Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Rotary South Asia Conference on Literacy, Kathmandu, March 2nd 2012

Mr Chairman, my distinguished fellow speakers Dr Shantha Sinha, Chair of the Indian National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and Mr Qamar Zaman, Secretary of the Pakistan Ministry of Training, Rotarians, I hope I will be excused a small anecdote on relations between our countries before I begin my presentation. It arises from the impressive use at yesterday’s opening ceremony, graced by His Excellency the President of Nepal, of Hindi and Urdu quotations which so many of you seemed to understand; and then from the announcement this morning of the approval by Pakistan of Most Favoured Nation status to India to promote commercial links. I hope this will be the precursor to even greater friendship between the countries of the region, and a greater role for SAARC in promoting common initiatives in fields such as education.

My anecdote dates back to 2009, when Sri Lanka faced hostility at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from some Western nations, and our ambassador there found tremendous support from Asian countries and in particular from both India and Pakistan. The ambassadors from those two countries were his advisers in negotiations, and once it seemed, when he was under some pressure, I think it was from the Germans, and was inclined to yield, the Indian and Pakistani started talking in a language that no one else understood. Then they turned to him together and told him to stand firm. They were talking in Urdu, the language of the heart, as we heard yesterday, but also useful in less romantic contexts.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha with Nepal’s Minister for Education Dinanath Sharma, RI President Kalyan Bannerjee, President of Nepal Dr Ram Baran Yadav, RI District Governor Basu Dev Golyan

To return to education, Sri Lanka has had an extremely good record as to literacy for well over half a century. Not only have we been consistently at over 90% during this time, but female literacy has also been commensurate with that of males. Coincidentally, the comparative excellence of Sri Lanka figured yesterday in some of the Indian newspapers that were discussing the UNICEF report released earlier in the week on the ‘State of the World’s Children’, and brought home to me again that we have much to be proud of, even though I have long argued that we can also do much better.

The reason for this exception – apart from the Maldives – as far as South Asia is concerned, as was noted in several speeches at your opening session last evening, is that we had a visionary Minister of Education from the time Sri Lankans were given executive responsibility through the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931. He built on the existing system which had begun with Christian missionary schools in the early to mid 19th century, and been expanded on when Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim societies realized the advantages education conferred. By 1931 there were excellent schools in almost all big towns in the country, often a Catholic and a Protestant school together with a Buddhist or Hindu one (and twice over, since these schools were segregated by sex). They were not segregated by religion, and it was indeed because many Buddhist and Hindu parents had had to send children to Christian schools that their religious organizations decided they had to develop their own initiatives.

What C W W Kannangara did, when he became Minister of Education in 1931, was extend the same service to small towns too. He established what were termed Central Schools, mixed ones usually, in all Districts, and promoted education commensurate with that in the big towns. This also contributed to greater concern with education in villages, since parents knew that their children, if they did well, could go on to a very good education in the nearest town.

By the next decade then we were well on the way to the excellent literacy rates we still enjoy. Unfortunately, during the forties, what might be termed a statist mentality took over and, in attempting to impose uniformity, created problems which we still need to get over if we are to achieve nearer to 100% literacy and also make it meaningful, in providing the communication skills necessary to obtain high level employment. Literacy as currently defined, meaning the ability to write one’s name, may have been useful in the days when many people were illiterate, so that this skill marked one off as a relatively educated, but now it means nothing.

But to return to promoting even that skill universally, what we have found over the years is that village schools have declined in quality and in appeal, which means that a small but significant proportion of rural children simply do not bother to go to school. And when they do go, there are few teachers, and fewer teachers able and willing to teach. Those in the catchment area of such schools who can afford it therefore send their children to better schools in less rural areas, which leads to even greater neglect of the rural school, which means more children go elsewhere, and so on.

Two measures have been introduced recently to try to resurrect such schools, and therefore provide reasonable schooling at least for those who have no alternatives. Firstly, government announced a scheme to upgrade 1000 schools which would then be fed by five rural schools each. The commitment this confirmed, to provide good education to the students of such schools at higher levels, has already led to a reversal of the trend of declining numbers at such schools.

Secondly, following the appointment to advise and monitor the work of the Ministry of Education of a private sector educationist who had developed a highly regarded network of English medium schools, a plan has been formulated whereby the Corporate Sector would be invited to adopt a small school, and make it more attractive, including by upgrading the skills of teachers and the principal. The plan also has the support of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, since one component is a provision whereby two such schools, one in the North of the country and the other in the South, are twinned, and the Corporate involved supports programmes that bring together students of different communities. I should note that is an initiative I hope Rotary Clubs in Sri Lanka will take up, to adopt particular schools and improve not only infrastructural facilities but, as your visionary President remarked last night, the quality of education too.

