The last few years have seen vast sums of money expended on schools, but this has been mainly in the area of construction. There has been little concern with improving the actual quality of education. The impression created is that the work done is seen largely as a means to an end not actually connected with education. Leaving aside the large profit margins available when construction becomes an end in itself, there is also a political agenda. This is obvious from the large number of computer laboratories, for instance, that remain unopened, waiting for a politician’s convenience to claim that this is his gift to the people.
The perversity that dominates educational policy was in fact asserted by the Minister of Education who claimed, when I asked about the failure to commission these laboratories, that the people should know who had gifted them the facilities. I pointed out that these were not gifts from politicians since the money to construct them was the money of the people. The Minister granted I had a point, and said he would move on the matter, but the movement was mainly in Uva, where the President dashed about the place opening facilities which had remained closed until the election. I found this out when I followed up with an inquiry, for statistics from all Provinces. Only the North Central Province has thus far responded – there are 75 schools there where the computer labs have been built, but remain unopened. Doubtless there and elsewhere there will be a flurry of activity before the Presidential election.
Underlying this absurdity is the failure to establish the point that education belongs to the people. The most important stakeholders are children and their parents, and we need to develop systems to ensure that parents can monitor what is going on in the schools their children attend. Ensuring a good service cannot be left to the service provider, which is why government must ensure that the beneficiaries also are able to assess the quality of the service they receive.
A start on this has been made through the recent Circular sent out by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, which requires that the Women and Children’s Units in each Division monitor the schools in their catchment area. However clear instructions as to how to do this have not been sent out, and I have found some uncertainty in the areas I visit. I would therefore suggest the following guidelines –
- Parents, under the guidance of the responsible WCU officer and the Grama Niladhari, should draw up a checklist of the facilities the schools should offer, and should monitor performance of every school. This should not mean interference in the administration, which is not their responsibility. But performance failure should be recorded and reported to the relevant educational authorities for action, for which they must be responsible to the WCU and the Divisional Secretary.
- The checklist should include physical facilities such as drinking water, toilets, playgrounds and access. The Division should develop plans to ensure that students have transport as needed to get to school easily. Libraries and computer centres should be provided, but these need to be used, and parents should check whether children have ready access to obtaining information on their own.
- The checklist should also include the provision of extra-curricular activities. Access to a playground is vital, and understanding of the importance of holistic education, that requires personality development as well as academic knowledge and skills. Emphasis with regard to extra-curricular activities should be on team-work rather than promotion of individual excellence. Leadership qualities however should also be encouraged.
- The checklist should include teacher availability. This means not only having teachers on the roll, but ensuring that they are punctually in class and that classes are not left unsupervised. Principals must ensure that, if teachers are absent for unavoidable reasons, students are kept gainfully occupied.
- Parents should also be involved in projects that students should undertake, in collaboration with the community as appropriate. These should include environmental and social service activities, including attention to the school grounds.
The point of all this is to establish that educational services belong to the people, and they have the right, and the obligation, to ensure and promote the quality of the services they receive. This will require training, to appreciate the need for schools to develop qualities that will help with gainful employment, not simply function as machines to produce good academic results. Given the concern that our people have shown over the years however, with regard to education, it should not be difficult to promote productive involvement of parents in the educational system.