Two significant changes in teaching and learning have marked the opening of schools in Bengaluru after a nine-month shutdown. One is the wholesale move from physical classrooms to digital classrooms. Second is the substantial reduction in syllabus, commensurate with the loss of teaching days this academic year.
Most schools had been preparing for the digital shift “by the end of last April itself,” says Gowri Mirlay-Achanta, a teacher at St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School. And they were told about the reduction in syllabus in July, she recalls.
In fact, schools affiliated to the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CICSE) like St. Joseph’s, were notified of the reduced syllabi for all major subjects on July 3, 2020. Schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Examinations (CBSE) were notified of the reduced syllabi for classes IX to XII on July 7.
Teachers of several schools in Bengaluru such as Brigade School, Malleshwaram, Deekhsha High School, National Public School, National Hill View Public School, and St Joseph’s Boys’ High School confirmed receiving the reduced syllabi from CBSE and CICSE in July.
The unfortunate effect of these two changes has been the widening of the gap between schools affiliated to the CICSE, CBSE and those affiliated to the Karnataka Secondary Education Examination Board (KSEEB).
The CICSE, in fact, announced a second set of reductions to the already reduced syllabus in September, when it became clear that the reopening of schools would be further delayed.
For schools affiliated to KSEEB though, it was the start of a suspenseful wait that ended only earlier this month.
State syllabus revision came late
In fact, the KSEEB had also announced a reduction in syllabus for classes I to X on July 27. But the reductions came under severe criticism for alleged saffronisation of education, specifically for subjects like Social Studies where chapters on Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and those on the drafting of the Constitution were either removed or reduced for some classes, including Class X.
In response, the government withdrew the reduced syllabus with a promise to notify a revised version soon. For students and teachers of Class X, that revised version arrived only on January 13, 2021, well past the mid-term.
In the intervening months, explains Maitreyee Kumar, Executive Director of Dream School Foundation, which works with many government high schools, “the government had announced a monthly timetable, which would specify the topics that need to be covered in that month.” Teachers were told to prepare their lessons accordingly.
The reduced syllabus has found favour with teachers of CBSE and CICSE-affiliated schools in the city. As Anuradha Benegal, Principal of the Brigade School, Malleshwaram says, it “made things smoother.” She credits all the Boards for it. Jyotsna Shrivastava, a teacher at the National Public School, for example, commends the CBSE for being “extremely sensible about the whole thing.”
CICSE started by removing some parts of chapters in the first phase of reduction and omitted entire chapters in the second phase. Reducing the syllabus in all subjects, was however, not practicable.
As Lalitha Rajan, an English teacher at National Hill View Public School, explains: “When you are talking about language, there is no such thing as a reduced syllabus. There is no aspect of the language that can be cut out. At most, the experiences of a child learning a particular chapter will be a little different.”
In many cases, teachers found that they had already taught some parts of the syllabus that had been cut. Lalitha learnt that three short stories she had already covered were no longer in the syllabus.
Despite this, the teachers felt that the reduced syllabus allowed them some much-needed breathing space in the shortened academic year. For teachers teaching the CICSE syllabus, this was especially so after the second round of reductions.
What students fear missing
While the reduced syllabus has lightened the load on students as well, some other issues have emerged. A student who prefers to remain anonymous was worrying that some of the topics left out in the reduced syllabus may prove to be fundamental in future classes.
She points to changes in the pattern of question papers, like the increase in the number of one-mark questions, that have proven to be difficult and, therefore, easier to lose marks in.
The reduced syllabus has also introduced a greater element of uncertainty about examinations itself. This can be seen in the lack of clear answers that teachers have to students’ queries about exams.
Learning Vs attendance
Implementation of the reduced syllabus has been smooth in the type of schools mentioned here. However, Shravan Shetty, a career counsellor who has worked with government schools cautions that “implementation is wholly dependent upon the institutional capability and individual leadership of each school”.
In government schools across the city, he points out, “students have dropped off the grid” because “they are working to support their families”.
Given these conditions, Shravan wonders, whether enough has been done to ensure that students from marginalised backgrounds or with disabilities or special needs “have some kind of access”.
He also points to the lack of consultation with students themselves in devising the reduced syllabus. This is not so that students can determine what they would be graded on, but so that policymakers know what the students “find difficult to do online.”
Two principals of government schools in North Bengaluru, who requested anonymity, echoed these concerns. As one of them put it: “For students in government schools, the reduced syllabus does not matter at all. The syllabus matters only to the teachers because they are under pressure to complete the syllabus.”
The central issue for government schools, she explains, is attendance, something that ceased to be compulsory once the schools were closed.
The other principal, who spoke to this writer after the KSEEB released the reduced syllabus, concurs. “The reduced syllabus is manageable. We can cover it. What has become unmanageable, though, is the attendance”.
She points out that only about 10% of students attended the online classes, some because of accessibility, some because they had to go to work, and others because attendance was not compulsory.”
Even after schools reopened, she has found attendance to be only about 50% because either the parents are unwilling to send their children to school or the students have moved away from the city.
An NGO that works with government schools in the city, which also requested anonymity, said teachers found it difficult to switch to online platforms because they were either not trained to teach online or because “a lot of children did not have access to the required hardware.”