“A is for aam”. The Indian Education System – a few stats (and why I’m here.)

As most of you already know, the entire purpose of my time in India has been to work as a Teaching Assistant as part of the newly-launched Generation UK-India programme, run by the British Council. Consequently, I’ve spent the majority of the last 2.5 months working in a fee-paying school in Greater Noida (there are many, and this area is well known for its numerous new colleges). Most of the teaching assistants on my programme have been placed in what in the UK we would refer to as ‘private’ schools (and confusingly, in the U.S, are called ‘public’ schools). However, many of the schools in India are at least partly government-funded.

The following statistics are taken from Indian School Education System, An Overview (Dec. 2014), a British Council publication, written by Arijit Ghosh and compiled by Sasha Sheppard. It can be accessed at: http://www.britishcouncil.in/sites/default/files/indian_school_education_system_-_an_overview_1.pdf

The Indian Education system is expanding at a massive rate. Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in enforcing this has been the 2009 Right to Education Act (effective from April 2010) the Act granted the right to free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six to fourteen, ‘in a neighbourhood [local] school’. [1]

Between 1999 and 2009, the average spending on education by both rural and urban families in India has quadrupled their expenditure on food. [2] Meanwhile, if we look at India as a whole, the Indian allocation of existing spending on education surpasses that of China, Russia and Brazil, though they are closely followed by Indonesia.[3]

India accounts for almost 18% of the world’s total population, with 1.23 billion people (behind only China’s 1.35 billion). It is also one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world, with a median age of 27 years [4]. This provides both great scope for opportunity, but also an increasing crisis – what can be done with such a large population, if education is not provided to a decent standard, and so the Indian students of today are not ready for the job market of tomorrow? With population growth showing no sign of slowing, the race continues to educate India’s youth.

I fit into all of this in Greater Noida, which, although technically part of the National Capital Region (NCR) actually belongs to the state of Uttar Pradesh, not Delhi. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populated state, accounting for 16% of the total Indian population [5]. Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the highest jumps in state literacy rates between 2001 and 2011, with an increase of around 15% [6]. Closely following were the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, which also saw a significant rise in literacy. A gender gap between male and female literacy rates remains, but this gap has declined considerably over the last decade, and is now below 20%. [7]

So where do I fit into this grand-scale?

Ok, so I don’t wake up every work-day morning and think of my role as some sort of educational mission (especially not with the colonial connotations of missionary) nor do I see myself as a symbol of knowledge in a place of ignorance (a.k.a, ‘white saviour complex’). Instead I just like to think that maybe some of the students I help know me as the funny little British lady who tries to make English lessons fun. I’m the ‘teacher ma’am’ not in a saree at school, who clutches her own water-bottle and cartoon animal pencil case tightly as she walks around school, looking slightly dazed.

Yet I am part of something bigger, and so is every slightly botched game of hangman, every failed attempt to teach ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’. I’m trying to show my students (the lucky few whose parents can afford to pay for their education from the age of three or four) something different and exciting, so that they engage with learning, enjoy their education, and want to share this privilege with others. It’s too much to ask that they’ll remember me specifically when they grow up (most of my students are only just five!) or that this experience will directly motivate them to enact change in their communities and society. But learning English will help a lot of my students reach university-level education in India at a good college, in about fifteen years, and there, these kind of ideas might be more accessible to them.

When I was having a bad day (and a pretty disastrous lesson) last week I was struck by a single sentence, uttered in Hindi and initially completely incomprehensible to me. A small boy who was normally called out for speaking in Hindi (not technically permitted in the school) and other bad behaviour, came up to me and asked me something. “Speak in English”, was my curt reply, but I turned to the class teacher to ask what he wanted. The student in question is the first in his family to attend school, and is from a local village. “He wants to know your name”, explained the class teacher. “He says that he wants to know your name so that he can tell his mother about you”.


[1] Indian School Education System, An Overview (2014) pg. 37. For more information see http://mhrd.gov.in/rte

[2] Ibid, pg. 32. Estimates from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) India.

[3] Ibid. Credit Suisse Emerging Market Consumer Survey (2011).

[4] Ibid, pg. 8.

[5] Ibid. See http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/data_files/india/Final_PPT_2011_chapter3.pdf

[6] Ibid, pg. 9. Data from the Census of India 2011.

[7] Ibid. See http://populationcommission.nic.in/content/933_1_LiteracyRate.aspx

So what exactly is the meaning of this blog’s title?

noun: saree, or sari

  1. a garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia.

You know that everyone at the school will have a smartphone in their hand?

– My mentor, during our first meeting

She was commenting after catching sight of this little beauty during orientation;

It'll always have a place in my heart...or a museum.
It’ll always have a place in my heart…or a museum.

Say hello to its Indian successor (kindly loaned by work :P);

This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!
This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!

