, , , , , , , ,

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.

That Ranil is merely engaging in sentimental meddling became clear to me when the ADB, having welcomed the reforms we were engaging in, told me that they should happen in the school system. I told them that I had gathered that proposals for reform were being formulated, but they told me that these were relatively useless, and harked back to now outdated ideas. I was subsequently sent the list of proposed interventions, as well as the ADB comments on these, and it is quite clear that Ranil has learned nothing new.

Amongst the many sensible suggestions ADB made was with regard to the very general declaration that the national curriculum would be revised. They noted that ‘not only the structure, but also the contents and delivery of curriculum should be reformed for better relevance to modern society, more focusing on nurturing ability to learn, absorb and apply knowledge rather than learning static knowledge itself. The first step would be establishing the competency standards for students for 21st century skills as many comparator (sic) countries (i.e., Vietnam) did.’

Similarly, with regard to the very general assertions that the curricular would be diversified and new subjects introduced, ADB commented that ‘Considering the current curricula is already very packed for the limited learning hours, introducing new subjects, without rationalizing the whole curriculum, would be not a good idea. Existing curricular needs to be reviewed and reformed so that existing subjects are rationalized and become more relevant to the modern economy and job requirements.’

I had meanwhile, following study of the SLQF requirements which in essence ignored the Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations, formulated a list of competencies that the general education system should seek to develop at those levels. These were circulated to the National Education Commission as well as to the Prime Minister’s committee, given the need both the UGC Chairman and I had noted of reforms at school level.

I suggested in those papers that ‘Students with a General Certificate of Education at Ordinary Level should have –


  • Basic communication skills including the ability, in mother tongue and another language, to

Introduce themselves

Express themselves politely and appropriately

Frame and respond to simple questions

Ask for and offer help

Make suggestions

Follow simple instructions

Describe places

Give directions

Participate actively in conversations

Express likes and dislikes with reasons

And, in mother tongue, to present and respond to reasons and arguments


  • Literacy in mother tongue and another language, as to reading and understanding and writing, with the capacity to

Form letters and use basic punctuation correctly

Find relevant information from a text

Infer the meaning of words

Scan for particular information and skim for general gist

Understand basic notices, instructions and information

Follow a simple story and answer questions about it

Write a short message  

Pay due attention to spelling and grammar

And, in mother tongue, to read and write simple and coherent descriptions and narratives


  • Numeracy, with the ability to

perform basic mathematical functions

understand the concept of proportionality and calculate percentages

be able to shop and pay and get the correct change

 calculate size and weight and area


  • The ability to read and extract information from maps and charts and tables


  • Participated in activities that

promote socialization and teamwork

organizational capacity, with the ability to divide up tasks for efficiency

develop understanding of the needs of other people, and tolerance and the ability to empathize


  • Simple technical competencies, and the ability, while observing safety requirements, to use simple tools and instruments such as a hammer, screwdriver, spanner, needle and thread, computer, gas cooker


  • Basic aesthetic understanding including the ability to

distinguish between different rhythms

 identify patterns

 represent moods and feelings through colours or sounds 


  • Understanding of concepts such as chronological order, sequencing, cause and effect, conditionality, and how to communicate these


  • Ability to work systematically and use tools or reasoning such as induction and deduction and comparison and contrasts and variables, so as to assess and analyse logically


  • Appreciation of social norms including the importance of

Grooming and Self Presentation

Taking Turns


Fulfilling responsibilities

Respecting other points of view

Planning, prioritization and time management


I also made some suggestions as to what a certificate at Advanced Level  should indicate, namely

‘Competencies at Ordinary Level plus

Cognitive knowledge of a particular subject or subjects involving

Understanding of the origins of such knowledge and its possible uses

The ability to explain the fundamentals of the subject

Its relationship to other branches of knowledge

Reading of at least three texts in the field by national or international scholars


General knowledge with regard to

The development of Scientific Knowledge and Method

The chronology of Sri Lankan History

Major international interactions

The development of governmental systems


Advanced communication skills including the ability, in mother tongue and another language, to

Express individual ideas, emotions, preferences

Frame and answer questions with regard to reasons and methods

Explain simple procedures

Understand and respond to complex instructions

Describe daily routines

Make and respond to introductions

Recognize the different vowel sounds, and complicated consonant sounds and use them correctively

