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SriEquity for children through quality education Lanka has every reason to be proud of its record on education, in comparison with those of other countries in the region. But we should also remember that we had a similar leading position many years ago, and others are catching up. Indeed other countries in Asia have forged ahead, so we really need to stop making comparisons with those who started off far behind us, and should indeed concentrate on making things better for all our children.

For the fact is, educational disparities are still excessive. Another problem is that our children are not getting the type of education needed in the modern world. And we have done little about ensuring acquisition of the soft skills essential for productive – and lucrative – employment.

Unfortunately those who make decisions on education now do not take these problems seriously. The manner in which education reform has been delayed indicates that those in charge of the system have no interest in change. This has been the case for most of the last three quarters of a century, following the seminal changes made by CWW Kannangara when he was Minister of Education, and make equity and quality and variety his watchwords. Though there have been some exceptions, notably when Premadasa Udagama and EL Wijemanne and Tara de Mel were Secretaries to the Ministry, given the self-satisfaction of most of those in authority, even their contributions were limited.

I saw ample evidence of the lethargy in the system when I was finally sent statistics with regard to teacher availability in the poorer Districts of the Northern Province. At first glance the situation seemed acceptable, but this was because statistics are collated on the basis of Educational Zones. These often combine urban and rural areas, so that it looks like there are sufficient teachers in place. In reality however teachers are concentrated in urban areas, and it is only when one checks on teacher availability in individual schools, or in Educational Divisions, as I do during Reconciliation Meetings at Divisional Secretariats that one realizes how deprived the poorer areas are.

It has been recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, which has now been discussing reforms for over four years, that Zones be abolished, and Divisions treated as the unit of significance, but nothing has been done about this.

Another problem is the appalling paucity of teachers at Primary level. The teaching of English suffers worst perhaps in this regard, and this means that the victims of this have no hope at all of learning English. Given the manner in which syllabuses are constructed and implemented, the poorer children, who generally have no foundation, have no hope of getting one, let alone building on it. Though we tried when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education to introduce remedial activity into the curriculum, this initiative was stopped in its tracks by the so-called professional educationists who took over after my term was cut short for political reasons.

But in any case that is not the solution, and we should be doing more to strengthen the training and deployment of primary teachers. But given that the Ministry has failed to solve this problem for decades, it is not likely that it has any hope of improving things on its own. However the idea of developing partnerships with private institutions, or even with Provincial Ministries, to increase supply is anathema to those who have enjoyed their debilitating monopoly for so long.

The same goes with regard to another eminently sensible initiative the Ministry has recently started. I refer to the establishment of a Technical Stream in schools, in recognition of the need to train students for the world of work that many of them could satisfactorily enter. Unfortunately this initiative is confined to a very few schools, and even in some of these there are not enough teachers. Unfortunately it has not struck the Ministry that it should also simultaneously instituted mechanisms to develop teacher supply. Read the rest of this entry »

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

I was privileged last week to attend the 5th South Asia Economic Summit that was held in Islamabad, with active participation by South Asian academics, politicians, government officials and think tanks. The theme was ‘Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia’, and almost all participants stressed the need for equity in the developmental process. The one exception, according to the Chairman of the Bangladesh Centre for Policy Dialogue, one of the cooperating partners for the event, was my old friend Nadeem Ul Haque, former IMF Representative in Sri Lanka, now Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.

Nadeem’s point, made in his usual combative but convincing fashion, was that we had to ensure growth first, before thinking of inclusivity. However I think Rehman Sobhan was wrong to suggest that Nadeem was practically neo-liberal in his approach, believing that the trickle down effect of growth would suffice to fulfil the social aspirations of countries wedded, at least now, to the democratic process. Nadeem had after all shown himself deeply committed while in Sri Lanka to reform of the education system, so as to enhance opportunities, which is after all one of the best ways of promoting equity.

That had been the theme of my inaugural speech. I had been somewhat diffident when I was first asked to address the gathering at its opening session, given my relative ignorance of economics (the dismal science as the Victorians termed it, to my mind based on the same epistemic principles as astrology, as opposed to the accessible certainties of the hard sciences). However it turned out that the points I made recurred in several of the presentations that followed, and the Pakistan papers highlighted some of the general points I made, including the  need for attitudinal change as well as better technical skills.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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