One of the things that has really struck me about India is its technological advancement and its pride in integrating technology into all aspects of everyday life. Or rather, everyday middle and upper class life. In the school that I’m working at, the students each have their own tablet, which can be wirelessly connected to the teacher’s tablet at the front, to make sure that everyone is literally reading from the same page. Most textbooks are stored electronically, “on tab”, which certainly saves paper (another major contrast between UK/ USA and Indian schooling – the school I’m working at uses hardly any physical worksheets, and I’ve only seen two printers for a school which runs from nursery to Class XI/11).

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The pros & cons of (non-human) roommates


  • Even if we’re talking about spiders here, they eat mosquitoes and flies! (This point obviously then, does not apply to mosquitoes and flies, who also like to share my room.
  • Company when things get too quiet, esp. at night.
  • Like being in a live National Geographic documentary.
  • Don’t have to worry about leaving my possessions unguarded.
I've named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it's the same one each time...
I’ve named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it’s the same one each time…


  • They don’t contribute towards rent or cleaning duties.
  • Not good at sharing food. Or respecting the labels on mine.
  • My mentor is starting to get tired of my ‘animal stories’ as an excuse for being late to leave in the morning, once more I’ve “got a frog (or is it a baby toad?) under my bed” or “a gecko has got into a gap in the wall”.

So, overall they are an asset then. Which is good thing, because with my room being next to the ‘garden’ here, and with the summer drawing to a close, the non-human roommates just keep coming, and, as an outnumbered human occupant of this room, I don’t seem to have much choice 😛

3 Reasons to see a film in India (even if you don’t speak Hindi)

  1. It’s a completely different experience to European cinema. For example, there’s an interval about half way through the film. This gives the audience time to buy snacks, go to the toilet etc., without worrying about missing anything. When the curtains come down at half-time, you feel more like you’re watching a theatrical performance than a pre-prepared film. The interval allows you to talk to your friends about developments in the plot, and helps to build suspense as it normally occurs just as the plot is beginning to twist. You come back into the screen refreshed, having stretched your legs a bit (I’ve often heard complaints about the length of films from people with longer legs than myself). The interval also gives you the chance to change seats more subtly, if you want to.
  2.  The snacks are like a strange variant of what you might expect in a European or Anglophone cinema. You can get mini Domino’s pizzas to take back into the screen. Instead of Pick ‘n’ mix sweets and confectionery, you can select pakoras and samosas. Strangest of all (to me) there is popcorn, but not as I knew it. Popcorn is either salted or spiced, or even tomato-flavoured!
  3. The atmosphere is much more interactive. Watching a film in Indian is like watching a live cricket match. The audience audibly reacts to events onscreen. At times this can seem disruptive, to those of us used to restrained emotions and near-silent cinema screens, but I actually quite enjoyed the gasps and clapping of the audience – especially useful when you’re trying to gauge the mood of the dialogue without understanding any of the language!

The film I watched a couple of weeks ago was Manjhi: The Mountain Man. It concerns the story of a man from Bihar who, by various events, feels compelled to start building a road through a perilous mountain range, thereby connecting his remote village to the wider region. The story takes place over many years, but is fairly straightforward – as my mentor comes from Bihar she was able to explain to me the basic plotline, and I would say that I understood most of the essentials, if not the detail. It was also a good opportunity to see exactly how much Hindi I had picked up! I’d say that the point of this post still stands even if the language concerned isn’t Hindi, but any other Indian language. Obviously Bollywood films are a bit different, with a lot of the plot being conveyed through songs and dances, but I genuinely enjoyed and would recommend the experience.

Day #50 – again, yesterday

'English Oven' bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!
‘English Oven’ bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!

So yesterday I accompanied some of the younger years on a trip to a Parle biscuit factory, located here in Greater Noida. Parle manufactures, or at least owns a lot of foods other than biscuits, but they really do seem (after a close inspection of various wrappers & packaging) to almost have a monopoly on the biscuit market here.

Highlight: Realising that my childhood trip to Cadbury World in Birmingham was like being taken to Disneyland in comparison to an Indian school trip to a factory. No display boards, no painted path, no videos or activities, just the real noise and sweat of a working factory floor. The workers were all on the main floor of the factory, and we were literally walking in between the machines in the packaging section as they worked, with workers helpfully placing themselves in front of the moving rollers/ trays. Luckily we were viewing the ‘production’ section from a slight distance, because the heat from the ovens could be felt everywhere. It was pretty cool to see the biscuits being cut into circles and whizzing around on the conveyor belt though.

Verdict: I like biscuits, and the entire surroundings of the factory smelled like baking, so all in all, I’ve had worst afternoons! The children loved being given fresh biscuits by the workers before they were packaged! Although parts of the trip made me slightly nervous (lining the students up outside as various delivery lorries were simultaneously being loaded with the biscuits…), including posing for photos surrounded by moving machinery, I couldn’t help but think that the UK could learn a lot from a slightly more relaxed approached to health & safety on school trips. Nothing compares to actually being shown a real life process in operation, rather than just reading information from visitor signs.