Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.
It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.
The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.
Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.
This was not an isolated case. Down south I was told about a school where the computer laboratory has remained closed for eight months, because it had been hoped the President would come there to open it. They have now been told that the President will not come, so they are waiting for Namal Rajapaksa to do the honours. The same goes for Vijayaba Vidyalaya, which was established with much fanfare in Beliatta, as a flagship school. Unfortunately, though it was supposed to provide English medium education for the youngsters of the area, someone who knew no English and was not interested in the subject, but had political influence, was made Principal. After his retirement, there was only an Acting Principal, which was the case with a couple of other major schools in the area. When I complained about this to the President, he said he knew, but asked what could he do. I could not tell him that he should get an efficient Minister of Education, since he would promptly have accused me of wanting that position, as he did with regard to External Affairs and, one paper claimed, with regard to Higher Education too.
I should note that I have not complained of inadequacies to him with regard to Higher Education, because I have a high regard for that Minister, S B Dissanayake, who did his best when he took over the Ministry, along with an energetic Secretary, to institute much needed reforms. The problem there lay in the interminable delay of the Legal Draughtsman’s Department in finalizing the new Act that had been submitted to them. The situation was so bad that the Minister in fact asked me to speak to the President about it, which I thought strange since he could have done this himself. It was then that I realized how the President was being isolated from the old SLFP Ministers, who should have been given much more authority.
What was happening became apparent when the draft was finally ready, but there was opposition to its contents from Wimal Weerawansa and his ilk. The Minister was told to forget the bill, but to go ahead with its salient aspects. This has naturally led to chaos and resentment, similar to what happened with regard to the Education White Paper of the early eighties, which was abandoned because its sections on Higher Education were deemed unpopular. Ranil Wickremesinghe however was told to proceed with the ideas on Education, which were in fact excellent, having been prepared by E L Wijemanne, the best Secretary of Education we have had with the possible exception of Tara de Mel.
The Ministry then went ahead, but since the reforms were not formally sanctioned, they were immediately undone when there was a change of Minister after President Premadasa took office. Ranil came in for a lot of criticism for his lack of popular appeal (understandably so, which is why the UNP must be mad to keep him as its leader for two decades) but his genuine administrative capacities were belittled, and in one year Mr Lokubandara destroyed everything built up in the previous decade, the cluster system, professional pre-recruitment teacher training, continuous assessment. President Premadasa soon realized that things were going wrong, but he had the guts to make a change straight away. Sadly Lalith Athulathmudali did not take advantage of the opportunity offered him, when he was appointed Minister, and instead engaged in plotting which led to him leaving the party and Parliament.
President Rajapaksa is not as tough as President Premadasa, so the mess in education continues. The reforms that had been drafted by 2010 were put to the Consultative Committee, but there were interminable delays until Mr Grero was appointed Monitoring Member for Education. When I was complaining to the President once about problems, he told me I should have applied to be Monitoring Member, and insisted that MPs had been informed that they could apply for this position, which was not in fact the case. What had happened was that he had decided to appoint Sajin Vas Gunawardena as Monitoring Member for External Affairs – where certainly administrative changes were needed, the President subsequently claiming that at least now letters were answered.
Perhaps to imply that this was not an isolated appointment, two MPs, Duminda Silva and Uditha Lokubandara were appointed to Defence, which was surprising since that Ministry was hyper-efficient. But perhaps the appointments were intended to educate, though they led only to unfair obloquy for the Secretary, when he loyally popped up at Duminda’s bedside after the death of Lakshman Bharatha Premachandra. Apart from this there were just another couple of appointments, with no selections amongst the most qualified youngsters in the SLFP such as Janaka Bandara or Vasantha Senanayake or Ramesh Pathirana or Shehan Semasinghe or Kanaka Herath.
I did as instructed apply to monitor Education, but Grero crossed over at this time and was appointed instead. This was good news, for he is a man of intelligence and commitment, and indeed helped to revive the reforms agenda and finally had it adopted. But he is too nice to push himself, and so has been rendered ineffective. I do remember his complaining about the designs for new buildings which he claimed cost much more than was necessary, but this was not an area in which he could change matters. The obsession with cement and its concomitant advantages has continued, with as I noted the cynical view expressed openly to the Consultative Committee, that these are about winning votes, not about ensuring better education.
So there has been no attempt at all to improve teacher supply and distribution. Poorer areas continue to be without sufficient teaching in Maths and Science and English. The trilingual programme of the government is made a mockery by the lack of Sinhala teachers for Tamil students and Tamil teachers for Sinhala students. The various suggestions I have made, to allow Provinces and the private sector to train teachers, to set up language centres which would develop trilingual language skills, to include teacher training modules in university courses, are rejected, with no attempt to think out alternatives.
With regard to improving teacher supply, I was told that the State could not take the risk of badly trained teachers. The obvious answer to that was to have a State run examination without which they would not employ teachers, but it is impossible to overcome the mindset that demands the same body must both deliver services and evaluate them. So we have to put up with Training Colleges with outdated curricula, and teachers who are trained to perpetuate rote learning. The ideas I advanced, when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, to institute continuous development through Teacher Centres, and to develop projects which would be given credit towards further qualifications as well as promotions, have all been forgotten.
In my systematic visits to the North and East I have become increasingly aware of despair in this regard. Occasional discussions with parents and teachers in the South make me realize that the problem is getting worse all over the country. Solutions would be so simple, as we see indeed in the initiatives taken by Dayasiri Jayasekera in the Northwestern Province. But instead of encouraging their replication elsewhere, I suspect the Ministry will soon take steps to stop him.