In discussions at District and Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, one of the most common complaints is with regard to teacher shortages in rural schools. The lack of English and Maths and Science teachers is seen as deeply detrimental to the education of children in the area, but even though this is recognized at all levels of government, for decades little has been done to remedy the situation.

The complaints I hear come in many forms. In Cheddikulam it was said that, though the Division suffered from a lack of teachers, the Zone had more than enough – Vavuniya town being its principal component – so it was not possible to demand more. In Mahaoya the Zonal Director of Education said that his Wednesdays were full of parents coming to him to complain that their children had no teachers. In Batticaloa again there was a distinction between the town area, which did comparatively well, and the rural Divisions, with Grama Niladhari areas belonging to Batticaloa Town Division also suffering.

These anomalies are amongst the greatest injustices our people suffer, for they serve to perpetuate inequalities. Though we have moved beyond the days in which political movements claimed equality was a right, and thus destroyed both initiative and growth, accepting the absurdity of this must go hand in hand with an active commitment to equality of opportunity. For this purpose nothing, not even health facilities, vital though they be, are as important as ensuring that all children get a decent education.

What can be done to promote this? Working through the Ministry of Education alone will not help, as is obvious from the fact that the Ministry has failed over 60 years to address the problem satisfactorily. It has failed miserably with regard to teacher deployment, for which politicians are often blamed, but I fear that anyone with any connection to anyone involved in educational administration is responsible. The fact is, we all believe that there are good reasons why someone we know – or whom someone else we know well is acquainted with – deserves a transfer to a more accessible area. And one official made a significant point, the answer to which I cannot provide, given the other Rights that are involved, that new teachers marry and get pregnant during the years in which they perform compulsory service in difficult areas. Availing themselves of all the provisions available with regard to leave, they spend very little time teaching rural students, and are then ready to seek a transfer when the period in which they can obtain leave is over.

That depressed and depressing official indicated that the several requests he had made were ignored. Taken together with the point made in Cheddikulam, that the Ministry had a cookie cutter approach to deployment that took little notice of rural realities, this suggests that we have to move beyond Ministry officials to find a solution. After all the politicians who must make the policy decisions required to ensure justice will not be affected by the requests of bureaucrats.

They need voters to sway them, but unfortunately our parents have not yet registered the fact that schools must belong to them, not to principals or to even more distant administrators. We have not yet managed to empower parents to request that their Rights, or rather the Rights of their children, be upheld. Perhaps that is because it is more convenient not to change the status quo – but decision makers must also understand that perpetuating the status quo is pernicious in the long run, and leads to much additional expenditure as the State then strives to provide employment for the youngsters whose capacity to find employment has been killed by inadequacies in the education system.

Providing them with adequate skills in Engliah and Maths and IT is then an urgency, and we should encourage parents to demand this. I would suggest indeed that Rural Development Organizations, or those committed to Human Rights in the positive sense, take out a Fundamental Rights case based on the comparative deprivation that rural students suffer.

Meanwhile I hope Grama Niladharis will encourage parents to know what is going on with regard to the schools their children attend, and address requests direct to the authorities when remedial action is necessary. Perhaps parents will be the catalyst to promote the idea the President put forward seven years ago, of school based recruitment of teachers, which the Education Ministry has failed to implement or even to consider seriously.

Such requests may also be the spur the Ministry needs to allow alternative systems of teacher training. If there are insufficient teachers in various subjects, then the right to produce them should be extended, with the Ministry only reserving to itself the right of accreditation for those seeking employment within the state system. Given the influence Sri Lanka exercised in many developing countries through supplying teachers in the days when we had excellent training schools, both state and in the non-profit sector, we should be encouraging a revival of that earlier situation. The Catholic Church can I am sure contribute to this, but – even if the Theosophist Society is moribund – the Mahabodhi Society can also help, and even perhaps a training organization set up by the Olcott schools, which have contributed so much to educational development.

Finally, I hope parental pressure will also lead to a much more active approach to extra-curricular activity than the Ministry now manifests. Encouragement alone is not enough, there must be mandatory provisions for such activities, with Principals required to develop at least two sports activities, two cultural societies and two social service clubs working all the year round. In addition to contributing to the full education children need, such involvements will also take away from the time children now expend either in expensive tuition (to make up for inadequate teaching in schools, often by the same teachers who take tuition classes) or in even more worrying activities.