CaptureI was delighted to see last week that ‘The government is now planning to extend the “Amity Schools” concept, commencing from “Year One”. This is presented ‘as another gigantic medium to a long-term move in supporting national reconciliation amongst communities’ whatever that convoluted justification might mean.

It is also splendidly ironic, since the concept of Amity Schools was killed by Ranil Wickremesinghe when his government replaced Chandrika Kumaratunga’s at the end of 2001. Amity Schools had been the term used in the concept paper I had prepared for Tara de Mel when she accepted my suggestion, in the middle of 2001, to restart English medium on a large scale in government schools.

We had been introduced by Jeevan Thiagarajah at a seminar at the British Council, and when I broached the subject of English medium she told me she planned to start it in two schools the following year, one in Colombo and one in Kandy. She had already started Advanced Level Science in English in some schools.

I welcomed these initiatives but told her that it was not correct to confine English to an elite. She needed to make it more widely available. When she told me there were not enough teachers available, I told her there were enough to start in enough schools to set the ball rolling.

She evidently thought about this straight away, for she rang me that evening and said she was willing to go ahead provided I ran the programme for her. I was delighted and agreed, though told her I would have to do this part time since I was then Acting Dean of the Faculty at Sabaragamuwa University and also coordinated the recently started degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy.

She agreed but told me I needed to produce a concept paper immediately. I was travelling in a couple of days but, at Jeevan’s insistence, I produced a draft, and he and she fine tuned it and got it approved within days. I think it was at that stage though that our initial idea of making it possible from Grade 1 was shot down, by Gamini Keerawella, another of Chandrika’s acolytes. He has been rewarded now by being appointed Deputy Head of our Mission in Washington, having previously served her as Secretary, Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, National Integration and Mineral Resources Development. Tara felt his support was necessary, given that bringing young people together was one of the objectives we had stressed, and we had therefore to accept his strictures about starting English too early.

Despite difficulties, in addition to basic teacher training, we managed to produce books for Grade 6 in time for nearly 100 schools which had opted for the programme to commence in January 2002. But the government had changed by then, so I first asked the new Minister of Human Resource Development, Karunasena Kodituwakku, whether to proceed. He incidentally was not put into Cabinet until some months later, which Ranil claimed at Christmas had been an oversight. But now, knowing the way Ranil operates, this was I suspect designed to enable his acolytes, Kabir and Suranimala Rajapaksa, to establish themselves in authority at the Ministries of Higher Education and Education respectively. Certainly later on Karunasena told me he spent most of his time at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Karunasena, one of the most honest and decent men in the UNP at that stage, was enthusiastic about English medium, and indeed upbraided me for not having started it at Royal College. My answer was that I was not interested in the students of Royal College who were well looked after by everyone else in authority, but that my concern was rural students who otherwise had no access to English. Karunasena accepted my point but then popularized the programme, so that in the second term the number of schools involved had begun to approach four figures – and Ranil’s brother told me proudly at the end of that year that his son had been selected for English medium at Royal College.

But meanwhile Ranil had told Karunasena to stop the programme. Thankfully he persevered, but one price he had to pay was to abandon the Amity Concept. The schools conducting the programme were described now as Bilingual Schools, and what we had suggested, bringing students from different mediums together in the higher grades to study in English, was forgotten.

I am glad then that Minister Fowzie, propelled I presume by Chandrika, is reviving the concept. But I am sorry that they are confining this initially to one school in Colombo, which is to be purpose-built, in fulfilment of my father’s claim that all MPs want to be Ministers and all Ministers want portfolios involving construction.

Instead of requesting ‘Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to provide a land for this project’, those really concerned with amity should immediately take steps to bring together primary schools of different mediums so that children can learn together using existing resources. The money intended for new buildings will suffice to provide the supplementary resources needed to ensure a successful programme in at least one school in every District.

But I suspect all this is beyond the scope of the Ministry now. It has an excellent Secretary again, and one or two of the Additionals remind me of the wonderful support Tara had in 2001, but even then she had to get me in to expedite action. Now, given that capacity in general has declined, I do not know if even I would be able to ensure the production of good materials and adequate training to get things going on the scale needed to really promote Amity.

But still, it is a good thing that Chandrika is at last able to reassert herself in the one field in which she made a lasting contribution to Sri Lanka. Even though the government that took over at the end of 2001 killed many of Tara’s initiatives, anything in the direction of reviving them is welcome. And perhaps Chandrika can even persuade Tara to take on the Chair of the National Education Commission, which has now been vacant for nearly six months, in a stunning confirmation of the contempt with which this government treats education.

Ceylon Today 19 Sept 2017