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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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To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.

The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.

That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.

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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 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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I have been deeply upset in recent months, at meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings in the North, at the continuing failure to address the problem of teacher shortages in key subjects. While there is heartening appreciation of the rebuilding of schools, at much better levels than ever before, I am constantly told that there are insufficient teachers for English and Maths and Science. Of course I know this is a problem elsewhere in the country too, but that is no excuse. Given that it is those in rural communities who suffer most, I can only hope that those concerned with basic rights will at some stage institute legal action to ensure equity in education, and force government to look at alternative systems of teacher training and teacher supply, instead of sticking with the statist centralized model that has so signally failed for so long.

Significantly, I am rarely told about shortages of teachers for computing, but this does not mean that they are available. This was brought home to me graphically when I was discussing plans for use of some of my decentralized budget for education in Rideegama in Kurunagala. While I have over the last few years used part of the budget in the North, for entrepreneurship training for former combatants and this year for Vocational Training in Mullaitivu, and the rest in Ratnapura, where we concentrated on school education and English, I thought I should also do more further afield, given that the Liberal Party has a couple of Pradeshiya Sabha members in Rideegama.

I had wanted to do English classes, and these will now be conducted in three GN divisions, through the Sabaragamuwa English Language Teaching Department, which had done the teacher training in Sabaragamuwa. But to my surprise I was also asked for computer training, in particular for Ordinary Level students, since there are hardly any computer teachers in the schools in the area.

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The note that Save the Children kindly prepared for me on Children’s Clubs also noted the Objectives of the National Children’s Council, viz

  • To promote the discipline, protection, development and participation of Sri Lankan children
  • To ensure that Sri Lankan children are equipped with creative skills and would shoulder the national development.
  • To create a patriotic, morally sound, healthy and joyful generation of children.

While this may seem a catch all process, the note went on to say that ‘Children representing the National Children’s Council have also been consulted on various issues that affect all Sri Lankan children such as physical and humiliating punishment and violence against children both at national and international levels.

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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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Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 1

Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 2

In welcoming the initiative of the armed forces to get involved in communication, and in what might be termed Public Diplomacy, I noted how the failure to have planned coherently is apparent in the manner in which Development has been targeted in the North. Infrastructure has been created apace, and certainly we have done much to put in place the tools through which livelihoods can take off. But we have not worked systematically on the training that should also be provided to ensure maximum usage of the opportunities that are available. Thus, though we knew from the start that there would be much construction, no schemes were put in place in much of the Wanni to start vocational training for the purpose.

I still recall some months back having a discussion with a bright young man from the Ministry of Economic Development in Mannar, and pointing out that such training should have been thought of. He agreed, but it was obvious he did not think it was his responsibility to have thought of such things. He may have been correct, but it should have been someone’s responsibility. It is precisely because that sort of holistic thinking is lacking in our much fragmented public service that I believe the forces have a role to play in promoting it.

Similarly, we have no systematic records of what has been achieved, and in particular the input of government and of local agencies into the process of rebuilding. We produce lots of glossy booklets, but we fail to produce clear pictures of actual outcomes. I am reminded then of what happened with regard to preparations for the displaced, when we had elaborate plans, which were clearly impractical. In fact they were used by our critics to say that we wanted wonderful facilities so that we could keep the displaced incarcerated for long periods. Much time then was spent arguing over the plans, and little was done, and it was only because of the enormous energies of General Chandrasiri, who was put in charge of the process a short time before the conflict ended, that Manik Farm was got ready in time to provide at least basic shelter to so many. I still recall him getting down to yet more work at dusk, when everyone else was packing up for the day, and the international community claimed it was not allowed to stay out so late. That to my mind was yet another example of the forces having to step in to salvage an operation that civilians – including experienced international aid workers, though the responsibility I should add was more ours – could, and should, have planned better. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily News 7 Jan 2013

At a regional consultation last week 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.

The absence of such teachers in many schools, or the failure to encourage them to use their social gifts effectively, is perhaps what leads to a situation in which ‘school-based education is often perceived as irrelevant’, as the position paper for the consultation put it. Of course there are other factors, such as the tuition culture which seems almost sanctified now, and the fact that many teachers in schools give tuition and expect their own pupils to attend their classes. But underlying this is the assumption that education is a top down process, and not a partnership, in which teachers and students work together towards a common goal.

That word was a key element in the discussion we had. The organization that had brought us together has innovative vocational training programmes in Sri Lanka and India and Nepal, which ensures multiple ownership of its activities. On the job internships are an essential part of the training, and we were privileged to meet four products of their programmes, 3 urban Muslim girls and 1 boy from a rural background, who were all now gainfully employed – two beauticians, one tailor and one in the retail trade, for which it is now increasingly being realized, training in soft skills and in particular customer relations is essential. Incidentally, in a context in which businesses are finding rapid turnovers in staff in some areas in the North, it would make much sense to introduce this type of training programme that develops appropriate attitudes as well as skills. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013

 

In the last segment of this presentation, I will look at a number of factors that have to be taken into account in assessing possibilities of effective coordination. Some of them relate to government machinery, and some to the work of NGOs.

  1. Government officials have difficulties about preparing and implementing plans coherently because they have to report to many political masters.

In earlier times, government officials in particular areas related to Ministers for particular subjects and to individual Members of Parliament in whose constituency they functioned. Senior officials such as Government Agents had to relate to Members of several constituencies, but this was in terms of just one for each area.

Now however all Members in a District feel and exercise responsibilities within the whole District. In addition, government officials also have to relate to Provincial Council Members – many of them for each District taken as a whole – and to elected local government representatives, again many of them for each area.

The result  can be conflicting instructions and conflicting priorities. This also leaves little room for initiative of the part of the official. Previously such initiatives could be explained to political representatives and taken forward together, but with so many masters, it is natural for most officials to adopt more passive approaches. This applies also to suggestions that come from Civil Society, including NGOs, since it is easier to respond only to political proposals, given how many of these there can be.

 

  1. NGOs no longer function purely altruistically.

Until a couple of decades back, aid organizations provided support to those in need. They did this through initiatives that supported government programmes, or else through individual projects based on local needs. Their lead agents were primarily philanthropists who did not live off the work they did.

In more recent times however aid organizations have become businesses that provide livelihoods to the personnel who work in them at all levels. As with all businesses that have career structures, there is a relentless tendency to enhance those careers by increasing the size and influence of the business. NGOs wish to have a decisive say in policies and practices wherever they operate. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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