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BC brings Bliss to Biharis

By Matt Salusbury

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The north-eastern Indian state of Bihar has among its notable exports to other Indian states elephants and their mahouts. Bihar also exports a lot of its people – if you stay or eat in a hotel or flag down a rickshaw in Kolkota or Delhi, there’s a good chance the staff or driver are Biharis. The biggest migration within India is Biharis going to work in other states.

Nearly 60 per cent of Biharis are under 25, the highest proportion of any of India’s 35 states and territories. The state spends 14 per cent of its budget on education, much of it going on the basics – school buildings, uniforms and bicycles for girls to get to school. As Michael Connolly, the British Council’s English language adviser to the Bihar Language Initiative in Secondary Schools  (Bliss), notes, ‘A school can be the side of the road under a tree, a school might work on paper but not actually exist.’

Why does the state in a superpower such as India still need help from the British Council and the UK international aid ministry to develop its English teaching? As Professor Paul Gunashekar, dean of English language education at the English and Foreign Languages University (Eflu), said, ‘They need to train 4,000 teachers, and teacher trainers don’t exist’.

The initial plan for Bliss took shape in 2011, and after several rounds of discussions launched in January 2012. The ultimate aim is to support Bihar in raising the level of English among both teachers and students. Four of the 160 teachers per district and forty mentors (one per district) are cascading down training to 4,000 secondary school English teachers in ‘learner-centred activities’ to replace the prevailing emphasis on rote learning.

Now the emphasis is shifting towards English as something practical, applicable to everyday life. Teachers are encouraged to hold conversations in English in class and are now introducing English news items into morning assemblies, putting up notices in in English, doing English role plays in class and encouraging students to keep English diaries. Warmers, with pairs of students following their teacher’s instructions in English to touch ‘knee to knee, back to back, toe to toe’, are becoming commonplace in Bihari secondary schools after teachers picked up this technique in Bliss training.

The English proficiency of the state’s teachers is also being assessed using the British Council’s Aptis test, and work is being done in the area of teaching materials. The British Council also support the Bihar state government in monitoring and assessment.

Another focus of Bliss is English for employability – especially to help Biharis into higher-earning jobs. This is backed up by a campaign to raise awareness of the value of English for employability among young people and parents, partly via TV and radio. There are workshops for head teachers and the project offices of the state’s 38 districts to ensure they understand why Bliss is being implemented. Within each district, there are village assembly meetings to explain how English aids employability and why learner-centred teaching methodologies are used.

Connolly added that learner-centred activities have been an essential part of India’s National Curriculum Framework since 2005. The framework states, ‘Learning takes place through interactions with the environment around, nature, things and people, both through actions and through language.’