The last letter I got from the former Chaplain of my College reverberates still in my mind. He was already old when I went up as an undergraduate, and no longer Chaplain, though he continued as a Fellow in History. Oddly enough he had been a sort of spiritual adviser to my uncle, Lakshman Wickremesinghe, when he had been reading for a Master’s degree at Keble 20 years earlier. This was in Political Science, in which he had excelled at Peradeniya, getting the best first ever in the subject, Dayan Jayatilleka coming near but not quite rivalling him thirty years later. But Lakshman gave up political science and, perhaps because of the influence of Tom Parker, decided to become a priest, and went on to Theological College at Ely in Cambridge. His understanding of politics and his commitment however never left him, which is why he was seen as a Red Bishop and wrote, when his mother exulted at the UNP victory in 1977, that his party had lost.

Tom had no College position when Lakshman was a student, for he was considered too High Church. But Univ later gave him a home, where he was able to deliver the most erudite sermons. ‘You will all remember’ he began on one memorable occasion, ‘the controversies associated with the question of the double procession of the Holy Ghost’. Fortunately he had handed over by then to a younger man, who was more in tune with the times, and became a great friend as well as a mentor.

Tom came from a distinguished family of Butchers and, while still Chaplain, he became Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of those strange trade guilds that still exist in Britain, and hold elaborate ceremonies in the Guildhall. As a special mark of favour, he took one of his pupils to dine there when he presided. This was Ravi Dayal, whom I met in the eighties when he headed Oxford University Press in Delhi, and I was trying to get permission to republish some of the later poems of Patrick Fernando in one of the early collections I brought out while at the British Council. This was before some Thatcherite groupie in London declared that it was not the business of the Council in Colombo to take bread out of the mouths of British publishers.

Ravi was a delightful man, and we got on well, not only I think because of the Univ connection. He regaled me with the tale of the dinner which consisted entirely of red meat, notably beef, which as a orthodox Hindu he could not touch. Tom, unworldly to a fault, had no idea of the solecism he had committed.

Tom retired to a house in the North of Oxford which he shared with three ladies from Lady Margaret Hall. I went to see him there, and was escorted to the set of rooms he had on the top floor by what we used to refer to in College as his harem. And we continued to correspond, with his last letter describing an excursion to Stratford to see a play, to which one of his former pupils treated him. It was a wonderful day, he said, and ‘the sort of experience I had not thought to have enjoyed again’.

I think of Tom still on occasion, and all those wonderful characters who made my youth such a joy from so many perspectives. Both his retirement, and his last letter, came to mind vividly when I was brought out of my own retirement to work again in education. I had thought all that was behind me, though I had initially assumed when I was put into Parliament in 2010 that the President would have wanted me to work in the field.

I am told this was considered, but he was told I was not a popular person, and instead his Secretary assured Kumar Rupesinghe – who claimed to have lobbied heavily on my behalf – that they had found a much better person. This was Bandula Gunawardena, than whom I would have thought no one worse could have been appointed, given his background as a purveyor of tuition. But then Ranil appointed Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as Minister, having previously selected another acolyte, Suranimala Rajapaksa, as the State Minister. I was reminded then of Caligula who appointed his horse a Consul – though it could be said on behalf of the horse that it could only neigh, and it did not pronounce on subjects well beyond its ken.

I did while in Parliament assiduously attend meetings of the Consultative Committee on Education, and contributed to discussions on the proposed new Act, with detailed proposals which I suspect no one read. Nothing came of that, after four years, and I did more indeed in the field of Vocational Training, setting up several Centres in the North and a few in the south. That was when I realized the importance of this field, and I was quite glad when I was told, on being appointed State Minister of Higher Education, that I would have to handle that subject too. But Kabir rapidly took it back, I suspect largely because there were several statutory bodies involved, and the main business of the UNP in those days was to provide jobs for the boys.

Having resigned from the Ministerial position when I found unwarranted interference, and then not being put back in Parliament, I assumed my time in public service was over, and set down to putting together books in the various fields in which I had worked. But then I was asked to help in the field of Skills Development and Vocational Training and, though I said I would only work part-time, it turned out that the Chairmanship of the apex body in the field was a part-time position. But Mahinda Samarasinghe told me that he assumed I would indeed be there full time and, though I will not compromise on travel, which has to be the priority as time runs out, I do indeed find myself working several hours each day and for much time at weekends too.

This however is essential, for radical reforms are vital if we are to get over the complete collapse of our education system. Recently I told the Prime Minister, at the first meeting of the Committee he has set up on the subject, that, as the UGC Chairman had also indicated, the problem was with the school system, and we could not simply go on applying plasters to the deep wounds that it created. I do not think he understands the gravity of the issue, else he would not have picked someone so incompetent, without the capacity to conceptualize, to run the Education Ministry. And though they have appointed a relatively capable Secretary, he is new to the field and needs guidance as to the issues.

What these are emerge graphically in a recent ILO report, which declares that ‘Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills on large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing.

I had already been working on a new Policy Paper for the Tertiary and Vocational Education sector, which seemed to me essential before we could produce a Development Plan, a task the Commission is supposed to fulfil every five years though there has been no plan for the last quarter of a century, after the first which was produced soon after the Commission was established. I am also redoing the curricula to ensure that it fulfils the expectations of prospective employees, helped in this by the Sector Skills Councils which should have been established some time back, and which the Minister fast forwarded when he found they seemed to be stuck.

But seeing the clear exposition of the situation in the ILO study, I realized that we had to do more. Fortunately we have perhaps the only other person now in action (for Tara de Mel has, perhaps sensibly enough, retired to meditate) who has a holistic understanding of the sector as Chairman of the National Education Commission. Given its mandate I believe it has to be pro-active in promoting comprehensive reforms. Since we now have an experienced Director General at the National Institute of Education, the time is ripe I think for the lead players in the field – those in charge of policy for Universities and Schools and Tertiary and Vocational Institutes – to work together to achieve systemic change.

This seems the more urgent in that the plans that are now being put together do not seem to be well considered nor coherent. I thought this was the case when the Secretary to the Ministry could not name any experienced educationists as being part of the team that was working on them. And then I heard from the ADB that the initial suggestions put to them made them want to cry.

So I seem to have to get back into harness, at least for a short time more. This was not what I had anticipated, but there is no one else, apart from the Chairman of the NEC – and he is much older than I am – who understands the sector as a whole.

Ceylon Today 28 June 2016 –