This relates to another aspect of what might be termed misleading literacy figures. Though Sri Lanka has excellent literacy figures, and also good statistics with regard to secondary as well as primary education, Sri Lankans no longer obtain employment at levels commensurate with this, nor indeed at levels it enjoyed in comparison with other Asians in the first few decades after independence, when the results of Kannangara’s universal free education scheme, on top of excellent denominational education for decades earlier, was kicking in.

One reason for many Sri Lankans punching below their theoretical educational weight is that they are entrapped in monolingualism. The determination of Sri Lankan politicians overwhelmed by nationalistic fervor in the forties that all children should compulsorily be educated in mother tongue, when not accompanied by any serious requirement with regard to another language, has meant that employment prospects are bleak for those who do not know English, and even more bleak for Tamils who do not know Sinhala. The latter are shut off from many jobs in the state sector, leave alone the fact that they do not apply, given the perception that they are not wanted. And both Tamil and Sinhalese monolinguals do not have access to many jobs in Sri Lanka in the better paid private sector, while when they work abroad they are far lower in the pecking order for wages than Philippinos and now Indians in the service sector.

I should note that in this regard we have much to learn from India and Pakistan, which allowed English medium education to continue as an option, though I believe some of the other South Asian countries also downgraded English nationwide. I should add here that of course the right to be educated in one’s mother tongue should never be forgotten, but that does not mean it should be made compulsory. To facilitate choice, to allow parents, not the state, to decide what is best for their children, is the only way of ensuring that English standards do not go into terminal decline – for it makes clear how even parents deprived of English themselves realize how much it means, unlike decision makers steeped in English who cavalierly deprive the less privileged of this option.

An effort to change the monolingualism into which education had by and large sunk began in the nineties, with efforts to introduce Tamil for Sinhalese students and Sinhalese for Tamil students, while in 2001 a decision was taken to allow English medium in schools. Previously, with even the few private schools that survived the schools takeovers of the sixties and seventies compelled to conform to state policies in the curriculum, English medium was permitted only in so-called international schools that were registered as businesses. Now however English medium is available at secondary level in several schools all over the country, and though the diehards in the Ministry of Education claim the project is unsuccessful and then strive to make it so, so they can close it down, parents have shown how desirable it is by the enthusiasm with which they pursue it. With new blood now at the Ministry, it is to be hoped that mechanisms will be put in place to strengthen the programme and ensure its availability in the rural sector, where students would benefit most from such broadening of capacity.

For what Sri Lanka needs, even while working towards ensuring that every child has a good school to go to within easy reach, is a coherent determination to ensure that literacy is functional in terms of the needs of modern society. Knowledge of at least two languages, which most countries of higher educational attainment make mandatory, must be encouraged, and English competency made available countrywide. But one should go further and think too of computer literacy, which is increasingly a must for productive employment for those who are seen as educated. We should also develop initiative and problem solving capacity, subjects we tried to introduce seven years ago when there was a radical rehaul of the curriculum, and what is termed ‘Life Competencies’ was developed to cover a range of skills. Even though the original syllabus was subsequently modified, it has still proved productive, though there should obviously be more training of teachers, to enable them to deliver the programme effectively.

My argument then is that, in the 21st century, literacy should be interpreted in a broad sense, implying all those skills of communication and inter-personal relations that the educated need to do their work well. I am aware that this might seem a grandiose objective, in a South Asian context, given that many of our neighbours are still comparatively illiterate. But we should note the levels of excellence, far in advance of our own in some cases, that they exhibit, and should consider why, given the head start we had half a century ago, we are still stuck in a rut.

We need then to learn from each other, from India about how they so soon developed a cutting edge of technology, from Pakistan about how they have allowed excellent schools to develop for particular services even while their system as a whole is suffering, from the Maldives about their fantastic system of scholarships, that helps to overcome obvious inequities based on place, and may contribute to fast-forwarding of development in such places. I should add too that we must pay special attention, as your President indicated yesterday, to expand facilities for teacher training, and initiate schemes to draw bright youngsters into the teaching profession. Recently a group I facilitate, called Religion, Education And Pluralism, including leading educationists of all four major religions, wrote to our President to ask if they could not contribute to teacher training programmes, and I hope that following this Conference Rotary in Sri Lanka at least will make this a priority and encourage and support such initiative. As the groups name makes clear, we reap what we sow, and unless we sow the seeds of better education, our countries will continue to suffer, and to develop unevenly and precariously.

In expressing my gratitude to the organizers of this Conference for bringing us all together, I hope some action plans will result from our deliberations. Commitment to

  1. supporting individual schools

  2. devising plans to train teachers, and provide incentives for lively educated youngsters to contribute to maths and computer and language training in rural areas

  3. developing methods and materials for promoting e-learning

will help us achieve our goal. But we must also engage in advocacy, to make sure governments treat education and literacy with the seriousness they deserve, and make it a priority for the SAARC region as a whole, with much better and more effective cooperation.