I have been deeply upset in recent months, at meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings in the North, at the continuing failure to address the problem of teacher shortages in key subjects. While there is heartening appreciation of the rebuilding of schools, at much better levels than ever before, I am constantly told that there are insufficient teachers for English and Maths and Science. Of course I know this is a problem elsewhere in the country too, but that is no excuse. Given that it is those in rural communities who suffer most, I can only hope that those concerned with basic rights will at some stage institute legal action to ensure equity in education, and force government to look at alternative systems of teacher training and teacher supply, instead of sticking with the statist centralized model that has so signally failed for so long.

Significantly, I am rarely told about shortages of teachers for computing, but this does not mean that they are available. This was brought home to me graphically when I was discussing plans for use of some of my decentralized budget for education in Rideegama in Kurunagala. While I have over the last few years used part of the budget in the North, for entrepreneurship training for former combatants and this year for Vocational Training in Mullaitivu, and the rest in Ratnapura, where we concentrated on school education and English, I thought I should also do more further afield, given that the Liberal Party has a couple of Pradeshiya Sabha members in Rideegama.

I had wanted to do English classes, and these will now be conducted in three GN divisions, through the Sabaragamuwa English Language Teaching Department, which had done the teacher training in Sabaragamuwa. But to my surprise I was also asked for computer training, in particular for Ordinary Level students, since there are hardly any computer teachers in the schools in the area.

I cannot believe this is true, and I am sure there is some exaggeration involved. But if this is the perception, then clearly there must be shortages, suggesting that the effort to enhance opportunities for all our children will come to naught. Ironically, I was told about the shortage on the very day that I heard, over the wireless, of a government plan to provide laptops to all school children.

In theory this is a good idea, but I was reminded about what my father told me about the ambitions of all Members of Parliament, first to become Ministers, and then to get Ministries which involve procurement. I don’t think this is entirely fair, because my experience is that, where commissions are involved in procurement, it is often not the Minister who benefits but various officials. But it is a pity that Ministers promote such projects, and make much of distribution of such equipment, when they should realize that the development of human resources is much more important than supplying equipment that may lie unused for lack of training in its use.

Unfortunately, when statistics are compiled about what has been done, it is much easier to record tangible benefits. These are of course vital, and the need for adequate infrastructure in areas that have been neglected is obvious. But in concentrating on these we sometimes miss the need for ensuring human development too.

One reason for this is that, at the higher levels at which monitoring is done, counting up constructions is much easier. Counting what has been done in terms of training requires monitoring at much lower levels, and that happens rarely.

It is for this reason that, at the Divisional meetings, we have suggested regular consultations that will assess local situations. Parents must be encouraged to note teacher shortages and deficiencies in basic facilities such as toilets and water supply and space for playing, and bring these to the attention of those responsible for education in the fullest sense. And responsibility for providing these should be allocated to manageable units, not as happens at present in terms of large educational Zones, where the shortages in rural areas are masked by excess supply in the towns.

I had no idea this happened, but I was told in Cheddikulam in Vavuniya that they could not get sufficient teachers because the Zone as a whole had more than enough. The problem was that they were stationed in Vavuniya, and refused to move to distant areas. I suspect this is true elsewhere in the country too, which is why Rideegama suffers even though Kurunagala is supposed to be relatively well equipped educationally. And one shudders to think of the deprivation in the slum schools of Colombo, with their close neighbours having more than enough of everything.

Unfortunately government does not seem to realize how many problems would be solved if they ensured equity in education, by introducing a school based system of teacher recruitment and monitoring. Now hours of time, and thus money too, is wasted in efforts to get children into prestigious schools, and then transporting them there through lengthy journeys. Given that this results in unwieldy classroom sizes, little teaching is done properly in class, which is why tuition has become essential even for students in prestigious schools. Meanwhile in rural areas students don’t even have teachers who do not teach, which means they have to do without tuition, or else they have to travel miles to urban centres to have at least a hope of getting through public examinations.

Radical reforms are needed, but the vested interests are too strong for this to be possible. I suspect it is only when fundamental rights cases are taken out that we might see some change. But since the plight of rural children is not a fashionable cause, this is unlikely to happen, and we will continue to fight over the few who manage to move on to striking distance of university – even though, as the recent recruitment of a vast number of graduates has made clear, getting into university no longer helps the vast majority with becoming employable.

The Island 24 August 2012 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=59868