At two recent meetings of Reconciliation Committees in the Eastern Province, the question of tuition came up. In one place I was asked to suggest to the President that tuition on Sundays be banned, because it took away from religious education. In the other I was told that students – from Kantale – had to travel to Kurunegala or Anuradhapura to have any hope of passing their Advanced Levels, because the quality of Advanced Level teaching was so bad.

Soon after that I was told, in Colombo, that even in S. Thomas’ sports meets had to be held in school hours, otherwise students would not be present since they thought tuition classes more important. The idea that, even in a fee levying school, extra classes for which payment must be made are mandatory bemuses me. But, such being the situation, I suppose it is not surprising then that parents who do not have to pay for education accept that they must fork out for tuition, as happens in the majority even of prestigious government schools for which parents sometimes pay through the nose for entrance.

I was pleased therefore that the lady from Kantale who spoke up plaintively objected to this sort of expenditure. But it was not only the expense of the classes and the transport that she mentioned. It was also the bad habits, as she put it, that children might pick up, on long journeys, and during long hours spent in large groups. She added that her son was not a problem, but with girls the situation might be different. I should add that the increase in teenage pregnancies, mentioned in most of the 80 Divisional and District Secretariat meetings held over the last year, is also related to the tuition culture.
An extremely articulate priest who was present noted that one of the simplest ways of promoting reconciliation was to establish good schools with science and arts and commerce teaching capacity at Advanced Level for students of all communities in the Division. His other ideas too, including the establishment of a centre for multi-cultural activities, were heartening, but I was struck by the resonance amongst the entire community of his plea with regard to educational facilities.

In both places it was agreed after discussion that tuition should be banned entirely, though I pointed out that it did not make sense to expect the President to take any initiative in this regard, unless he were specifically requested to by the people. Certainly this was not a message I could convey, nor could the President act on anything I said. In both Divisional Secretariats some of the more articulate participants, including government officials, agreed then that they would send a petition, but I doubt any action being taken.

I suppose taking such a step will not be easy for the Minister of Education given his background, but in his case tuition could be seen as a necessary supplement in a context in which schools were not teaching satisfactorily. I am reminded then of what Richard de Zoysa told me when I refused initially to give classes to students at Kelaniya University when they asked for help with regard to some of the authors they were studying for their degree. I thought it was wrong to give tuition to students at university, since they had their own lecturers, but Richard told me that obviously some of the lecturers could not communicate and the students felt a real need.

This may be sad, but what is reprehensible is teachers giving extra classes for pay to their own students. Some might argue that there is no time to cover the syllabuses in class, but that is not an acceptable excuse, given that the syllabuses have been formulated with the hours available in mind. A few extra classes to supplement school work would be all right, but those should not be for payment, as was the case with such additional support before an exam that many teachers provided in my long ago school days.

But what happens now is that teaching in class is neglected, to be made up for afterwards in private classes. Of course students, when they realize that they are expected to go for tuition, also neglect work in school. So perhaps the Minister, without any inconsistency, could ban tuition by school teachers for their own students. If such a principle were introduced, and monitored carefully, I am sure the quality of teaching in schools would improve, and the present breakdown of work as well as discipline in the school system could, at least to some extent, be remedied.

He could also, as was initially requested, ban tuition on Sunday mornings. Certainly religious education through religious bodies should be strengthened, and it would make sense, to enhance its effectiveness, to make it the principal source of such training. Unless there are good trained teachers of particular religions in schools, we should not make students follow classes in what is sometimes a meaningless exercise. Rather, that time should be used for ethics education, and appreciation of the features all religions have in common.

I believe this is the more urgent because many schools are not in a position to provide the counseling that I am told students increasingly need. Social problems are mounting, and given the range of both public and social media, young people need more awareness with regard to potential problems. In rural areas the police, and sometimes the Ministry of Health, have appropriate programmes, but these are conducted rarely, and it would be more useful to include socialization through ethics as an integral component of the school curriculum. Students should have an opportunity to discuss such problems, and it would be more helpful to them if this could be done in a structured environment, rather than in the free for all atmosphere of crowded tuition classes.

The Island 31 Dec 2012 –