“It’s a ball…it’s a tree,” says Pooja Goyal, holding a picture book for her students. Himanshi Ninama, 12, looks on quizzically. For the Class 7 student at Ekalayvya Boarding School in Ambaji, Gujarat, and his friends, the transition from Gujarati ‘dado’ to ball and ‘vruksh’ to tree is as exciting as it is disconcerting.

Himanshi, a Bhil tribe from Bhiloda taluka of Sabarkantha district, joined the school a year ago when she was in grade 6. “I speak Bhil at home, but I learned Gujarati after my arrival here. Now we are learning English. It’s scary, but also a lot of fun… Sometimes I wonder if I can learn all of this,” she says.

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The transition Himanshi is a part of is due to the Center mandating the country’s 375 tribal schools – also known as Eklavya Model Boarding Schools – to move from regional public school boards to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) .

Until 2019, Ekalavya schools across the country were funded by the Union Tribal Affairs Department, but locally administered by respective state governments and affiliated with state school boards. The language of instruction in most schools in Ekalavya was until recently the regional language.

The 35 Ekalavya schools in Gujarat, which until a few years ago were locally administered by the Gujarat State Tribal Education Society and affiliated to the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board, will now be part of the CBSE. Of the 35 schools, 25 are migrating to CBSE, while the rest are relatively new and already affiliated with the board. Gujarat has the third highest number of Ekalavya schools, only behind Chhattisgarh (71) and Madhya Pradesh (63).

“The idea behind requiring all schools in Ekalavya to join the CBSE is to help them adhere to common academic norms and standards, just like the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas. Currently, since these schools are affiliated with different councils, their results are announced at different times and adhere to different academic standards,” said Asit Gopal, commissioner of the National Educational Society for Tribal Students or NESTS, an autonomous body. created by the Center in 2019 to facilitate a more centralized administration system for Eklavya schools.

As a result of this board migration, most schools in Eklavya also have to change the language of instruction since the CBSE allows its affiliated schools to use only Hindi or English as the language of instruction. All Ekalavya schools in Gujarat have switched to English, an official has said.

Back at Ambaji School, Professor Goyal is now translating simple sentences from Gujarati to English. Every day, his group of 58 students looks forward to Goyal, their new English teacher hired specifically to support students in this transition.

The school, located on a hill nearly 3 km from the temple town of Ambaji, has 448 students enrolled in grades 6 to 12, most from disadvantaged families.

So far, the transition from Gujarati medium to English has had its share of challenges. When Goyal was hired in December, she was told that the students didn’t know English and that she would have to start with the alphabets. “I had to start with ABCD and cursive writing. I would bring kindergarten-level books for students in grades 6 and 7,” she says.

With preparations for the change only beginning at the end of November, the school’s headmaster, Girish Patel, had to get down to business. He has divided the daily schedule into two halves – the first when regular Gujarati lessons are held and the second for the English bridge course. So far the English course has covered cursive writing, phonetics, vowels, tenses and vocabulary.

Two months later, there has been progress. Goyal’s students, numbering 113 in grades 6 and 7, can now write simple sentences. But there is still a long way to go – they cannot speak or respond to their teacher in English yet.

“We first focused on reading. They also learn vocabulary. The children also struggled with writing, but they gradually picked up – from writing sentences, they can now write poems and longer passages,” says Renu Sharma, who now uses a classroom textbook 1 to teach students in class 7.

But it’s not just students making the transition — all teachers had to be trained to teach in English.

Recently, four teachers from Ambaji Schools, along with 110 other teachers from Ekalavya, participated in a 21-day bridging course on “English Curriculum and NCERT” at the Indian Teacher Training Institute, Gandhinagar, where they covered topics in English, math, science and social studies.

Ravindra Prajapati from Ambaji school, who took the bridge course between December and January, teaches English to classes 9 and 10. lost in class and dropped out. We were told to make it clear to the children that the curriculum is more or less the same and the only difference is English, which they will soon master,” Prajapati said.

Divya Patel, who teaches maths and science to grades 6 and 7, said: “We also took lessons in English and learned pedagogy and content – how to teach students, the correct terminology, how to communicate with parents.”

The switch to English has been criticized as it is seen as contradicting the new National Education Policy which recommends that “where possible, the language of instruction until at least in grade 5, but preferably up to grade 8 and beyond, will be home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language”.

Adhir Jhingran, founding director of Language and Learning Foundation (LLF), a non-profit organization focused on improving children’s basic learning in public primary schools, said the medium of instruction should be a language that children understand, “otherwise this approach will result in rote memorization”.

“There can be two approaches to switching from the regional language to English in class 6. The first is to start early and teach English to students in class 1 so that by class 6 they have a reasonable understanding of the language. The other is the bilingual approach in which concepts must be taught in a language the student understands and then the same content is taught in English. A clean break from regional language to English will not work. In my opinion, the transition made by Eklavya schools for students who have a very low understanding of English will be very difficult. This (transition) requires at least three to four years,” said Jhingran, who is also a member of the National Steering Committee set up by the Ministry of Education to draft the National Curriculum Framework.

Central officials, however, deny that the transition is being forced on children. “Remember that this change will not happen overnight. It is going to be very gradual because we are aware of our catchment area and the fact that students who come to schools in Eklavya sometimes do not even speak the regional language,” an official said.

Despite the challenges, students are excited about the change as an education in English is often seen as a ticket to a better life.

“After class 12, the college will be English speaking anyway. It’s good that we’re learning English now so we don’t have any problems later,” says Himanshi.

Sandhya Rathod, 17, a class 12 student from Sabarkantha district who joined Ambaji School a year ago, wishes the program existed when she was younger. “I will be leaving school soon. I would have liked to study English at school. Those who learn the language from the beginning have an easier time.