I come back to Education because, with every day that passes, it is more and more obvious that we must engage in quick reform of the system. We need to change structures to allow for quick decisions. We need to change syllabuses to ensure that our youngsters get basic knowledge and also the ability to access necessary information. We need to encourage thinking skills and initiative, and also group learning that will promote cooperation rather than competition that puts us each in his own little compartment.
What we must get rid of is the continuing dependence on officials who have little understanding of the ground situation in the various schools which have insufficient teachers, inadequate provision for counseling and few extra-curricular activities. That requires strengthening school based management, but we have to make sure that, when principals are given greater responsibility, they are made strictly accountable, and that they must show results that can be accesses and questioned by all stake holders.
This means more effective consultative committees in schools, but these cannot be confined to parents, because they can be easily intimidated. That is why we tried, when I worked with Divisional Secretariats, to strengthen the Women and Children’s Units, to encourage officials involved in child care at all levels to actively monitor schools. In particular the Health Department and the Probation Department should be empowered to check on the physical welfare of students in schools, and also attendance.
Unfortunately our administrative structures militate against such cooperative efforts. Institutions are compartmentalized, with no provision for the comprehensive assessments of their development that children require. The unquestioned domination of officials in a colonial administration has combined with the statism of the period just after independence to give the Ministry of Education exclusive control of the education process. But that Ministry should be confined to setting standards, whereas both implementation and monitoring should be left to local agencies that know the ground situation.
Of course there may not be sufficient awareness on the ground of what is needed, which is why the Ministry should also engage in training, both of officials and of parents who represent Rural Development Societies, in particular Women’s Rural Development Societies. Last month, at the Aide et Action South Asia Board meeting, we discussed the need for a checklist for parents, and mechanisms to empower them to assess whether their children are getting what they need. But preparing such a checklist would not be difficult, as I found when I used to ask those who attended Divisional meetings to tell me what they thought was meant by a good school.
With regard to curriculum reform, we must make sure that attention is paid to employment prospects, in prescribing subjects and the content as well as the skills that syllabuses incorporate. It is also important to ensure solid foundations in essential subjects like mathematics and languages. Too often children who have been neglected in primary school because there are insufficient teachers find it difficult to catch up. Teachers meanwhile think that content is what the syllabus is about, and do not focus on the understanding that is essential if content is to be meaningfully absorbed, nor the skills to deploy that content.
In this regard I think we should do much more with dramatization by students of what they learn. When we were discussing the new Universities Act, one of the more thoughtful Deans noted that students had done much better in their exams where they had engaged in role plays with regard to the laws they were studying. Such strategies can easily be deployed at all levels, in school and at university, and this will also provide greater enjoyment than students now obtain when they are confined to rote learning.
In prescribing syllabuses, we should also take into account the views of employers. There was hardly any representation of the business community when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, and the same has by and large been true of the University Grants Commission as well as that National Education Commission. The general view amongst both politicians and bureaucrats seems to be that education is the preserve of educationists, and that those who must use the products of the system need not have a say in what is being produced. That is why students have to learn the same old ancient history with little (or none at one stage) understanding of the revolutionary concepts that modernized the world. That is why religion is a matter of learning dogma by heart instead of learning to apply it through greater attention to ethics and the application of religious teaching to day to day life.
In conceptual terms, the greatest problem we face is I think compartmentalization. Our systems militate against cooperation, and instead encourage adherence to what Michael Roberts many years ago described as the Asokan paradigm, unquestioning acceptance of an authority figure. That of course is what the tuition culture entails, with students having to take down what an individual dictates, with no opportunity to question and discuss. At the stage at which students should be exploring problems together, our pernicious school calendar drives them in droves to tuition classes, in a thralldom they cannot escape when Advanced Level Classes finally start.
Compartmentalization also bedevils our efforts at Reconciliation. When I was Adviser I suggested programmes to twin schools, not just for particular activities, but in long term partnerships that would also involve social service projects. This would be incredibly easy to organize, but the Ministry was simply not interested in such initiatives. And though one private school was keen, and found a willing partner in Kachilamadu, in Mullaitivu, the Secretary at the time was full of suspicions and would not give the approval the government school involved thought essential to proceed – understandably so given the way bureaucrats could come down like a ton of bricks on anything unusual.
Sadly Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose heart at least is in the right place, though little else is, given her understandable penchant for travel, has done little to promote Reconciliation through programmes that will bring people together. Her Task Force was set up far too late, and it has still not produced a comprehensive programme. Given her interest in education, she should think of using the education system to promote Reconciiliation, but I suspect that without Tara de Mel to help her, she will be unable to develop and sustain positive initiatives.
But even greater attention to English medium education, which started in her time, and which she preserved against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to destroy it, would help considerably. Establishing English medium schools in every Division, where children of all communities can learn together, would not only increase mutual understanding, it would also help to raise standards in the Division as a whole, given the greater access to knowledge that capable children in every Division of the country would have. And if such schools also acted as Beacons, to use a term the Ministry coined for an initiative that seems to have died, with regard to Mathematics and Science, access to knowledge that would help generally with employment would be improved all over the country.
Sadly I do not think the Ministry is interested in new ideas. The manner in which Tara and I, with full encouragement from President Kumaratunga, introduced English medium in three months, the way in which, in President Premadasa’s time, supported by Arjuna Aluwihare, I started tertiary level English courses for rural students with inadequate access to the subject in school, are not initiatives the modern generation can understand or replicate.