It was entirely appropriate that the first adjournment motion brought by government, in this new era of peace, was on Education. Many problems, and therefore much animosity, arose because of a lack of opportunity for advancement. In particular wide regional disparities gave rise to resentment that expressed itself through ethnic as well as political tensions.

Since the country has now embarked on a new era of development, with concentration on infrastructure throughout the country, we need to make sure that human resource development keeps pace with this. We need therefore to review the current educational system, build on the strengths it undoubtedly has, and make up for the inadequacies that are increasingly becoming obvious in the context of rapid social change.

For this we need to make sure that we understand the role of the state in education, in terms of what it needs to supply as well as how it should monitor. This last is important because the state cannot supply all needs. This has always been true, but it is understandable that some believed in the past that the state could, and should, have a monopoly on basic education. It was stretching credulity however to believe that this monopoly could extend to education at all levels and in all fields. Today, certainly, with increasing demands on the system, any form of monopoly is unthinkable.  

But with competing claims on state resources, what should the state supply? I believe the answer is very simple. It is based on a fundamental principle of Liberalism, that which John Rawls has described as Maxi-Min, which means maximizing the share of those who have the minimum. We need to make sure that no one is deprived of education because their own resources are limited. And equally importantly we need to aim at ensuring that the education provided by the state to those with limited resources is as good as that obtained by those who began with greater advantages.

To be brief then, we need to improve the quality of our village schools. We need to develop a scholarship system that provides opportunities for students in all areas. We need to ensure tertiary level education that facilitates productive employment for all, whatever their social backgrounds or academic skills. This requires effective administration, imaginative interventions and flexible curricula. It also requires responsibility and accountability at all levels to the beneficiaries, namely the parents and the students.

The way we should move was encapsulated in the Presidential Manifesto of 2005 which suggested the importance of the school, to the extent of promoting school based recruitment for teachers. The idea was that a profession should also have a measurable target, namely in this case the improvement of particular people. For this however we need to build up viable teams, which means we should see schools as self-contained units, with distinct responsibilities, but also with close links to other schools that provide complementary and supplementary services. It is entirely understandable therefore that we should think of closing schools which are too small to have satisfactory teaching teams, but we should do this through systematic consolidation, and the provision of transport and other facilities to make up for the disadvantages of distance.

To give a simple practical example, I went earlier this month to five schools in the Kiriella area. These were a popular primary school and a popular Maha Vidyalaya, which I looked only cursorily, and three almost empty schools. One had 68 students in eleven classes and only ten teachers. Three of these ten teachers were absent, so many students were sitting helplessly at their desks. Another school had 17 students in five classes with four teachers of whom one was absent. These two schools at least were organized. The third had just two teachers present for about thirty students, who were all wandering around when I visited, while the teachers were finishing their breakfast. Meanwhile the primary school which had over 400 students had no English teacher, the school with ten teachers had two English teachers amongst them.

This seemed to me to be callousness, callousness born of an absence of responsibility. Correcting such abuses that lead to so many children receiving no education at all, even while we talk of universal free education, is not a difficult task. We simply must ensure accountability to the most important people in the education system, namely the students and their parents.

But rationalization should also involve rationalization of our syllabuses and of our textbooks. In this regard state monopolies have led, in some cases, to corruption and the privileging of ignorance. This is not to detract from some excellent textbooks that the system has produced, but this should not be a hit and miss affair, nor should students be victimized by even one appalling blunder. In fact  education is a prime example of an area in which, as the great Liberal philosopher Karl Popper put it, monopolies can be fatal. A whole country can grow up knowing nothing of the Industrial Revolution, simply because one set of dignitaries at the National Institute of Education forgot to include it at any level at all in the Social Science syllabuses throughout the secondary system.

Students need a range of materials, but this should not be through what might be termed crony capitalism, as happened when NIE personnel set up a cartel to produce what were supposed to be private sector textbooks, and naturally won all the contracts. We need proper monitoring of what is supplied by the private sector, but at the same time whatever government supplies must itself be excellent, so as to ensure proper competition which will benefit all students.

Similar principles need to be extended to the tertiary education sector too. The state must provide higher education to all those who show themselves able to benefit from it, but it must also provide suitable education for others who have different skills and abilities. It should also, in the context of limited resources and constantly expanding numbers of deserving beneficiaries, allow those who wish to use their own resources to do so. It could however provide subsidies to encourage private sector provision of services in areas that need better training, and through these subsidies it could encourage scholarship schemes for the needy.

At the same time it must ensure productive use of state resources, by ensuring high quality education and the development of soft skills that will facilitate employment. It needs too to ensure that such skills are made available to those who do not pursue academic education, since even for professional and vocational work, soft skills will contribute to employability. And it should also ensure accountability amongst tertiary level academics and administrators, to prevent the wastage of time and resources.

Sri Lanka has had an excellent record of basic education, far in advance of that provided by many other countries at similar levels of development. However we are now on the threshold of greater economic prosperity and social development. We cannot let down the next generation, so one has to hope that the debate last week would be the precursor of reforms that require courage and coherence. Already reforms have been discussed in Cabinet, and the pronouncements of the Ministers of Education and Higher Education suggest the required determination, along with sympathy and understanding for those without resources who need continuing support.

Together with a solid programme of high level Vocational and Professional Training, in which the Ministry of Youth Affairs also has a vital part to play, we should see in the next few years the impetus this country requires for the 21st century. The Kannangara Reforms of 75 years ago gave us many advantages for the last century, but the best way to build on those is to recognize the different requirements of the modern age while continuing committed to the welfare of those who require continuing support. This will ensure the level playing field for all talents from all areas in this country.  

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