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One of the main problems faced by officials involved in the care of children is the lack of precise structures with aims and reporting mechanisms. The task of the NCPA and the Probation Department, whether they are combined or simply work together coherently, involves several dimensions. They must deal with the real needs of children and families instead of being governed by archaic concepts of control. They must understand their responsibility for policy, and ensuring accountability, without dissipating energies on service delivery, which should be left to local officials.

For this purpose they must ensure structured linkages, with other central ministries as well as provincial bodies, and promote multi-disciplinary networking, This requires strong community representation and linkages, withe staff employed on the basis of appropriate skills, with mechanisms for constant training.

The other institution within the Ministry of Child Development is the Children’s Secretariat. Currently this concentrates on children under 5, but its responsibilities should be extended to cover all children. Though other government agencies will provide education and health etc, the Secretariat should promote children’s rights in the fullest sense, and ensure holistic development. Its officials should liaise with officials at Divisional level to monitor progress and satisfactory delivery of services, and conformity to national standards. They must liaise with officials of the Ministries of Health and Education to develop guidelines for action and appropriate areas for intervention.
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I was involved last week in a Round table discussion on Education for All – Challenges in South Asia, organized by Aide et Action, an NGO which implements excellent vocational training programmes in the south, and more recently, in the north of Sri Lanka. Its programme is entitled ‘ILEAD’, and is based on the assumption that students need to be empowered, not only with skills, but also with the confidence to take initiatives on their own.

Earlier this year I was privileged to attend an Awards Ceremony in Ambalangoda, along with the French ambassador, since the NGO is in France though it is now internationalized. The enthusiasm of the students, and also their commitment – in donating a computer to the Centre – was remarkable. More recently I gather the Centre in Vavuniya has had such a positive impact that the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation has requested their assistance for programmes for former Combatants too.

Their characteristically comprehensive background paper had a section on Sri Lanka, which deserves citing in full. While they make no bones about laying the blame for the breakdown in education in the North, and the consequent suffering of children, on the LTTE, they also describe clearly the problems that remain, and which it is the responsibility of government to resolve.
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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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As indicated in the suggestions I advanced in these columns for Parliamentacy Reform, I had had no great regard for Parliamentary Consultative Committees as they function now, because they rarely contribute to policy making, which should be one of their prime concerns. An exception initially seemed to be the Education Committee, which way back in 2010 began to consider the suggestions for educational reform that had been drawn up by a committee appointed for this purpose by the previous Minister.

Unfortunately, though initially the Committee attracted enthusiastic participation from several Members of Parliament, this tailed off as more and more stakeholders were brought to the Committee, essentially to say the same thing – that the situation was dire, and what had existed in their times was much better. The points made were usually admirable, but the Consultative Committee was not the place for them. They should have been asked to send in brief notes, and if necessary expand on them to the original committee, while a synthesis could have been presented to the Parliamentary Committee.

The Committee seemed by the end of the year to have meandered into nothingness, when it was given a new lease of life by the appointment of Mr Grero to monitor the work of the Ministry. He managed to synthesize very effectively, and a series of further meetings took place earlier this year, though unfortunately I could attend few of them because of other commitments.
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In considering the crisis that has hit our education system so comprehensively in the last few months, I have begun to wonder whether we have not been the victims of our own success. We were doing extremely well with regard to mass education when we got independence 64 years ago, in part because of Kannangara’s visionary reforms, but also because he had a high standard to aim at through the private and public schools that were flourishing at the time – thanks to Anglican missionaries, Catholic educationists, and determined Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social visionaries led by Colonel Olcott.

So we rested on our laurels, and thought the percentages in the education system, and our literacy rates, fantastic, and particularly so with regard to girls. We were far ahead of not only other South Asian countries in this regard, but of most Asian countries too. And though many have overtaken us, and the others are catching up, we still feel complacent.

The effect our initial success may have had came home to me when, in Islamabad recently, I was given a presentation on the system they have developed by the Pakistan Army Public Schools & Colleges Secretariat. They started by telling me that the army had decided to set up schools way back in the seventies because, in may areas in which they had stations, there were no good schools. Indeed in some areas there were no schools at all.
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A friend from England who was visiting recently was surprised when someone of the same age, with a son doing O/Levels, just as her daughter is, was not deeply concerned about what the youngster would do next. I thought her concern excessive, until it struck me that Sri Lankans living in Colombo are as concerned as she is about the educational prospects of their children. It is the rural folk who think less about the matter.

Obviously this is not because they are less concerned about what their children will do. Rather, it is because there is no point in thinking. In the vast majority of rural areas, there are simply no alternatives for the children. They have to go through the school system for what it is worth, many of them without opportunity to do well in Maths or Science, so that they would have options as to careers.

So they strive desperately to do well in their O/Levels, with the sole aim of going through to the next step on the ladder, which is A/Levels. Here life is even more competitive, and they strive even harder, with hours spent travelling to and from tuition classes where such are available (and sometimes whole days over the weekend spent in those classes) to qualify for university.
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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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On August 24th the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs held a consultation on children’s issues which brought together the various agencies working on the subject in his Ministry, together with representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Department and the police, as well as some Non-Governmental Organizations that have contributed significantly to the promotion of the Rights and the Welfare of Children.

The purpose was better coordination, and the meeting followed on a request the Secretary had sent to his counterpart in Public Administration, requesting that he ask Divisional Secretaries to set up a Unit in each Division for Women’s and Children’s Affairs to ensure more coherent action. He noted there the various officials dedicated to this purpose, which include Women Development Officers, Child Rights Protection Officers, and Early Childhood Development Officers responsible to his Ministry. Others concerned with the issue include officials of the National Child Protection Authority, also under his Ministry, and Probation Officers who function under Provincial Ministries. The Unit would also need the close cooperation of officers from the Women and Children’s Desks that the Police have now established nationwide, effectively as far as the North is concerned, though I cannot speak for other areas.

One of the decisions made at the Consultation was that clear job descriptions should be drawn up for all these officials, to ensure comprehensive coverage of all areas whilst avoiding overlaps. At the same time it was noted that ensuring comprehensive coverage at all levels would require a division of responsibilities on a geographical basis, with one officer monitoring activities in a particular area and reporting on these to colleagues.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2019
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