By Rathindra Kuruwita and Umesh Moramudali

Despite free education up to the tertiary level, about 20 per cent of those who pass the GCE A/L examination give up higher studies. One of the options for them is the vocational training. Renowned educationist, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha in an interview with Ceylon Today (26 Dec 2016) shares his views regarding the importance of vocational training.

The GCE O/L examination for 2016 has just concluded. About 20 to 25 per cent of students who sit the GCE O/L examination are not qualified to sit the GCE A/L exam. For example, the percentage was 21.21 per cent in 2015. Most of them are from disadvantaged families. Are there any courses offered to them by the Vocational Training Authority (VTA)?

A: The VTA is one among the agencies of the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training that offers courses for those without GCE O/L and those with GCE O/L and A/L qualifications. But the system was confused with little clarity about the different levels and the curriculum incorporating different levels. So, it was not quite clear what was available and what prerequisites were needed.

The Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC), which is the coordinating body for all the agencies decided to rationalize and set out clear career paths. The ministry consolidated it by clearly matching the NVQ 3 to the Ordinary Level for relevant jobs in government service while NVQ 4 has been equalized to the Advanced Level.

We also decided to provide skills to any student who seeks better employment prospects at any level, by starting a number of 3-month NVQ level 3 qualifications. In addition to the technical subjects in the fields generally associated with Vocational Training – construction, automobile repair, manufacturing – we have decided to move into the service sector in a big way, based on current labour requirements. So, there are several 3-month courses for the hotel industry, logistics and office work. Interestingly enough, the most applications for the 3-month Introduction to Office work course came from Jaffna, where bright youngsters want to use productively the time now wasted because of our mad education system that leaves students at a loose end after the Ordinary Level examination. We have also got many applicants for the Building Career Skills course, including English communication we started this year.

What about the A/L students who don’t qualify to enter a university or do not want to enter universities?

A: As I have mentioned, there are many courses for them, but we are raising the general skills profile in all courses so that they will fit more easily into a range of jobs, at levels requiring independent work and initiative. We work with the newly established Sector Skills Councils, and in Computing for instance, where there was much unemployment because the courses were not carefully designed. The Council has prepared a document that makes it clear for those with qualifications at any level can do. Those who have sat the Advanced Level examination can take up Level 4 courses. Several students followed Career Skills courses last September. While those who pass, but are not sure what they want to do can take up the Level 5 courses, as well as Level 4 in job oriented courses in the areas of their choice.

You are offering a number of NVQ 5 programmes as teacher training. Can you elaborate on why you have chosen the particular fields?

A: Basically, the current system has completely failed to produce teachers in essential subjects such as English and Maths. As a result, poor students suffer most. But even comparatively good schools also suffer. For instance, a student from Anula Vidyalaya, from where some of my brightest students came, said she did not have an English teacher for Ordinary Levels. Recently I heard that at the Ingiriya National School, after the sudden death of an English teacher, there was no replacement. The situation with regard to Maths is even worse in rural schools.

And a few years back, when the government introduced the Technology Stream for Advanced Level, they had not bothered about developing teachers. The schools used TVE teachers which led to problems for our agencies, the Vocational Training Authority in particular. When I was in Parliament I used to ask about it and I was horrified at the failure to extend the programme to the Northern and Eastern Provinces which I visited often in connection with my work as Adviser on Reconciliation. I was told that they had found only three Tamil medium teachers for the entire North, while Sinhalese schools too in remote areas such as Gomarankadawala suffered.

So we thought, given that teaching was a vocation, it was our responsibility to do something about it. Then we started Diploma courses in Education for English, Technology – at five branches – and also for Mathematics. The Maths syllabus was developed by the best Maths professor in the country who now chairs the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education. He has geared it towards producing teachers at secondary level who will understand student problems instead of working at excessive high levels which sometimes graduates can do. Interestingly, the ADB commented that our maths syllabus is absurd, demanding too much from students at the Ordinary Level, when what we needed were basic skills for life and work in any field, not specialized mathematical understanding.

And I am happy to note that the new Secretary of Education, who is very dynamic, has responded positively to the initiative. I hope we can collaborate actively. Even the consultants at the Prime Minister’s office have noted that instead of working on new curricula, the Education Ministry should adopt our NVQ Level 3 and 4 courses for students who stay back after the Ordinary Levels. We can develop courses at lower levels to introduce alternatives for purely academic subjects.

Most of the courses will open doors to lucrative jobs locally. Do you think they would want to become teachers?

A: Not all, but I hope a few will understand that teaching can be interesting so long as it is about working together with students, not dictating knowledge to them. But we will be able to produce a lot of active youngsters who can take up a range of options.

Are the courses offered only in Colombo?

A: Certainly not. As I told Karunasena Kodituwakku, when he complained to me, as though it were my fault, way back in 2002 that Royal College was not taking up English medium when I had started it. I am not concerned about Royal College or Colombo in general. There are of course deprived youngsters in Colombo and we do cater to them, but our concern is those who are disadvantaged. So the English and Education course will run in 10 centres islandwide, two in the North, three in the South because teachers and students have demanded it, two in the West, and one each in the Central, Eastern and North Western Provinces. But I hope very much that we can start in the other three provinces next year, or even in July.

The Technology and Education Diploma will be taught at least in five or more centres though that is yet to be finalized.

Why do you think that successive governments paid little attention to training young people?

A: Essentially, decision-making in this country has been dominated by two sets of people with little concern for the young and deprived. First, the elite sometimes do not understand the problems of other elements in society. I still remember that when I introduced the English medium the Prime Minister tried to stop it. My father told me that his mother had said she could not understand why I was so obsessed with it. Both Ranil and I had studied in the Sinhala medium but our English was very good. Similarly, the then Bishop of Colombo said English medium would destroy the Sinhala and Tamil identity of those in Anglican private schools because those children spoke English at home and would therefore lose their mother tongue. He claimed that identity was a function of language. Not understanding that this opened the doors for others to say that identity was a function of religion, which would have put paid to his identity. Sadly, some of these people live on another planet away from the majority of our people.

The second group of myopic decision makers consists of those who have actually enjoyed social advancement through educational opportunities. I have the greatest respect for them, but they see education as something purely academic and cannot appreciate the different talents of other people nor the different opportunities available for other aspects of personal excellence.

Do you plan to introduce courses that target agriculture and fishery sectors? The lack of trained farmers and fishermen is one of the main reasons why these sectors are stagnating.

A: It’s quite true that we must address the issues in a big way. I have asked for ideas about the sort of value addition we must introduce into technical courses so that young people will not only produce but also market and manufacture. But responses have been limited, so I will have to handle it myself next year. Fortunately, there are many able officials in other ministries – Foreign Employment, Youth Affairs, Tourism, Science and Technology, Social Services, Women and Children’s Affairs – who appreciate what we are trying to do.

Ceylon Today 26 Dec 2016 –