As indicated in the suggestions I advanced in these columns for Parliamentacy Reform, I had had no great regard for Parliamentary Consultative Committees as they function now, because they rarely contribute to policy making, which should be one of their prime concerns. An exception initially seemed to be the Education Committee, which way back in 2010 began to consider the suggestions for educational reform that had been drawn up by a committee appointed for this purpose by the previous Minister.

Unfortunately, though initially the Committee attracted enthusiastic participation from several Members of Parliament, this tailed off as more and more stakeholders were brought to the Committee, essentially to say the same thing – that the situation was dire, and what had existed in their times was much better. The points made were usually admirable, but the Consultative Committee was not the place for them. They should have been asked to send in brief notes, and if necessary expand on them to the original committee, while a synthesis could have been presented to the Parliamentary Committee.

The Committee seemed by the end of the year to have meandered into nothingness, when it was given a new lease of life by the appointment of Mr Grero to monitor the work of the Ministry. He managed to synthesize very effectively, and a series of further meetings took place earlier this year, though unfortunately I could attend few of them because of other commitments.

There also seemed to be some confusion about giving us notice of these meetings, though I thought initially that perhaps I had been remiss in not noting down dates. However last week I was informed that the decisions had been finalized, and a consolidated draft had been sent to members for written responses, with a deadline of September 4th. I was told that no Members had responded.

The implication was that my colleagues were not interested in policy issues, but in this case I resisted the conclusion, not least because I certainly am, and some of the Members who had attended the consultations had been deeply concerned. Since I had not been sent the letter, it struck me that perhaps the same had been the case with colleagues, and those I have consulted know nothing about this.

I find this deeply disturbing, but I should note that, where the Parliamentary system is concerned, I believe inadequacies are more often due to cock ups rather than conspiracies. The reasons for the Committee to amend Standing Orders not having met for two years bears out this interpretation, though the cock up there has more to do with personality clashes and administrative stand offishness than pure carelessness. The fact that my reminders have been ignored is of course part of the general principle of ignoring letters in the hope that they will be forgotten, a hope that is generally fulfilled.

With regard to the Education Policy paper, I hastily put together some ideas the night I received, on September 18th, the letter dated August 21st asking for responses by September 4th. Given below are some of the points made in the covering letter –

In particular the proposals completely ignore the suggestions that alternative methods of delivery be encouraged for all aspects of education. While the principle of free education should be sacrosanct, in terms of the state ensuring that free education and related services are available to all children, in all other countries alternative sources of supply are available with regard to schools and materials as well as teacher education. Only in Sri Lanka do we continue with the fiction that there should be no such alternatives, even as we see not only formal supplies through schools that are in theory not recognized (and a few that are), but also a tuition industry which almost all recipients of free education spend money on so as to gain entry to university.

This is outrageous, and such anomalies must be stopped. Banning tuition is one answer, and certainly we should prohibit it being given by teachers to students whom they are supposed to teach free. But it may be more practical to also formally permit such services for those who are willing to pay for them, and in any case now have the opportunity to do so in the present system. I should add that the continuing shortage of teachers in rural schools requires radical measures, and the state must encourage alternative training mechanisms to increase the supply (while also preventing it being eroded) so that deprived students do not continue deprived.

Other measures discussed that are not stressed enough include the need for extra-curricular activities. These are an essential part of education, as we know from the stress laid on them when students seek employment, for which paper qualifications alone are not enough. We had agreed that schools should be required to offer a menu of such activities, including sports, cultural activities, and social service such as scouting and guiding and cadeting and Disaster Management clubs. Students should be required to be involved in at least a couple of activities, and teachers should be required to contribute to such activities.

In addition the policy should lay down requirements for teachers, including minimum attendance levels and stringent conditions about taking leave. Given that teachers have long vacations, they should not have what is now considered 40 additional days of leave at will. Sick leave should depend on medical certificates, and this provision should not be misinterpreted to mean that such certificates are needed only for three days continuous absence.

In addition, the provision that only seven days casual leave is generally available, and that other non-medical leave is subject to stringent conditions, must be observed. Also, as happens in other countries, training programmes should be held at weekends and in the vacation, not during school hours. Teacher absenteeism is at outrageous levels in many rural schools – though the other side of this coin is that decent quarters should be provided for teachers in such places, and time and energy spent on travel reduced.

I should note too that I was astonished to see that the proposed Education Council is supposed to consist only of educationists. The purpose of education is not educational theory but ensuring that students are well rounded and employable persons. For this it is surely desirable that representatives of employers and of professions be included, in addition to those who might ensure positive moral and social perspectives.

The Island 30 Sept 2012 –