Entrance Exam Fever in Kerala

June 11, 2012

I didn’t realize it was this bad. The “craze” for Medical and
Engineering careers seems to be a total “social fever” in Kerala
(Kipnis, 2011). It is becoming increasingly common for CBSE schools in
Kerala to have in-house entrance coaching centers. For those not
familiar with Kerala’s education systems, entrance exams decide entry
to state-subsidized professional courses. Though this may be changing
slowly, the hype around entrance exams still holds an almost total
sway over middle class aspirations. According to teachers I spoke to,
about 85% of their 10th grade students plan to enroll in entrance
coaching classes. Schools that do not have in-house entrance coaching
opportunities loose their highest scoring students to ones that do
have such facilities. What does schooling feel like in such contexts?

I am yet to conduct classroom observations in CBSE schools and my
present description is based on interview data. Students attend
regular classes from Monday to Friday (9am to 4pm), and on Saturdays
and Sundays and on all holidays they attend classes at coaching
centers. Saturday coaching classes begin with a practice test, which
is scored and returned the same day. The school I had access to
organized its Junior College (11th and 12th grades) around Medical and
Engineering cohorts. With the entire class engaged in similar
activities, students consider such a routine normal. I do not have
sufficient data to make this claim but I suspect that within this
context interesting patterns of increased socialization can be
observed.

At the same time, students in state schools seem to be doubly
disadvantaged when it comes to entrance exams—they do not have access
to schooling or coaching opportunities that prepare them for entrance
exams. Most Dalit students attend state schools, not CBSE schools, due
to financial barriers. Fees at state schools are around Rs 15 for
every three months while that at CBSE schools is around Rs. 4500. 10th
grade state textbooks (all subjects) can be bought for Rs. 250 while
in CBSE one subject textbook costs around Rs. 250. Study guides are
also differentially priced for State and CBSE syllabi. Labour India’s
10th grade state syllabus guide is priced at Rs 22 (monthly issue)
while the CBSE equivalent is priced at Rs. 40. Students and parents,
in both state and CBSE schools that I spoke to, claim that CBSE
syllabus covers entrance exam curricula better than the state syllabus
does. Moreover state syllabus schools do not (and cannot) offer
entrance-coaching facilities to their students. Therefore Dalit
families have to resort to more tedious, expensive, and uncertain
arrangements.

This differential access ensures that Dalit students who pursue higher
education largely attend Arts and Science colleges. Forward Castes and
middle class students have mass-exited liberal arts colleges for
professional courses. Dr. George Zachariah’s study at CSES Kochi
records a fall in Forward Caste enrollment in Arts and Science
Colleges from 55% to 38% and an increase in SC enrollment in the same
colleges from 9 to 16%. I analyzed data for a sample ICSE (similar to
CBSE) cohort from the late 90s to find that 54% of the class went on
to pursue professional education. Of the rest who studied in Arts and
Science colleges, the majority studied Math and Computer Science and
pursued higher education outside the state. Devesh Kapur’s 2007 paper
on higher education in India analyzes similar issues at the national
level.

But what I find intriguing is this: how does “Learner Centered
Education” (LCE) fit into this social context? The state and CBSE has
apparently shifted to an LCE stance. Classroom observations in teacher
training institutions tell me that this is definitely what teaching
aspirants are taught. The demonstration lessons I observed at such
colleges were pedagogically exciting. The students were engaged and
interested, their local contexts became the basis for their learning,
and they learned. I am certain of that. But which students engage in
LCE, why? What are regular classroom practices like? Does LCE even
become a liability due to differential access to higher education?

This is a fascinating, and troubling, journey. As you can see it has
been a very productive beginning; at the same time much remains to be
explored. Thank you CASI for making this possible. Dr. Sanal Mohan at
MG University Kottayam sends you all his warmest regards. He was a
CASI visiting scholar and remembers his days there fondly.

Leya

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About leyamathew

Penn GSE, CASI Summer in Kerala 2012