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qrcode.30420388One of the biggest stumbling blocks with regard to Good Governance is the confusion in Sri Lanka between the Executive and the Legislature. Such confusion is to some extent unavoidable in countries which have a Westminster system of government, where the heads of the Executive are drawn from Parliament. But in those countries which should be our models if we are to continue with this requirement, there are rules and regulations and customs that prevent the abuse we suffer from in Sri Lanka.

I realized how stringent these rules are when communicating with an old friend who is now a senior member of the British Cabinet. He has been kind enough to respond to emails, but initially one gets an automatic response which makes clear the difference between constituency matters and those pertaining to his portfolio. The former is handled from within the constituency, and there is obviously no question of support for his electoral prospects from within his Ministry.

Personal staff pertaining to Ministry matters are drawn from within the Ministry, as I found out long ago, soon after my university days, when high fliers who had joined the Civil Service (all retired now I fear) were appointed to work with the Minister. But even so, when meetings are held with regard to official matters, it is those within the relevant departments who work with the Minister.

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qrcode.30124925I come back to Education because, with every day that passes, it is more and more obvious that we must engage in quick reform of the system. We need to change structures to allow for quick decisions. We need to change syllabuses to ensure that our youngsters get basic knowledge and also the ability to access necessary information. We need to encourage thinking skills and initiative, and also group learning that will promote cooperation rather than competition that puts us each in his own little compartment.

What we must get rid of is the continuing dependence on officials who have little understanding of the ground situation in the various schools which have insufficient teachers, inadequate provision for counseling and few extra-curricular activities. That requires strengthening school based management, but we have to make sure that, when principals are given greater responsibility, they are made strictly accountable, and that they must show results that can be accesses and questioned by all stake holders.

This means more effective consultative committees in schools, but these cannot be confined to parents, because they can be easily intimidated. That is why we tried, when I worked with Divisional Secretariats, to strengthen the Women and Children’s Units, to encourage officials involved in child care at all levels to actively monitor schools. In particular the Health Department and the Probation Department should be empowered to check on the physical welfare of students in schools, and also attendance.

Unfortunately our administrative structures militate against such cooperative efforts. Institutions are compartmentalized, with no provision for the comprehensive assessments of their development that children require. The unquestioned domination of officials in a colonial administration has combined with the statism of the period just after independence to give the Ministry of Education exclusive control of the education process. But that Ministry should be confined to setting standards, whereas both implementation and monitoring should be left to local agencies that know the ground situation. Read the rest of this entry »

Grumpy 5I also suggested, as happened in Pakistan, the establishment of ordinary schools by the military, or taking over the management of existing schools in areas where the military had a presence. This had been essential in Pakistan, where the public education system had been inadequate in rural areas where there were military cantonments. The army had therefore begun schools to cater to the children of military personnel, and these were then opened to the public too for a fee.

Sri Lanka however, having had a good public education system, had not initially needed such establishments while, the country being small, military personnel had not generally had their families with them when they were stationed away from Colombo, since regular visits were possible. But while coordinating on behalf of Sabaragamuwa University the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy in Diyatalawa, I had noticed how much more content were the officers whose wives and children were with them. This was possible only when the children were very young, since later on it was thought essential that they be admitted to good schools in Colombo, given the inadequacies of rural schools. But it struck me then that the SLMA could easily take charge of one or two local schools in Diyatalawa, something I had indeed suggested for Sabaragamuwa University and the local school in Belihuloya, since I saw how my academic colleagues suffered from having to send their children to schools in bigger towns.

Given the commitment of the more sophisticated parents who would now be sending their children to the local school, the standard of education there would improve, to the benefit too of the local children. And the managing institution would make sure that essential subjects, such as English and Mathematics and Science, which were grossly neglected in many rural schools, would be properly taught.

The Ministry of Defence had indeed taken over one school after the war, but this was in Colombo. But my suggestion as to this and other initiatives was not taken up, with Gotabhaya laconically telling me that he would have to face even more criticism with regard to what was described as militarism. Later however, after a paper I produced for a Defence Seminar, he told me to go ahead, but I explained that I could do nothing, it was the Kotelawala Defence University and other military bodies that had to take the lead – though the KDU, given its civilian agenda, was uniquely positioned to move in this matter without criticism.

I did then take up the matter with the KDU but, perhaps because it had to work through civilian academics in many areas, there was hardly any progress on the matter. One Department did produce good ideas with regard to the training of medical support staff, but that alone was not enough, and soon I was not in a position, having protested about what happened at Weliveriya, to pursue the idea. I was put off, albeit very politely, with regard to a paper I had been asked to prepare for a symposium, and the Commandant later indicated wryly that the Secretary had not been pleased about my signing the petition.

