A Final Educational Fling – 9. A fallow period as a Parliamentarian

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

Reading through the articles I have thus far written in this series, I realize that I might have given the impression that I am overwhelmed by work. To some extent this is true, and I am working harder than I have done for years. I suppose the high point of my labours, when I would sometimes be in one office before dawn and leave the other after dusk, was when I headed the Peace Secretariat and was also Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. But after that I had a fallow period, while I was a Member of Parliament.

I was not made a Minister as had I think been originally intended, which I did not worry about too much at the time, thinking that it would be good to get used to being a Parliamentarian and doing what I could in that role. I did not realize then how ridiculous is the role of a Parliamentarian in Sri Lanka, where committees meet rarely and then only to discuss parochial matters, not policy or wider issues. Initially though we did this last in the Education Committee, since we were asked to comment on the draft of a new Act, and that was quite interesting. Attendance indeed was good in those early days, but soon it became clear that the Minister had no interest in the matter, and gradually numbers dropped.

After several meetings, with endless repetition of the same ideas when he decided he had to invite all stakeholders and possible stakeholders to comment, the Minister allowed the matter to lapse. Mohanlal Grero made valiant efforts to revive it when he was appointed first Monitoring Member and then Junior Minister, but he is a mild man and had little impact. So six years later we are as far away from a new Act.

My own ethos is entirely different, which is why, during my brief period as State Minister of Higher Education, I worked swiftly on another casualty of the lethargy of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ministers and officials, the Higher Education Act. The Committee we appointed made rapid progress and, when I resigned, I told the President that I would complete this task. We submitted a new draft to him and the Ministry within a month, but no one was interested. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 8. Promoting coherence

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

One reason I am so irritated by the interference of the Prime Minister in the Vocational Education sector, when he should instead be trying to drill some sense into his Minister of Education, is that it causes confusion with regard to areas on which we have begun to make changes. Recently I was told that his committee had set up a committee to coordinate curricula for the tourism sector, but had forgotten to invite the TVEC. They had instead invited the Vocational Training Authority and, though the minutes of the first meeting indicated the need to involve TVEC, by the time of the second meeting this had been forgotten. And those who had set up the committee had failed to read through the relevant legislation, which would have made it clear that VTA was a delivering agency, whereas promulgating curricula was TVEC responsibility.

Meanwhile we had been moving on new curricula through the committee on the hospitality industry we had set up, as well as through the Tourism Industry Sector Council which the Sector Skills Development Programme team had tried to establish last year. That ran into some problems because they did not have hoteliers on it, but we have managed to change this and that too now seems ready to move forward.

So we had in November produced 3 month Level 2 course curricula for Room Attendants and Food and Beverage Service, which VTA is preparing to put into practice in January. This month we had moved on to curricula for Pastry and Baking and for Bartending. It was worrying then to be told that a curriculum reform process was going on elsewhere.

My initial reaction was to just ignore this, but I thought that would be irresponsible, so I asked that we be kept informed. There was a prompt apology and a gracious invitation to the next meeting, so I went, and felt there was much we could do together. In particular, though TVEC is responsible for NVQ curricula, we know that we do not have technical expertise and in this sector the lead should obviously be taken by the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hospitality Management. Its very able head, who chairs the sub-committee, shared the Hotel School curricula with us, and I thought that we should absorb some of the content in different subject areas. Conversely I feel they might benefit from a clear structure, and an inclusion of at least some aspects of the methodology to be adopted, which we now include in all NVQ curricula.

I did find, in exploring how we had developed our curricula, that there had been hotel school involvement, but it was not clear whether this had been formal. Some years back the Hotel School and TVEC had engaged in active collaboration, the former seeking NVQ status while TVEC sought their expertise to update what seemed not very productive curricula at the time. But with I think changes of personnel, this initiative lapsed, and worse there was little institutional memory on either side as to what exactly had been achieved. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 7. Greater inputs into education

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

One reason it is vital that the different institutions responsible for education work together is the continuing shortage of teachers in vital subjects. All our students need to improve in subjects such as English and Mathematics, but many rural schools have no teachers. There is also no proper training for teachers who take these subjects in primary school, and this means that, when students move on to secondary schools, they find it difficult to catch up, even when there are sufficient teachers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the system treats syllabuses as discrete entities and makes no provision for the fact that students must get to particular levels before they can move higher. I tried to introduce this idea when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, and introduced into the syllabus for each year, with regard to English for instance, the rubric that students should first demonstrate familiarity with the requirements of previous years before they moved on.

