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download (6)I have a great affection for General Chandrasiri, and indeed great admiration too. This began when, in 2008, he invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Future Minds Exhibition he had organized in Jaffna. The other principal invitee was to be the Bishop of Jaffna, someone else for whom I have both affection and admiration. Though he has always stood up for the rights and dignity of the Tamil people he serves, he has also spoken out against terrorism and the LTTE.

Indeed, it is a mark of his integrity that the strongest evidence against the spurious allegations made against us with regard to the first No Fire Zone comes in the letter the Bishop wrote on the day that Zone was subject to attacks. Contrary to what the Darusman report insinuates, and what an even less scrupulous report claims was our plan to corral civilians in places where the LTTE had weaponry, the Bishop said that he would ask the LTTE to refrain from transferring weapons into the No Fire Zone. Unfortunately neither the Ministry of Defence, nor the Foreign Ministry (the latter, as Dayan Jayatilleka graphically described it, now territory occupied by the MoD), have bothered to argue against the allegations on the basis of facts and evidence from independent sources.

Unfortunately the aim of General Chandrasiri in 2008, to avoid politicians, as he put it to me when asking me for the event, was countered by Douglas Devananda doggedly turning up and taking a prominent role. I could understand then why he could not be put off, but it is sad that he did not take up the idea suggested by the General’s assertion of the need to develop human resources. Instead, even in the local authorities his party won, he allowed personal predilections to come to the fore, and did nothing for development. There was no thinking of the type of partnership that could have been set up, to train youngsters and start businesses, through a synergy of talents, with civilians being in charge but accepting advice and assistance from the military.

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Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.

It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.

The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.

Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.

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At two recent meetings of Reconciliation Committees in the Eastern Province, the question of tuition came up. In one place I was asked to suggest to the President that tuition on Sundays be banned, because it took away from religious education. In the other I was told that students – from Kantale – had to travel to Kurunegala or Anuradhapura to have any hope of passing their Advanced Levels, because the quality of Advanced Level teaching was so bad.

Soon after that I was told, in Colombo, that even in S. Thomas’ sports meets had to be held in school hours, otherwise students would not be present since they thought tuition classes more important. The idea that, even in a fee levying school, extra classes for which payment must be made are mandatory bemuses me. But, such being the situation, I suppose it is not surprising then that parents who do not have to pay for education accept that they must fork out for tuition, as happens in the majority even of prestigious government schools for which parents sometimes pay through the nose for entrance.

I was pleased therefore that the lady from Kantale who spoke up plaintively objected to this sort of expenditure. But it was not only the expense of the classes and the transport that she mentioned. It was also the bad habits, as she put it, that children might pick up, on long journeys, and during long hours spent in large groups. She added that her son was not a problem, but with girls the situation might be different. I should add that the increase in teenage pregnancies, mentioned in most of the 80 Divisional and District Secretariat meetings held over the last year, is also related to the tuition culture.
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The topic of education comes up at almost all Reconciliation Committee meetings at Divisional Secretariat level. I wondered whether this was because I am still thought of as an Educationist, but I suspect those who come to these meetings have no idea about my range of experience at all levels, and talk about education simply because they see a good education as vital for their children.

They are absolutely right, and the dedication of the many educationists who established excellent schools in many parts of Sri Lanka in the 19th century, the recognition by Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social activists that they had to start their own schools, and then the comprehensive scheme developed by C W W Kannangara, did much to ensure social mobility for all segments of society.

Sadly, when the commitment of both state and the private non-profit sector to supply a good education turned into the establishment of a state monopoly, a rot set in. The state simply could not supply enough, and maintain high quality, so we now have the ludicrous situation of additional supply being provided by international schools and by tutories. Unfortunately our doctrinaire statists object to the former, and allow the latter full rein, even though they disrupt the school system even more destructively, given that many school teachers give tuition and expect their students to come to their classes to get what is not given in school.

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I wrote last week about the understandable irritation of the Minister of Education regarding media stress on mistakes in term test papers set by Zonal Offices of Education. He thought they should instead have been talking about much more important developments such as the introduction last month of a Technological Stream into schools. I agreed with him in principle, though I felt that mistakes in papers are not acceptable and he should reduce the possibility of this happening – and pressures on students – by allocating more responsibility to schools.

Last week I realized that, had the media really taken the new Technological stream seriously, as indeed they should, there would have been even more criticism of the Ministry. I found to my great disappointment that the manner in which this very worthy innovation has taken place means that areas that most need it have been left out. Up in the Gomarankadawala Education Zone, which covers four Divisions, Gomerankadawala and Kuchchaveli and Padaviya Sripura and Morawewa, there is not a single school which has started this stream.

I am not sure who decides how these benefits are conferred, but clearly the system is wrong if four of the most deprived areas in the country are left out. At the very least, the Ministry should have ensured that at least one school in every Division was assisted to get the programme going.

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Coincidentally, after I had written last week about the complications caused by Zonal Education Offices setting termly examination question papers for schools, the Minister of Education himself raised the question at the fortnightly Parliamentary Group Meeting. He was hurt, understandably so, at the harsh criticism of errors in a number of papers set by a number of Zones.

His point was that there were many important things to think about, including obviously, most recently, the introduction of a Technological Stream for major public examinations. This is indeed a laudable development, though I cannot understand why the Ministry does not go further and promote a free mixture of subjects, with greater breadth as is happening in examination systems round the world which are being emulated in more and more countries. But while such innovations are beyond the scope of the Ministry now, given that its officials are stuck – and allowed to stick – in mindsets long superseded elsewhere, we must be thankful for small mercies such as the long overdue recognition of the importance of technology.

I sympathized with the Minister’s irritation, especially when he pointed out that there were only three examinations that were important in a child’s life, namely the Year 5 Scholarship Examination, and the Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations. This is true, though it is a pity that the education system puts so much pressure on children at the age of 10, when putting more energy into ensuring that rural schools provide better services at secondary level too would be more equitable for all children.

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I have been reading with some bemusement the recent exchanges regarding the role and views of my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka, who has been under attack because of his support for the 13th Amendment and devolution. This is an old story, and he is well able to defend himself. But recently there has been a change, because he is attacked not only for what he believes – which he would be quite happy to deal with – but also on the grounds that he caused problems for the government because he defended us forcefully against attacks in the international arena way back in 2009.

The argument is that he put us in a difficult position through his defence, which involved commitment to the 13th Amendment. As I have said before, this is nonsense, because all he was doing was reiterating what our old friend Mahinda Samarasinghe would describe as the consolidated position of the government of Sri Lanka. This had been expressed clearly by the President in a joint communiqué with the Indian government as also in a joint statement issued together with the UN Secretary General. This last indeed contained material relating to accountability which I thought unnecessary, but which it seemed only Dayan and I, thought of as outsiders with no diplomatic training, recognized was potentially dangerous. Foreign Ministry officials saw no problem with that commitment on the part of government, though later Palitha Kohona told me he had advised against that clause, and it was only the President’s haste to settle the matter that curtailed further discussion.

That having been said, the clause would have caused no problems had we interpreted it straight away on our terms. It was the culpable neglect of what we had pledged that has contributed to our problems, and that was nothing to do with Dayan, who was given the cold shoulder soon afterwards. He was to spend a year in limbo, until the President recalled him to service in Paris, where he did a fantastic job.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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