard of education and more with the job acquiring ambitions. This ultimately leads to the low standard of education of such students. All in all, we have reached a conclusion that schools that try to mimic the education standards of high level schools are not in the least bit providing the education standard that they promise. Their students are receiving a low standard education and are less inclined to perfect their English as their counterparts that are studying in more privileged environments.

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