In a week of much depressing news, perhaps the most depressing was that presented under what seemed intended to be a triumphant headline. The headline read ‘President resolves Uswewa Junior School teacher shortage’, and the story was about how the President took steps to fill teacher vacancies in a Junior School in the Hambantota District.

Children from that school had been at Temple Trees, and one enterprising student had complained that there were no teachers for English or Science subjects. The President had directed the student to complain to the Southern Province Minister of Education and then issued orders to the Minister to take immediate steps to fill teacher vacancies in the school.

Assuming that teachers have now gone to the school, and will stay there, we should rejoice at the news. Any step to improve the education provided to children anywhere is a positive measure. But it is clearly completely unacceptable that there should be teacher shortages that can be resolved only if a child happens to be at Temple Trees and complains to the President.

Shortages of English and Science and also Maths teachers are endemic in the country at large. I have noted week after week that this is a constant complaint of the people who come to Reconciliation meetings at Divisional Secretariats in the North and East. Principals – like the Principal of the Uswewa School – have complained to Education Directors, but nothing has happened. There have been schemes to recruit volunteers – and I should note that both Governors have understood the problem and tried to solve it – but these have run into snags.

In despair I have suggested to the parents that they should send petitions to the President drawing his attention to the situation. I did this some time back, and mentioned it again in Morawewa when a dedicated principal raised the problem of a Maths teacher. It is clear that officials do not listen to principals, and it is only the President who can ensure action.

But will even the President succeed? Even the most energetic President will get tired of solving problems in each and every school. And even if he did not tire, he would find that the system will allow vacancies in rural schools to arise again and again, and those appointed to them obtain transfers by hook or by crook, and so his task would be endless.

He did indeed suggest a possible solution to the problem, when he proposed school based recruitment, and he has reiterated his support for this concept whenever the subject comes up. But he simply has not been able to get this across to the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile he also received from a group of religious leaders concerned with education a proposal to increase the number of trained teachers, but this he has not responded to, perhaps because he knows that the Ministry of Education will not let such a practical scheme go ahead.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for training teachers, and it has failed for over fifty years to produce enough good English and Science and Maths teachers for the country. The result is deprivation in rural schools. Provincial Ministries of Education are responsible for deploying teachers in most schools, and they have failed for over twenty five years to provide enough teachers to rural schools.

Obviously giving the responsibility back to the Central Ministry of Education will not help, because that Ministry also failed in the task. The answer therefore would be to devolve responsibility further, and actually ask units which are familiar with educational needs to be responsible for fulfilling them.

I have suggested at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings that Grama Niladharis should monitor the schools in their areas of responsibility, a task that will not be too difficult for in most areas this means just one or possibly two schools. They should then provide a needs assessment to the Divisional Secretary, or the elected local officials. If at any point those in authority are serious about solving the problem of teacher shortages comprehensively, those in charge at this level, where careful monitoring is possible, should be given responsibility for filling all vacancies. They will appoint to their own areas, through renewable contracts, and transfers will not be permitted for the period of contract. Teachers will of course be at liberty to resign and move to another area if they wish. Continuity of service will be granted only if they have fulfilled the contract of the employer whose service they are leaving.

Meanwhile the Central government monopoly on teacher training should be abolished, and Provinces and the private sector permitted to train, though the Centre will be responsible for certification. I would also suggest that in-service training not be permitted during school days, while promotions and increments should depend on further training and continuing development – with bonuses to teachers who improve results or otherwise add value to the schools in which they serve.

Even if handing authority over to those actually concerned with the situation proves impossible for those now in power at Central or at Provincial level, perhaps we could at least have some coherence, with Education Offices with authority made coterminous with Divisional Secretariats and local government bodies. There could then be coherent planning, with clear lines of shared responsibility to the same segment of the population, and the possibility of concerted complaints to those who exercise power from a distance.

Education is perhaps the most obvious field in which devolution, which was supposed to provide a better service to the people, has failed. It could be argued that better administration would solve the problem, but it makes more sense to work on the system of subsidiarity, and have more devolution, but with greater accountability to the people who need the service that is thus brought closer to them.

The Island 4 Nov 2012 –