Last week the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Education met to finalize the Educational Policy reforms that have been discussed over the last nearly three years. Apart from myself, one member of the Consultative Committee and two other Members of Parliament had sent in suggestions, and a few others contributed verbally at the meeting.

I have previously described my suggestions, which were to flesh out the generally very positive approach of the final document that the Ministry team had put together. Though we had seemed to get bogged down in circling discussions, the appointment of Mohanlal Grero as Monitoring Member with responsibility for finalizing the proposals had been an inspired decision and the penultimate document and now this one will help to revitalize the education system and bring it closer to satisfying the aspirations of parents.

Perhaps the most important new suggestions were those put at the meeting by the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, following a decision of his Consultative Committee on the previous day to encourage the Education Ministry to take on a more proactive role in pursuing the government’s Trilingual Policy as well as Social Integration.

The first suggestion the Minister made was to have a requirement that students also pass in one other Language, in addition to Mother Tongue at the Ordinary Level Examination. This should be mandatory for Higher Education and also for government jobs.

However it was also noted that, to allow for situations where the school system does not provide good teaching in the second national language and / or English, provision should be made for catch up education in these subjects. The Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration is in the process of setting up Language Centres nationwide, and these would be able to provide additional support if the school system proved inadequate. Of course the hope was that, when a pass was a requirement, principals would pay attention to other languages and ensure proper teaching – while schools with Advanced Level classes, to which students came from schools with fewer facilities, could deploy their Advanced Level General English teachers to get a pass at Ordinary Level also for students lacking this.

The second suggestion the Minister made was that the Ministry of Education should encourage all School Principals to set up Language Classes on a Voluntary basis in all schools. This should mainly target speaking skills. Retired persons and also serving government officials could be invited to teach. It had been noted at the Consultative Committee that the Police had expressed willingness to assist in this with regard to Sinhala teaching in the North and East, but in order to avoid any sense of imposition, Principals should be asked to arrange Volunteer classes in Tamil for police and other officials.

Such a programme would also encourage social integration, whilst providing a useful tool for employment to students. It would also be helpful to show an alternative to the profit based culture of tuition, with students appreciating the assistance of adults providing a service without getting material rewards.

Finally the Minister suggested that the Ministry of Education should actively set up schools in which students of different communities can learn together. The point was to avoid segregation where possible, and have students learning together, and also playing together.

The proposal had arisen after a Member reported that, in Matugama, there were two schools, Sinhala and Tamil medium respectively, functioning as separate administrative units in the same building complex. This seemed unnecessarily divisive, and it was only administrative changes that were required to bring the students together.

However students in such schools could come together academically only for English (though doing extra-curricular activities together would be a great step forward, especially if the Ministry intention to make these compulsory was fulfilled). It was also suggested therefore that efforts should be made to set up at least one English medium school in each Division, at least for Advanced Level classes, where children of different communities can learn together.

The Minister pointed out that the demand for English medium was not so high, and that there were only 10,000 medium students at Ordinary Level. But, though this was presented as out of over 500,000, since over 200,000 were repeaters, the percentage seemed reasonable, given that in many schools numbers have gone down because of the failure to produce enough teachers. At Vijaya for instance, which I have referred to before, full English medium classes at the beginning of the last decade have shrunk as the school shrank, which is nothing to do with desire for English medium declining but rather arises from administrative shortcomings.

This is even more true at Advanced Level, where students who do well at Ordinary Level find there are no teachers. The Minister in explaining the reason for this observed that anyone with English medium qualifications could command salaries of Rs 60,000 or more, so they would not enter the teaching profession. This seemed to provide ample reason for producing more teachers and enabling schools to provide Engllish medium for those who wanted it, since obviously both parents and children would want to be able to command such salaries.

I can only hope then that, in finalizing policies and developing mechanisms to fulfil them, the Ministry takes into account such economic realities, and the need to help students to obtain gainful employment. The old dogmas should be laid to rest, and in trying to bring our students together, we should focus also on what gives them the best opportunities.

It was heartening that, when I went into the Education Committee, the other two Parliamentarians already there were the Trotskyists, traditional and modern. I was reminded then of the JVP supporting our suggestion that English too be made an official language, as the Indo-Lankan Accord had initially proposed. They were in favour of English they said, provided it was provided to the country at large, not just to the elite.

The Island 4 Feb 2013 –