After speaking at the Officer Career Development Centre on revolutionizing the Education System, I went on to my father’s home village, where his family had many years ago donated land for a school. Vijaya Maha Vidyalaya had developed over the years, with support sometimes from the family, most recently when one of my cousins arranged a health camp there, along with a cricket match between the Colombo Medical Team and the schoolboys, which I was privileged to watch.

Vijaya had been one of only two schools in the Hambantota District (the other was a Muslim school in the Tissamaharama area if I remember right) to being English medium when we started it way back in 2001. The first few years had been very successful, and I would enjoy dropping in on the classes and registering the enthusiasm of the Principal and the staff and the students.

But hard times hit the school with the retirement of the Principal, who had been a strict disciplinarian even while devoting himself to the welfare of the students. The Vice-Principal could not be promoted because he was not qualified, and someone was brought in from outside, and factionalism it seems broke out.
Subsequent Principals were not able to correct things, and indeed they were only Acting Principals, not Principals, for some problem about an advertisement has meant that there was a legal bar on new appointments to the Principals’ Service. Though I gather the latest Acting Principal is a good disciplinarian, I don’t suppose there will be a reversal in the trend whereby school numbers have practically halved over the last five years. Though it is a National School, Vijaya now has fewer than 400 students in attendance.

This number is likely to go down still further because a number of teachers have recently been transferred. This is in line with the policy the Ministry of Education has decided not to follow, of transferring teachers who have served in a particular school for over ten years.

I do not myself think transferring teachers in general makes sense, and I have long argued that we should move as soon as possible to the policy the President enunciated, of School Based Teacher Recruitment. However I can understand a need to send teachers to rural schools that are without them, and to get rid on excesses in urban schools.

However, in this instance the Ministry seems to have followed a formulaic approach, which has meant sending away teachers from a rural school, some of whom live in the area so that they now have to travel a long distance to Tangalle. Conversely teachers entrenched in Tangalle have been transferred here, but unfortunately they do not seem to have taken the orders seriously. One is apparently the wife of a Director of Education and has not moved, while another who is a celebrated tuition master turned up for one day, and has not appeared since.

I hope this is an exaggerated version of events, and that corrective action will be taken, if there are indeed such problems, but I doubt it. The adverse impact of decisions made in Colombo is felt largely in rural areas, but that impact is rarely understood by decision makers. The President is certainly aware of these problems, as he indicated when some time back I told him about three schools in the area which only had Acting Principals – including one he had started as a model school in Beliatta – but as he said at the time, it was not possible for him to intervene. I can respect that decision since these are not matters in which the President of the country should be involved. But it would seem that local politicians are not especially concerned, one of them indeed being reputed to have got admission for his progeny to a prestigious school in Colombo.

That is not however surprising, because local bodies have no responsibility for schools, whereas if power structures are to be responsive to people’s needs, it is surely education and a decent future for their children that lies closest to the hearts of most people, of all communities. While educational policy must remain the preserve of the Centre, to ensure the prescription and maintenance of national standards, educational administration should be devolved to units that take into account local needs.

I hasten to add that, when I say Colombo cannot be expected to understand about such local problems, I do not think for a moment that the answer is Galle, or the Provincial administrative system. Rather, we need local monitoring and local appointments, based on close relationships with the people who are affected, namely the parents of the area. The Ministry of Education has taken a step in the right direction in proposing to strengthen Divisional Education offices, and these should work together with Divisional Secretaries and Grama Niladharis to monitor the workings of all schools in their areas of responsibility.

The Ministry has also proposed to introduce District Education Offices, instead of the Zones that now exist, but that I think would be a mistake. It would introduce another layer of administration, and take away from the responsibility and the accountability that a smaller unit could exercise and evince. Provincial Education Offices will of course have to continue, but they should exercise simply a supervisory role, stepping in to ensure that services are being provided satisfactorily. They will of course need to instruct the Divisions to remedy any defects that are apparent, in accordance with National Policy, plus variations permitted to the Provinces to deal with particular requirements.

Meanwhile I trust that even now the Ministry will review the impact of this latest policy decision, and take remedial action if, far from it helping rural schools, these turn out to be hardest hit by the way it has been implemented.

The Island 28 Jan 2013 –