The first Consultative Committee to meet in Parliament this year was the Education Committee, and it went on for over two hours. This was heartening, because it suggested a high level of interest amongst Members of Parliament. However it was also sad that much time was spent discussing specific problems, such as the transfer of Principals and Officials, and individual admissions to schools, since these take away from what should be the main purpose of Consultative Committees, namely policies and general principles, leading where necessary to legislation.

There is of course need for Members of Parliament to raise such issues, and the Minister made some valuable suggestions in this regard. He proposed to have consultations with regard to particular areas, and I hope he will do this in small groups, since it makes no sense for officials and parliamentarians from all over to waste time listening to parochial problems.

Interestingly, Parliament has I think taken a step in the right direction in decreeing that not more than 25 officials come to meetings of Consultative Committees. Though it was pointed out that this was inadequate, given the range of officials needed to discuss Education, it would make far more sense for meetings intended to discuss details of educational administration in particular districts to take place at the Ministry, with only officials and parliamentarians from the district or the province. Four or five meetings in each of the two weeks per month during which Parliament meets would cover the whole country, with opportunity to go into detail without time being wasted by the generality.

The Minister had another very bright idea in suggesting that local Members of Parliament be consulted when appointments are made to schools in their constituencies. Though obviously one needs to be aware of connivance in corruption, I believe the Minister was right in suggesting that all members would be committed to educational improvement in their areas of responsibility. Certainly the sharp questioning of my colleagues suggested that they would be more likely in general to limit corruption rather than increase what there is where contracts are concerned. Given too their accountability to the people of the area, they would be the best resource to ensure proper coordination of services with the needs of their constituents.

For this purpose however it would make sense to have limited responsibilities for all members. This is yet another reason for going back to a constituency system, as has been done for local government bodies. The present electoral system leads to overlapping areas of responsibility, which means that committed MPs have to spread their energies thin, while others steer clear of developing close relationships with relevant officials in areas of great concern to constituents. Having one MP with an obligation to check on all schools in the constituency, and ensure close coordination with officials, would facilitate a better service.

I need hardly add that there should be similar practices with regard to Health and some other areas, but most important in this regard is Education, because that is what almost everybody is concerned with all the time. It is also the area in which improvement is essential, given the enormous amount of money that parents expend now with no accountability as to results. My staff, I gather, spend over Rs 5,000 a month on tuition along with the concomitant transport costs, and there is little effort or incentive to ensure good teaching in what is meant to be a free education system.

Given the pressures – even when there is no guarantee of good teaching – to get children into prestigious schools, the Minister highlighted another problem, namely that some schools had no room for Scholarship children at Grade 6. This was because their primary classes had been filled to overflowing, and no more could be admitted.

His solution was very sensible, namely to open high quality secondary schools for scholarship children in urban centres where existing good schools were oversubscribed. It would be good if he combined this with another initiative he is promoting, which is contributions by parents to school structures. At present this happens informally, and in contrast to good work in this regard in two Muslim schools he described, we were told of how such an initiative had been stopped by the Educational Office in Moneragala.

Input by parents into education should be encouraged, but this should be accompanied by mechanisms to give them a monitoring role into school activities. Recently I came across a mother anxious to admit her child to a Colombo school, because the place at Keerawella he attended did not provide opportunities to play cricket. While this sort of deficiency might be resolved by the plan of the Ministry to make extra-curricular activities compulsory, to ensure effectiveness the parents should be given formal status with acknowledgment of the financial contribution they might make. And if they have the right to demand value for their children, they will be saved the horrendous expenditure on tuition, with all its concomitant evils, that the present system demands.

Ensuring stakeholder responsibility would help with improving standards. A crucial element in this would be the local Member of Parliament, along with any local government representatives for any sub-area. Working together with Divisional Secretaries – assuming the Ministry decision to strengthen Educational Divisions goes through, and these are coterminous with the Secretariats – they will be able to build up teams that are creatively responsive to the needs of parents.

The Minister, the Deputy Minister and the Secretary were fully engaged at the meeting, and this bodes well for the next meeting, later this month, which is to finalize the proposals for reform and restructuring. I hope that, once these are agreed, they will be implemented swiftly, without waiting for legislation. Many changes, including improved counseling services as well as those I have mentioned above, can be achieved through administrative regulations, and this should be done quickly, given our commitment to improving equity in education.

Daily News 18 Jan 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/01/18/fea04.asp

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