I knew this, because he had in fact called me up and shouted at me for having, as he put it, signed something along with enemies of the government. He did grant that what had happened was wrong, but his point was that I was getting involved with those who were intrinsically opposed to the government. I did not think this was the case, and indeed I had toned down the initial draft which had thrown the blame for the incident on him almost personally, but I could understand his irritation. But I was surprised and saddened that he should have embargoed my participation in seminars organized by the military, because these had been amongst the most constructive in the recent past, in a context in which Sri Lanka had no real think tanks.

Indeed, just after the incident at Weliveriya, before I signed the protest, I had presented a paper at the recently established Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala, on the site of one of the Affiliated University Colleges where, twenty years earlier, I had coordinated the English course. I had found the senior officers there as worried as I was about the fact that the army had opened fire on civilians. They too recognized how bad this was for their reputation, because it would lend strength to those who claimed that the forces had targeted civilians deliberately in the war against the LTTE.

My continuing belief is that the senior officers well understood the rules of war and had worked in accordance with them during the war. After the war I had personal experience about how positive they were about the civilians they were in charge of. For instance, one of the toughest generals during the war, Kamal Guneratne, who was head of the Security Forces in Vavuniya, and responsible for the Welfare Centre where the displaced population had been housed, proved astonishingly liberal about releasing the vulnerable, even though he was told that several security checks were required before this could be done. And as noted previously, when efforts were made to delay the resettlement Basil Rajapaksa was trying to expedite, the generals in the field ignored the order they had received to recheck civilians and sent them back to their places of residence as quickly as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26140115Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

In the Votes on the Ministries of National Languages and Social Integration, of National Heritage and of Cultural Affairs, considered in the Select Committee

During the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, November 19th 2014

Mr Speaker I would like during this Committee Stage of the budget debate, as we consider the work of several Ministries which have been brought together, to register appreciation of the work of a few of these Ministries, whilst expressing the hope that they will be able to do more in the future. It is a pity that we have so many Ministries that some many have to be considered in a job lot as it were, but I shall take advantage of this to suggest the coordination that might make the work of some of these Ministries more effective.

I would like to concentrate most on the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, which has so important a role to play. I must commend the dedication of the Minister and the Secretary, and I am sure he must be delighted that the work he is doing has been recognized by the Ministry now also having the services of a Deputy Minister. I am happy that the new Deputy Minister comes from the Central Province, because with regard to social integration it is perhaps the Tamil community there that needs the most effort to be deployed by the State.

I should note too that in that area it would be useful if government moved swiftly on an excellent idea that had been mooted by the Ministry of Education, namely the establishment of multi-lingual schools in all areas, so that children of different communities could study together. I believe this should be promoted in each Division, and such schools made Centres of Excellence, with children not only being able to go to the same school, but also being able to study in the same class. For this purpose it would of course be necessary to ensure that English medium education was available in all these schools, but this would not be a difficult matter if the Ministry of Education followed the example of the training programmes we set in place when English medium was first introduced, way back in 2001.

In this regard the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration should take the initiative, and encourage the Ministry of Education to move swiftly. In the past few months the Ministry has put forward several suggestions to the Ministry of Education, and this is perhaps one of the best uses of the system of Consultative Committees we have, which are otherwise not very productive. But given the vast responsibilities of the larger Ministry, I believe the Ministry of National Languages must push more effectively, and also develop programmes for the better delivery of language courses throughout the country. Setting in place Language Centres in every Division, using voluntary labour where possible but also providing facilities for paid classes, would be a step in the right direction.

In particular in the North and East, and in the Central Province, such Centres could also prepare students for the teaching of languages. The great complaint of the Ministry of Education, when we ask why the teaching of Second and Third Languages is so bad in rural schools, is that there is an absence of teachers. In particular this is true of Primary Teachers, but of course if there is no foundation, it is impossible for students to catch up, given the way our syllabuses are constructed. But unfortunately there has been no attempt to think outside the box to ensure the production of more language teachers. Here again the Ministry of National Languages, which has such dedicated staff, should take the lead in suggesting innovative solutions. I am sure that, even if the Ministry will not receive funds for such activities through the budget, it can prepare project proposals that will receive ample funding for so laudable a purpose.

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Amidst a number of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in the North last week, I also had a number of interactions with children, and with persons working with children. Two instances were serendipitous, but I was privileged to participate actively – and indeed exhaustingly – on one occasion. This was when I conducted, in a small school near Nedunkerni, one of the games that the former combatants had delighted in, during my first visit to the Rehabilitation Centre for girls in Vavuniya three and a half years ago.

The laughter of the girls on that occasion still illuminates in presentations of the Rehabilitation Bureau, as I saw last month at the Officer Career Development Centre Seminar at Buttala.  In Nedunkerni the children were younger, and even less inhibited.