But I believe this clause was done away with, exacerbating the situation described by one of the scholarship students at Sabaragamuwa when I asked him how, being so bright, he had learned nothing despite doing 11 years of English at school. There were no teachers at his primary school, he said and, at the grand school he went to after doing well in the scholarship exam, they made no allowances for this. And even teachers who understand the problem and would like to help are prevented by the relentless pressure on them, from principals who may know no better, and In-Service Advisers who should know better, to finish the book rather than ensure that the components of the syllabus are understood.

Given the total failure of the Ministry over the last few decades to produce enough teachers, and to ensure that they teach students rather than the textbook, we have decided at the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training to also move into teacher education. Teaching after all was the profession about which the term ‘vocation’ was first used, and it certainly should be a vocation rather than merely a job.

The idea came when the Minister was mulling over the fact that the previous government had introduced a Technical stream to schools, but there was little provision for them to go on to further studies. I believe around 8000 have qualified for university but there are places for fewer than a quarter of these. In addition, what should have been a great opportunity for rural students without access to proper science teaching was squandered because the government had not made plans to provide enough teachers for the country at large. I realized how bad the situation was when, during my meetings in Divisional Secretariats for Reconciliation meetings, I found that few schools were offering the option because there weren’t enough teachers. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 6. The continuing mess in General Education

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

From the directions he gave as he took over the Ministry of Vocational Training and Skills Development, it is clear that Mahinda Samarasinghe understands his mandate and the obligations ministerial office entails. This is quite unlike most members of the Cabinet today, and they do not even have the excuse that was offered in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time when, as John Seneviratne put it when I told him to stop usurpation of his authority, that Basil Rajapaksa was doing that to everyone.

But, though Basil is not someone for whom I have any high regard, at least he worked hard and effectively in terms of his limited capacity. Human Resource Development was beyond him, but he did achieve much in terms of infrastructural development, in the North and East in particular. There is no sign of this now, and Ranil has entrusted areas where new directions are vital, Education and Higher Education for instance, or Tourism, or Industry and Commerce, or Rehabilitation, to individuals with limited conceptualizing or creative capacity.

Education is perhaps the most obvious example of Ranil’s weaknesses playing themselves out in a manner most destructive for the country. At the first meeting of the Committee he had set up to look into Vocational Training, both the UGC Chairman and I pointed out that, while we were doing our best, the rot lay in the school system and it was necessary to reform that swiftly. But obviously Akila Viraj, bless his soul, is not someone capable to spearheading such reforms.

Ranil must know that, and perhaps – as a bright official in the South put it in welcoming Akila Viraj’s appointment – he thought he would run education himself, and replicate his relatively effective work of the eighties. But obviously, given his other responsibilities he simply has no time to devote to this important subject. In 2001 he understood this, when he told me that he had to concentrate on developing the economy and had no time for education. That was his excuse for trying to abolish English medium, which he did not claim to oppose per se, it was simply that he had no time to attend to this and no one else was capable of seeing it through. But in appointing Akila Viraj this time round, given that the young man had no credentials at all for the position, unlike Karunasena Kodituwakku last time round, he seemed to indicate that he would himself intervene.

But instead of concentrating on nurturing young Akila Viraj, instead he has decided to interfere with an area in which there is a competent Minister. But this time round he does not have anyone experienced to advise him, unlike when Edward Wijemanne and D A Perera made the running in education. Instead he has selected Ken Balendra, who is a delightful character, but knows nothing about the subject, and was given no one to brief him. Thus he had no idea at all about the technological stream that had been introduced into the General Education system a few years back, and given the outsiders he had to work with, no one had brought this to the attention of the Committee in the month before I was able to attend a meeting. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 5. Skills Development essential in an Education system

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done 

In developing curricula, I had to bear in mind that vocational training was based on a system of what were termed National Vocational Qualifications. There were supposed to be 7 levels of these, and I was initially told that there were curricula for all these levels, but this turned out to be a myth, like much else in the Sector.

For Levels 1 and 2 there were hardly any syllabuses, though what were termed National Competency Standards did exist. At these levels they laid down general competencies, including with regard to English, but no curricula for these were available at the TVEC. I was told that in fact there had been no certification at this level, but then our Director of Administration, who had been saddled with the job of producing certificates (and did this most capably, though the task should not have been thrust on him in the first place) informed me that several of these had been issued for a course conducted by the National Youth Corps.

When I looked into the test paper on which the certificate was based, it had no connection with the Competency Standards that had been developed. Why and how the TVEC decided to award a certificate on the basis of that paper is still beyond me, but I rather suspect that the decision was not theirs.

