The Furniture Project allowed me a wonderfully peripatetic existence over the next three years. In the first year, the government had agreed with the British to provide furniture in three districts, namely Trincomalee and Anuradhapura and Amparai. I had to check on the quality of the furniture and the distribution, and I found wide disparities in the integrity and efficiency of the various officials with whom we dealt. Though one of the aims of the project had been to provide employment in the target districts, some assumed that their areas would not be able to produce furniture of the required quality, and handed over the contracts to large establishments in Moratuwa. In some areas, the distribution was skewed, with schools getting less than they were allocated, either because of dishonesty, or else because schools not on the list cajoled what they wanted from complaisant officials. A frequent problem was that desks and chairs meant for primary children had been given for the use of secondary classes.
At the end of the Project however the desk officer at ODA remarked that this had been one of the best monitored projects they had implemented. Finding out later how shoddily aid is often administered, I am not surprised that they thought my work good. But I should confess that I also did it so thoroughly because I enjoyed travelling the length and breadth of the land, I loved going into schools and finding out what was going on, I used to check on English and other academic aspects during my visits, with John’s active encouragement, and I sent comprehensive reports to government officials as well as the British paymasters.
By 1989, with war raging again, it was clear that the project as planned would be useless, since schools in remote areas to which furniture was delivered would be likely to suffer damage again. We proposed therefore that ODA bestow its largesse elsewhere, to Districts that could be said to have been affected by war. By stretching the definition of this somewhat, we managed to get support for schools in Matale and Matara and Anuradhapura, as well as Amparai, if I remember aright.
I found out then how utterly deprived many parts of these Districts were. I had thought of Matale as relatively affluent, but the Laggala-Pallegama area was amongst the most poverty stricken I had seen, and areas in Deniyaya were similar. In Kebetigollewa I remember lecturing a principal on the fact that his students were falling asleep in class, but he gently reminded me that they had had to spend several nights in the forest for fear of terrorists.
Many schools had hardly any teachers on Mondays and Fridays, since the ridiculous scheme of recruitment we had for the country as a whole meant that the vast majority of recruits were from the Western Province. If they had to serve in difficult areas, they went home for the weekends, assuming that Monday and Friday were meant for travel. English teachers were of course few and far between, but I realized too the great shortage of Maths and Science teachers.
But in the midst of all this one also found schools in which capable principals and dedicated teachers achieved much with little. It struck me then that we should ensure much better training of principals, give them more authority, and then hold them accountable through monitoring rather than interference. It was obviously desirable too to start school based recruitment of teachers, since the system of transferability meant that teachers allocated to remote areas spent much time and energy in getting themselves out. Since everyone in Sri Lanka has some contact with someone with influence, and since one can always argue a case based on justice if others have got the transfers they wanted but were not entitled to, the task of ensuring that teachers stayed in rural schools was well nigh impossible.
I was delighted then that the Mahinda Chintanaya advocated school based recruitment. Unfortunately the traditions of the Ministry of Education cannot be shaken, and the system has not changed.
So we continue to believe that a stronger Minister would ensure an equitable distribution of teachers, when it is clear that good Ministers have failed miserably over half a century. Logic dictates that the system needs to be changed, but logic has nothing to do with it, when vested interests hold sway.
It was obvious that the system of book production and distribution also needed to be changed. Many rural schools had simply not received their quotas for the year. Centralized distribution, with no real accountability or system of prompt response to grievances, meant that the weakest went to the wall. Often we found stacks of books in district and divisional offices, waiting for principals who were without resources to come and collect them.
With English books there was a special problem, in that their content was far beyond many students in remote schools. After I had got used to this I recall feeling thrilled when a teacher said, in response to a question as to whether the students could follow the texts, that on the whole they could, though a few words were difficult. When I congratulated him on their skills, he said he was talking about himself, not the students. One reason for the mess, I realized, was that many students learnt nothing in the lower grades, and then they were expected to follow advanced books with no remedial teaching being done. The system demanded that teachers plough through the books, without ensuring first that the foundation existed on which learning in any year had to be constructed.
This was one reason I urged John to develop and distribute low cost readers, and he took up the idea enthusiastically. We must have produced over 100,000 primary readers alone, in addition to about half as many again for older students, if the 20,000 copies of ‘English for Us’ are included. We sold the books at Rs 5 or 10, and were mobbed whenever we went to schools. A few workshops were held and I think several teachers found the books very useful. Twenty years later, I have used some of my decentralized budget as an MP to reprint some of those books and distribute them , after training, in Districts in the North and in the South.