Use phrasing correctly in speaking to maximize effect

Use pauses and emphases for effective speaking

Describe occupations

Conduct and respond to interviews

Describe pictures and images

Give dates

      Join ideas in sentences informatively

Express and explain ability and inability

         Identify locations

Describe states in the past

Describe a process sequentially


Advanced literacy in mother tongue and another language, as to reading and understanding and writing coherent and informative descriptions  and narratives, with the ability to

Write short introductions (self, friends, places)

Write about how they feel, and give reasons why, in simple sentences

Write short dialogues such as in speech bubbles, picture stories or comics

Understand and respond to signs and simple notices

Read and write simple texts and notes, including information about times, dates and places. E.g. they can:

Write about what they like doing in their free time

Understand texts with the help of pictures

Continue a story or text that has been started or add words that are missing

Connect sentences meaningfully

Read and carry out instructions

Understand/produce arguments

Read/write longer texts and summarise them

Make up a story using given ideas, pictures or words Prepare reports

Prepare charts

Write Personal and Official Letters

Apply for jobs

Express effectively relations of time and reason and conditionality

And, in mother tongue, to read and understand and respond to, and also write and defend, analyses and assessements


Advanced functional numeracy with the ability to calculate prices, proportions, quantities for particular requirements

Participation in group activities that involving planning and awareness of social responsibilities, including organization of a public or social service event (concert, exhibition, shramadana)

Understanding of how to access government services with regard to health, career guidance and employment, social services, and the targeting mechanisms involved

The capacity to

Identify patterns and systems

Understand the concept of variables

Note differences and similarities and recognize what is relevant

Think clearly and in sequence

Think laterally and outside the box

Classify and categorize

Assess quality

Calculate systematically

Develop visual thinking capacity

Check a hypothesis

Collate information systematically


Work cohesively with others through

Planning a group activity, allocating responsibilities and reporting results

Appreciating the advantages of working together

Understanding the characteristics of different people and the impact these have

Speaking persuasively and responding positively to others

Understanding of team process


Understand how to engage in individual learning and effective work through

Engaging in reference work

Collecting information about the world and practices elsewhere

Organizing information systematically

Recording and assessing information to solve problems systematically

Understanding chronological order           

Developing the concepts of mind and task mapping and applying them

Classification where different variables are involved

Understanding governmental structures and coordination mechanisms

Collecting information and preparing development plans

Making Chronological Charts

Moving from the known to the unknown

Organising individual time management

Being aware of their own skills and abilities

Presenting themselves positively


Ability to work with computers so as to enter information swiftly and store it systematically, retrieve it easily, communicate on email, and use social media and messenger systems with due attention to ethics


Certification should depend on the planning and implementation of implement two group projects, one with regard to environmental protection / conservation, the other a social service project in response to identified community needs. Students should plan the project systematically, target specific outcomes, report on progress, present results to an audience and evaluate the project on completion.’

These were suggestions and I made it clear that better ideas were welcome, but none were forthcoming. And there has been no progress since, and I do not think the officials who run the Prime Minister’s committee, despite promising to do so, have placed the concepts before him. Meanwhile the Secretary to the Ministry of Education, under whom the proposals were submitted to the ADB, has retired and there is no clarity about how the proposals are to be taken forward.

How rotten the situation was in the Ministry of Education became clear from the serial changes that have taken place at the NIE which is supposed to be its operation arm for curricula. Akila Viraj had appointed Gunapala Nanayakkara to run that body, which might have seemed a good idea given the efficient track record of the man, except that there were several queries about his integrity with regard to his stint in Dubai. Earlier this year he was replaced by a former Deputy Director General of the NIE, who had been eased out by a previous Director General.

Meanwhile the Board of Management of the NIE had not met in months. There had been vast disagreements there, and this culminated in a few academics, appointed to the Board in the early days of their honeymoon with the government, being summarily dismissed. Unseemly allegations were made on either side, but these were not highlighted in the Sri Lankan media, lending credence to the claim that the present government is much more effective in insidious censorship than the last one.

A sub-committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s Committee to look into General Education recommended that the Chairs of the University Grants Commission and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission be appointed to the Board, and Mr Balendra promised to take this up with the Prime Minister, but that was a couple of months back, and nothing has been heard about this since. Meanwhile there seems no commitment to ensuring the reforms that are vital if our children are to get the sort of education required for productive employment in the 21st century.

Ceylon Today 26 Nov 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9984