Well before seeing what had actually happened to NVQ 1, we had decided that this should be a Foundation Course in Building Career Skills, with emphasis on English Communication. The Youth Corps, which seems now to have realized that its course and its exam paper (which had questions such as the name of the Grama Niladhari Division of the candidate) were not very helpful, has now adopted our curriculum, and finally sent some bright young teachers for training. But whether it will do the job properly remains to be seen, given that it has other dimensions to the course it conducts, and may not do justice to either the English or the Soft Skills component of our course. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 4. New Technical Curricula

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

The Sector Skills Councils, which obviously are more practical than government bureaucrats about getting value for money, all found the Skills Gap analysis which GreenTech had prepared deplorable. But I suspect that, had I not been there, they would have been commandeered into validating it. The former TVEC official who seemed to run the Sector Skills Development Project as far as outputs was concerned – understandably enough because he seemed the only person in the Project with actual experience of vocational training – thought that accepting it but suggesting some changes was necessary.

When I told the first Council that I attended that I was ashamed of the Report and felt TVEC could not recommend it, but they should decide what they felt, he obviously thought I had queered his pitch and later accused me into practically dragooning the Councils into rejecting the Report. The fact that they made detailed criticisms of the Report meant nothing to him, since his principal concern was delivering what he thought the World Bank and the ADB wanted, which was a validated report.

I can see why he behaved the way he did, because these agencies have continued to behave in Pavlovian fashion about what they term validation. In fact ADB, which is headed by an intelligent and sensitive Korean lady, had decided that GreenTech was useless and had immediately commissioned another report through ILO, which had been entrusted to Prof Chandrasiri of Colombo University, along with Ramani Gunatilleke, whom I knew slightly, enough to know that she was a serious and competent academic. When I read through the Report they produced, I found it incisive and remarkably helpful with regard to the further actions that were needed.

It was also quite clear about where the main problem lay. It stated categorically in the introduction that ‘Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills of large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing. ‘ Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 3. Involving industry

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

The third area in which Mahinda Samarasinghe decided that radical change was necessary in the vocational training sector was with regard to industry involvement. This was obviously essential in that there was no point in training youngsters for work if employers thought their training was inadequate. But there had been no concerted effort previously to involve businesses in developing curricula and in providing guidance to trainers.

The sector had benefited vastly from World Bank and Asian Development Bank projects in the preceding period, but there seemed little practical progress despite all the money that had been poured in. Of course several buildings had been put up, and several studies done at vast expense, but little effort had been made to ensure that the recommendations of these studies were carried out. Thus, any study one looked at indicated that soft skills, and in particular English communication capacity, were lacking in trainees, but nothing had been done about this. And no one had bothered to point out to the VTA that they could not expect their students to learn English if they had hardly any English teachers – 22 I think for 245 centres at the beginning of this year, with some of them hardly knowing English.

Many courses had very few students but no efforts had been made to understand the reasons for this or increase enrolment. Soon after I started work I found that Rs 30 million had been spent on what was termed social marketing, but no coherent system had been put in place to check on the impact on the campaign. When I pointed this out, I was asked by the head of the Sector Skills Development Project, which administered the funds, to chair the Committee that was supposed to deal with Social Marketing and Career Guidance. I think he saw this as his only hope of productive action, and further investigation indicated that indeed nothing practical had been done previously. Their plans for instance included no reference to social media, which first principles would have indicated could have been a major instrument of getting messages across to the young. And though the two subjects had sensibly enough been combined for the committee, hardly anything had been done about Career Guidance, except a workshop after which it was claimed that a model sector had been set up in Ratnapura. The impact expected of this model was not on record, and there had been no follow up to check on what it was doing. When I suggested this needed investigation, the Ministry finally visited the place and discovered that very little was going on. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 2. Setting priorities

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I had enjoyed working with Mahinda Samarasinghe when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and also during our many visits to Geneva when we staved of the efforts of the British (and then the Americans after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State) to stop us eliminating terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda gave the impression of being laid back in his approach, but he worked hard and studied his briefs. He was also capable of sharp insights and, on becoming Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, he worked out very quickly what was needed. Before asking me to help, he had identified three major problems, and I suppose he knew from my track record that I was the best person to help him resolve these.

First and foremost was the need to update courses, and in particular to introduce English and other soft skills. I had been the first to introduce Core Courses into universities, when I joined Sabaragamuwa University way back in 1997. This built on what Arjuna Aluwihare had started when he set up Affiliated University Colleges, but it was only at Sabaragamuwa that we introduced Critical Thinking, with exercises designed to make students recognize systems, understand the concept of variables, and ensure attention to relevance. Initially the students protested about what they saw as games playing, but later I recall a group telling me, when I attended a wedding of one of the brightest, that it was such aptitude tests that they were set when applying for jobs.

