I mentioned last week the lack of intelligent policy formulation in areas where new initiatives are urgently needed. One of these is industry, where we do not have any clear policy. This has come home to me through the pronouncements of our Manufacturing Sector Council, which notes that it is difficult to develop training plans with regard to production since no one has any idea when sudden shifts in tariffs will destroy investments. They have therefore had to confine themselves thus far to trying to streamline service sectors in their sphere of expertise, modernizing training for vehicle operators and welders and electricians and so on.

Interestingly enough, the ADB understood what they meant when it was explained to them that swift action in that area was difficult, unlike say in Construction or IT where our Sector Councils have done so much in so short a period. But even though the point seemed to be understood when I brought it up at the committee set up by the Prime Minister, nothing further has been done about it. I did ask the committee to give us reports on what it had actually achieved, but this seemed beyond it, at least in the period before I decided there was no point in listening to a plethora of platitudes with no action.

It is possible though that, since both the Chairman, the delightful Ken Balendra, and I like to hear the sound of our own voices, and he ran the show, I jumped ship because he insisted on pontificating and would not allow me to do so. But since I have actually studied the subject, whereas he was thrown into it without proper briefing – I had to tell him some weeks into his tenure that the previous government had actually introduced a Technology Stream in school – I got tired of endless reports that repeated what everyone knew, with no steps to expedite remedial action. In that regard, working with Mahinda Samarasinghe was much more productive, because he at least studies his briefs and is able to pinpoint what is needed.

Unfortunately, though Mahinda is supposed to be in charge of the subject, the Prime Minister continues on his merry way with no proper consultation. This was the case with regard to the bright idea he conceived of making 13 years of education compulsory for everyone. He decided for this purpose to introduce vocational subjects in schools after the Ordinary Level, but did not think of consulting other stakeholders in the field. The National Education Commission tried to find out what was happening, but it turned out that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Education was also clueless about what was happening, and it was in fact only through the ADB that I saw the first proposals with regard to reform, which the ADB rightly pointed out were incoherent and did not properly address the relevant issues.

Meanwhile whoever had been entrusted with the task of introducing vocational training produced a set of syllabuses which were passed on to the Vocational Training Ministry towards the end of last year. I sent a sharp letter to the head of the NIE Academic Affairs Board, which is supposed to be in charge of school curricula, and he, the sensible Prof Upali Mampitiya, evidently cited my letter in suggesting more consultation.

At a meeting in January, where the syllabuses were finally discussed in a wider forum, it was decided to make some changes. I was not invited, but my staff and others pointed out that there was no point in simply studying theory if the purpose was to encourage practical work. At that state Mahinda Samarasinghe was also called in, and he and our Secretary told me that it had been decided that students would first study, in school, what was loosely termed general skills – as to which we have developed a syllabus in what we call Career Skills, now the most popular course in vocational training centres, though of course it is too much to expect the Ministry of Education to look at that instead of engaging in their favourite pastime of reinventing wheels (and making them flat in the process).

After that they would move to our Vocational Training Centres for a year or so of practical training. At a meeting in March in fact they identified about 40 centres where the programme would be conducted. The decision then was to pilot it in that number of schools in June this year since, though I was told by the NIE that the Prime Minister wanted to pilot it in 2018 and then run the full programme in 2019, Charitha Ratwatte had insisted on starting earlier.

I was a bit worried about 40 of our centres not being available to others, but I was told that, if vocational training was done in schools, there would soon be no need to offer courses in this field to others. Obviously no one had thought about those who had missed out on this but at least the training would be practical for those in school so I accepted the decision. This then was the decision reported to the ADB during its review mission this April.

But on the day that report was made, I read the minutes of the last NEC meeting, where the Director General of the NIE had reported a very different story. Now the decision is to have the students for a year in school – general skills first and then vocational subjects, an impressive range of these – and then send them to work places. Such a programme too might make sense, but it is worrying that a decision announced in March should have been changed so suddenly without proper consultation.

My staff were astonished when I reported this, and both our Secretary and the ADB programme staff had to be given records of the NEC meeting to convince them that indeed things had changed. But what had not been considered, as I found in checking with the NEC, was how this programme could be popularized, so as not to be seen as simply a refuge for failures.

The new view is that in future there will be three streams at Advanced Level, an Academic one, a Technological one (the programme that the last government introduced) and a Vocational one. All the senior educationists at the NEC were a bit worried about this division, since it implied that technology was not academic, and this could intensify prevailing prejudices about these subjects. We much preferred the formulation of the Chairman, the immensely experienced Lakshman Jayatilleka, that there would be five streams, Science and Arts and Commerce and Technology and now Vocational subjects.

This needs however to go hand in hand with career guidance, so that students would not feel that the preferred option was one of the first four. In such a context, those who did not qualify for them on the first sitting would want to repeat the Ordinary Level Exam before having, as it were, to opt for Vocational Studies. The senior Professor Education on the NEC indeed claimed that this would perpetuate class differences, and that no one from elite schools would opt for this stream, and it would be left to the relatively deprived. Certainly, since there is little take up in elite schools of vocational subjects at lower levels (since computing is included in the basket and that is preferred by most students in such institutions), it is unlikely that many students therein would now, after the Ordinary Level, switch to these areas – except perhaps to Design, which has also imaginatively been included.

At the NEC we suggested that the Chairman should write to the President about these matters and suggest that there should be better preparation for this change. In particular it would make sense to introduce vocational subjects earlier on a significant scale, and get students used to the idea that this is an integral aspect of education. In addition it would be sensible to develop trained counsellors in schools, who would provide support in terms of students’ aptitudes, instead of simply as now just advising them to go with the flow – now when students fail the Ordinary Level, or rather fail to do well enough to go on to further studies, the standard advice is to take the exam again.

But the Ministry of Education is simply not interested in providing such guidance. We have decided at the TVEC to develop curricula for Counselling, not at the advanced levels provided now by the National Institute for Social Development, but at NVQ Level 4, the equivalent of Advanced Level. What is needed for young people on a wide scale is empathy, willingness to listen and to encourage, not interventions that require advanced psychological understanding (though one important aspect of support counselling is the ability to understand when professional intervention is needed, and refer subjects accordingly to appropriate institutions or individuals).

Sadly neither the Ministry of Education nor the NIE bothered to attend the meeting. However we had excellent inputs, from government as well as from NGOs working in the field. I was pleased when one particularly critical NGO activist expressed surprise at the level of inputs we received, and we are now in the process of developing curricula for three more courses in the field of Care and Counselling, one in General Care (to supplement the Child Care curriculum which the NCPA efficiently produced for us), one in Counselling, and then a Diploma in Care Centre Management.

I hope we will be able to produce these soon, and then facilitate training since it is clear that the country needs more care and counselling services, and in particular in schools. But whether the Ministry of Education even understands the need, and will join us or do something even better itself, is not something one can expect.

Ceylon Today 16 May 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21106