I had come across well over 50 of them in the playground of the school at 5 pm, which was heartening. I have long argued that we need to ensure that schools are centres of community activity, but all too often schools are deserted after 2 pm. Here however, in addition to attractive new buildings, the school had quarters for the Principal and several staff. They too were in the playground, encouraging the activity and joining in.

The school had teachers even in subjects such as English and Maths and Science, as to which there had been complaints about shortages in almost all Divisions I had visited. Whilst obviously we need to increase supply, the situation here showed that one needs to provide decent facilities to ensure teachers will stay in remote areas to which transport is difficult. The youngsters I saw playing with the children were from Jaffna, but seemed quite content to stay in the school and participate in student life in the evenings. Almost no one had taken more than a day’s leave thus far in the year.
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Last week the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Education met to finalize the Educational Policy reforms that have been discussed over the last nearly three years. Apart from myself, one member of the Consultative Committee and two other Members of Parliament had sent in suggestions, and a few others contributed verbally at the meeting.

I have previously described my suggestions, which were to flesh out the generally very positive approach of the final document that the Ministry team had put together. Though we had seemed to get bogged down in circling discussions, the appointment of Mohanlal Grero as Monitoring Member with responsibility for finalizing the proposals had been an inspired decision and the penultimate document and now this one will help to revitalize the education system and bring it closer to satisfying the aspirations of parents.

Perhaps the most important new suggestions were those put at the meeting by the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, following a decision of his Consultative Committee on the previous day to encourage the Education Ministry to take on a more proactive role in pursuing the government’s Trilingual Policy as well as Social Integration.

The first suggestion the Minister made was to have a requirement that students also pass in one other Language, in addition to Mother Tongue at the Ordinary Level Examination. This should be mandatory for Higher Education and also for government jobs.

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After speaking at the Officer Career Development Centre on revolutionizing the Education System, I went on to my father’s home village, where his family had many years ago donated land for a school. Vijaya Maha Vidyalaya had developed over the years, with support sometimes from the family, most recently when one of my cousins arranged a health camp there, along with a cricket match between the Colombo Medical Team and the schoolboys, which I was privileged to watch.

Vijaya had been one of only two schools in the Hambantota District (the other was a Muslim school in the Tissamaharama area if I remember right) to being English medium when we started it way back in 2001. The first few years had been very successful, and I would enjoy dropping in on the classes and registering the enthusiasm of the Principal and the staff and the students.

But hard times hit the school with the retirement of the Principal, who had been a strict disciplinarian even while devoting himself to the welfare of the students. The Vice-Principal could not be promoted because he was not qualified, and someone was brought in from outside, and factionalism it seems broke out.
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I wrote some weeks back about some welcome proposals for Reform decided on at the Parliament Advisory Committee on Education. I will now look at some other proposals that are also welcome, though I have written as follows to suggest they should be fleshed out in an imaginative fashion to ensure effectiveness.

a. 1.2.9 & 7.8 – The Principal is the backbone of the school, and should be empowered to decide on expenditure. Strengthening Principals and allowing them to run the school without constant reference to Education Offices is vital. However this should be accompanied by clear guidelines as to administration and accountability. Appointing an Administrative Secretary (4.2.4) to each school is an excellent idea, but there should be very clear job descriptions, and performance contracts for both the Principal and the Secretary. A strong School Development Society should be established, but with strict provisions against financial involvements, with heavy penalties to prevent contractual connections. Accountability should also be increased through reports to Grama Niladhari headed committees and through these to the Women and Children’s Units of Divisional Secretariats.

b. 1.2.15 – Private sector participation in education is desirable, with appropriate quality controls. This should be encouraged at all levels, including the training of teachers. The opportunity to teach in state schools should be subject to certification through state evaluation, but private and non-profit agencies should be encouraged to set up teacher training institutes, in particular for Science and Mathematics and Languages, and for English medium teaching.
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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 Secretary to Parliamentary Consultative Committees sent me earlier this month the latest Report of the Special Consultative Committee on Education, asking for observations. This had happened previously, with the previous version of the Report, but they forgot to write to me. I did respond hastily, when I got that Report, only to find that I was the only Parliamentarian to have done so. However, since other Parliamentarians told me they had not got the Report at all, I am not sure that I can fault my colleagues.

Be that as it may, I thought I should this time write comprehensively, welcoming the many positive suggestions in the Report, and noting other areas where further reforms are desirable. I will begin here with the first schedule to my reply, which looks at areas in which the Report suggests excellent measures which should be implemented as soon as possible. They represent a consensus of all Parliamentarians, so there is no reason for diffidence or lethargy

I hope therefore that all those interested in education and the need to provide better services to our children will take up these proposals and urge swift action. I should note, since I am sure many will be concerned with other areas that are equally important, that the Report covers much ground, and they will find that other areas are also addressed. The classic vice of belittling some benefits that seem less important should be avoided, though there is every reason also to request action with regard to benefits that seem more important.
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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2017
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