We also made both Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all students, in addition to English. When I insisted on a Third Language, my Sinhala and Tamil staff declared that students were no longer taught to write properly in mother tongue, and this should be remedied. I also introduced library studies, because I found that students had no idea how to find material in books, since they had not been taught the use of a contents page, let alone an index. I used to feel immeasurably sad, if for instance I asked them which countries neighboured China, as they rifled through the pages of the atlases we gave them instead of checking first where the relevant information was to be found. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 1. Accepting another task

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

When, just over a year ago, I was not put into Parliament, I thought it was time to call it a day. I had a house to live in, and a beautiful country cottage, I enjoyed reading and writing, and there seemed no point in knocking my head against brick walls. Though I continue to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa did more for this country as its leader than his two predecessors, I had registered the appalling nature of those who dominated the last years of his government, and had indeed dissected them throughout 2014 in numerous articles, in particular the series called ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs’. So I did not regret having worked for Maithripala Sirisena’s election as President in January 2015. But I realized that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka had been right in predicting that, decent though the President was, he would be dominated by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

I had hoped he would realize soon how awful both of them were, and how out of touch with the country at large, but this seemed to be taking a long time. He had allowed himself to be dragooned by them and their allies into calling an early General Election, contrary to his commitment to ensure that Electoral Reform was enacted before Parliament was dissolved. However I thought he then made the right decision in putting President Rajapaksa on the UPFA list for the General Election, since without him the UNP would have romped home.

But sadly polarizing forces made it impossible for the two of them to work together. I later told President Rajapaksa that he had to appreciate how nervous the President had been made by the pronouncements of some of the candidates on the UPFA slate, that they would destroy the President if they won a majority. Mahinda told me that the President should not have taken such pronouncements seriously, since they were uttered by youngsters, but it was a pity he did not rein such people in.

Indeed even experienced politicians such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara behaved foolishly in claiming that, with the election going well, the main task at hand was to make sure that those within the UPFA who had supported the President would not be elected. I told him this was utterly foolish, since campaigning in such a manner would confuse the voters. But once Vasu gets an idea into his head, he cannot think straight. Indeed he told me later that they had all been wrong in insisting that, were a vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister to succeed before Parliament had been dissolved, a Prime Minister acceptable to the UPFA group should be appointed.

He claimed that this was because they were a majority in Parliament, but he had obviously forgotten, as Ranil did way back in 2003, that the President had the power to dissolve Parliament whenever he wished. Continue reading

New Horizons – 15 – Transitions

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After Chanaka’s death I had to take charge of the Liberal Party, for there was no one else left of the intellectual giants Chanaka had gathered around him, or even his close friends, who had formed the core of the party. Asitha, who had been his principal ally when the Council for Liberal Democracy first went into action during the 1982 referendum, had let him down after the 1994 election, and joined the Muslim Congress to ensure he kept the Parliamentary seat of which he had deprived Chanaka. Before that, Rohan Edrisinha, Chanaka’s other great friend from schooldays, who had taken longer to part conclusively from the UNP when JR was in charge, had left the party along with Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu when we decided to support Premadasa in the 1993 Provincial Council elections.

In 1996 I tried to persuade both of them to come back, but by then they were well entrenched in the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which they had set up ironically enough with Bradman Weerakoon, who had been Premadasa’s right hand man. They thought now that they could achieve more through that, and Sara indeed did so in the years that passed, showing himself in the end inclined to move towards a UNP perspective. I was left then with relative newcomers, Harim Pieris who had been Deputy to Chanaka’s Secretary General, and Kamal Nissanka who had joined us as a paid researcher. They had proved reliable enough, but neither of them had the intellectual stature of Chanaka or Sara or Rohan. Shalini Senanayake, who had been employed as a Secretary, also continued to help, though we could no longer afford to keep her on in a paid position. Her sympathies were more with the UNP, for family reasons, rather than Liberalism. Unfortunately Nirgunan, who would have provided intellectual strength, had by now settled down in Singapore, though he continued supportive from afar.

I found the party in debt, for the projects that had funded the administration had long dried up. Indeed it turned out that the most recent one, to produce a manual of Liberalism for South Asia, was nowhere near conclusion, though the money advanced for its production had all been used up. Mrs Delgoda of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which had funded the volume, was desperate that it be finished and, with much cajoling and editing, I was able to oblige within a few months. Fortunately Chanaka’s articles had been in advanced draft form, and provided a thorough base for the volume, and Rohan and Sara eventually produced what they had agreed to do. Continue reading