Daily News 7 Jan 2013

At a regional consultation last week on educational assistance, I was immensely struck by the assertion of one participant that programmes should aim at ‘making the classroom more joyful’. Sadly, that is not seen by many educational administrators or trainers as important. The result is that teachers do not focus on this sufficiently, even though doing this would also help to make teaching an enjoyable vocation for practitioners, and not just a job.

I was the more conscious of this for recently I read a critique of a description I had written some time back of members of the Hela school who had made learning at S. Thomas’ such a joy. Arisen Ahubudu for Sinhala, and his great friends Mr Coperahewa and Jinadasa for Art and Science respectively, had hugely enjoyed their work, and we had hugely enjoyed both their teaching and the performances in which they engaged. In the process we had also learned a lot. Perhaps I had not made this clear, but I had the impression that the critique was based on the assumption, not uncommon in Sri Lanka, that I had been rude in describing the additional input of these memorable masters.

The absence of such teachers in many schools, or the failure to encourage them to use their social gifts effectively, is perhaps what leads to a situation in which ‘school-based education is often perceived as irrelevant’, as the position paper for the consultation put it. Of course there are other factors, such as the tuition culture which seems almost sanctified now, and the fact that many teachers in schools give tuition and expect their own pupils to attend their classes. But underlying this is the assumption that education is a top down process, and not a partnership, in which teachers and students work together towards a common goal.

That word was a key element in the discussion we had. The organization that had brought us together has innovative vocational training programmes in Sri Lanka and India and Nepal, which ensures multiple ownership of its activities. On the job internships are an essential part of the training, and we were privileged to meet four products of their programmes, 3 urban Muslim girls and 1 boy from a rural background, who were all now gainfully employed – two beauticians, one tailor and one in the retail trade, for which it is now increasingly being realized, training in soft skills and in particular customer relations is essential. Incidentally, in a context in which businesses are finding rapid turnovers in staff in some areas in the North, it would make much sense to introduce this type of training programme that develops appropriate attitudes as well as skills.

Another aspect of partnership is encouraging the students to feel a sense of ownership of the institution. I had seen this happen through the commitment of alumni at the Ambalangoda Centre who had donated a computer for the use of their successors, but perhaps more importantly, even students following courses engage in social service and other projects that allow them to develop initiative. It need hardly be said that an essential part of education is developing a sense of self worth, and involvement in community service contributes to this immeasurably.

Teacher involvement in policy and administration can also be a key to improving the impact of schools. India has grave problems with regard to education for the children of internal migrants, with the drop out factor being high. Working together with State governments, NGOs now conduct on site schools plus hostels back at the source where children can be kept and taught while their parents engage in seasonal occupations elsewhere. With regard to the on site schools, it was reported that, when teachers visited the community and urged regular attendance, this had improved, whereas earlier parents, who had had no experience of education, had felt no reason to ensure that their children benefited from opportunities they themselves had never had.

Though we do not have similar problems, we can certainly make greater effort to ensure full participation in education of children whose parents are dead or working elsewhere. Again, the key is partnership, where the State works together with service providers, instead of trying to provide the service itself, with the concomitant rent seeking that often results. But of course the State must monitor such activities carefully, and ensure adherence to norms – which is perfectly possible, given the number of officials working in the field of child care, who currently do not have clear job descriptions. The Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development has recently tried to improve this position, with details of how Children’s homes should be supervised, and this necessarily includes ensuring a decent education.

Another innovative approach to promoting participation is the establishment of Teacher Resource Groups, to discuss best practice and work together to overcome problems. Another phrase that has stuck in my mind was the diagnosis that ‘teachers are now on the periphery of the education system’, whereas they should be central, as was the case when we had a dynamic education system. This had developed initially through church schools, but Olcott and Navalar made sure the benefits of such dedication extended more widely, and Kannangara put the seal on this through his expansion of such a system into the regions. Sadly, with greater centralized control, not just teachers but even principals have become functionaries rather than participants in the development of schools and students.

This is the more regrettable because there are many principals, and more teachers, who can contribute tremendously if only their energies were liberated. But in a context in which the Education Ministry has managed, because of some sort of legal problem, to be stopped from appointing Principals to many schools, with acting appointments being the order of the day in several places, the idea of involvement is even more distant than our system of relentless central control had made it.

Daily News 7 Jan 2013http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/01/07/fea03.asp