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The President’s Budget Speech had a lot of innovative suggestions about education. This is just as well, for this is an area in which we must move swiftly, if we are to reap the full fruits of development.

A balanced but trenchant criticism I heard recently of current economic policies is that, while infrastructure has been developed effectively, human resource development has lagged behind. That must be remedied for we must ensure equality of opportunity, even while promoting the private sector as the engine of growth.

In this regard, the example of the Ministry of Economic Development, entrusted to someone with no previous Parliamentary experience, but with a track record of proven practical capacity, suggests one way forward. Sri Lanka has not yet recognized that an Executive Presidency demands technocrats at the helm in areas of urgent concern. We suffer from a preposterous constitution, the only one in the world that confuses an Executive Presidential system with the Westminster model of government that abandons even any pretence of the separation of powers. However, the institution of a Ministry devoted to development has permitted concentration on results, without the need to work also on parochial political concerns in a particular area.
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In a week of much depressing news, perhaps the most depressing was that presented under what seemed intended to be a triumphant headline. The headline read ‘President resolves Uswewa Junior School teacher shortage’, and the story was about how the President took steps to fill teacher vacancies in a Junior School in the Hambantota District.

Children from that school had been at Temple Trees, and one enterprising student had complained that there were no teachers for English or Science subjects. The President had directed the student to complain to the Southern Province Minister of Education and then issued orders to the Minister to take immediate steps to fill teacher vacancies in the school.

Assuming that teachers have now gone to the school, and will stay there, we should rejoice at the news. Any step to improve the education provided to children anywhere is a positive measure. But it is clearly completely unacceptable that there should be teacher shortages that can be resolved only if a child happens to be at Temple Trees and complains to the President.

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At the meeting last week of the Mutur Divisional Reconciliation Committee meeting, the Chairman of the Mediation Board reminded me of a suggestion made by the school principals I met during my last visit to Mutur. This was in 2008, while the conflict in the North still raged, but the East was limping back to normality.

The principals were from a Muslim school, a small Tamil school and a very small Sinhala school, all of which suffered from teacher shortages. They asked with one voice why they could not have a single English medium school.  Not only would that bring the children of a very fractured area together, it would give them all chances of a better future.

I pointed this out in a letter to the Ministry. I went further and indicated how it would help government by reducing costs, since far fewer teachers would be needed for one school than for three, each with few students. The teacher shortages endemic in a distant place like Mutur could also thus be reduced, with less headache for education officials who would have to fill up fewer cadres.

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At the debate on the FUTA demands arranged a couple of weeks back by Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most telling complaint made by the FUTA head was about children in a distant village clustering in droves before dawn to get the bus to a school far away. That anecdote seemed to have nothing to do with the FUTA strike, though it should have been if the demand for 6% of GDP being spent on education was about results, rather than simply sloganeering. The failure to respond at all coherently to Eran’s simple question, what should be done with the 6%, made it clear that policy changes which would lead to a better education system for all was not part of the agenda.

This was sad, because I am sure that some at least of those leading the strike are idealists, not concerned with the massive pay hikes that are being demanded on top of already large salaries. But the failure to analyse the root causes in the decline of our education system that they have highlighted, and to suggest radical reforms that ensure greater accountability, simply plays into the hands of those in the government sector who are satisfied with the status quo. I assume therefore that the strike will soon be settled, with yet another salary hike on top of all those the current government has granted so readily over the last few years, with no effort to deal with the problems of children forced to travel endlessly, to distant schools and to tuition classes, to make up for the failure of government to provide decent schools even in small towns, let alone in villages.

One of the reasons for this failure is the absence of coordination between the providers of the various services essential to a society committed to equal opportunities. Sadly it has not yet registered with our decision makers that good transport facilities are an essential component of a just society. It is useless providing schools and hospitals unless access to them is easy.

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In the few weeks he has been in office, the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment has shown himself as concerned as his predecessor to promote the rights as well as the interests of those entrusted to the care of his Ministry. He is also concerned with the wider dimensions of his responsibilities, as was seen when he decided to institute a campaign to ensure Sufficient Leisure for Children.

This was based on a focus area in the National Human Rights Action Plan which we had not concentrated on in discussions of the Task Force, concentrating instead on what seemed more vital issues such as the prevention of abuse. But the Secretary is of course quite right to look at all aspects, and in particular to worry about the ‘holistic development of children’ which is now adversely affected because of educational overload.

I am not certain however about one point in the directive he sent to senior officials of the Ministry to prepare ‘an enabling environment for children to enjoy leisure’. Amongst areas in which he sees overload are extra-curricular activities. My recent investigation during Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings of what goes on in schools in the regions suggests however that the real problem is the lack of extra-curricular activities.

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The way in which government can be careless when there are no clear systems in place became clear to me last week, at a Reconciliation meeting at the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat. This Division was allocated a year or two back to the Mullaitivu District. I gathered that some parts of it had been in that District previously, but had been transferred to the Anuradhapura District when Tiger attacks had left the Sinhala population there feeling defenceless.

I am glad therefore that the transfer was made, because the idea of provinces belonging to different communities is preposterous. It should be confined to racists such as the Tigers, as when they drove Muslim populations from the North. But in making the transfer government should also have thought of the services that should go along with such units.

Education for instance still seems to be run from the Kebetigollewa Zone. At a meeting next day with Northern Province Education Ministry officials, I was told that Weli Oya had in fact been transferred to a Zone in Mullaitivu, but the people of Weli Oya were not aware of this. They had sought question papers for term tests from Kebetigollewa, and been promised these, and then the offer had been withdrawn.

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At a regional consultation last month on educational assistance, I was immensely struck by the assertion of one participant that programmes should aim at ‘making the classroom more joyful’. Sadly, that is not seen by many educational administrators or trainers as important. The result is that teachers do not focus on this sufficiently, even though doing this would also help to make teaching an enjoyable vocation for practitioners, and not just a job.

I was the more conscious of this for recently I read a critique of a description I had written some time back of members of the Hela school who had made learning at S. Thomas’ such a joy. Arisen Ahubudu for Sinhala, and his great friends Mr Coperahewa and Jinadasa for Art and Science respectively, had hugely enjoyed their work, and we had hugely enjoyed both their teaching and the performances in which they engaged. In the process we had also learned a lot. Perhaps I had not made this clear, but I had the impression that the critique was based on the assumption, not uncommon in Sri Lanka, that I had been rude in describing the additional input of these memorable masters.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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