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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.

The Northern Province I believe was able to recruit just three teachers in the Tamil medium, while in the East they taught the subject in towns but not in areas such as Gomerankadawala where students would have really appreciated the opportunity. Elsewhere, the Ministry of Education used teachers from the Vocational Training system, but this meant that the institutions under that Ministry suffered.

When I took over as Chairman I asked what was happening, and was told by our energetic Secretary that he had asked, but had been told that the Ministry did not need our teachers any more. This turned out to be nonsense, and the shortage continues. We therefore decided to begin Diploma courses in Technology and Education, and extended the concept to English and Education too, given the shortage of English teachers. And the very able current chair of the Academic Affairs Board of the NIE has contributed to a syllabus for a Diploma in Working Mathematically and Education, though I do not think the institutions under our Ministry will be able to offer this in the coming year.

The course is based on a very simple philosophy, which is practice and practice and practice. So there will be only six months of centre based instruction. For technical subjects, we will assume that the students have knowledge of the basics, since they would have passed their Advanced Levels in this stream. So they will be given greater exposure to practical application of what they have learnt, and will then go on to three months working in industry, to understand actual employer requirements. I should add that the Sector Skills Councils emphatically welcomed the idea, understandably enough given their underlying perception that the Sri Lankan education system is too theoretical.

After this sting of practical work experience, the students will have three months of teaching practice, being ideally equipped by this stage we hope to teach our Level 3 students. We hope too that they could help in schools where teachers are not available for technical subjects at junior secondary level. They will then get their Diploma, with the possibility of going on to a Higher Diploma, or else continuing to teach. In our system, possessing a Level 5 Diploma suffices for teaching at Level 3, and we hope the school system will also accept this principle, at least on a probationary basis.

The same will apply with regard to those who follow the English and Education Diploma that we shall also be starting. Its products will be ideal teachers for our Level 1 Certificate Course in Building Career Skills, and that will enable us to satisfy the enormous demand that has built up. Just last week one of the Skills Development Officers we were training expressed his deep disappointment about the fact that, after he had run a programme to enlighten school leavers about opportunities in the Vocational Training sector, and many had asked for English courses, the Technical College at Galle could only accommodate 150 of the 900 odd who applied.

Interestingly he also mentioned two other problems he had faced. One was a missive from the Department of Technical Education and Training which claimed that that Department did not offer language courses. I was astonished at this since, at the time he claimed the letter reached him, the Department had already piloted our first course, extremely successfully. And the new head of English at DTET has been amongst the most innovative of teacher administrators, able to grasp the need for soft skills as well as English, and to take charge of training as well as assessments for all agencies conducting the course, including the Youth Corps and the Bureau for Foreign Employment.

The ban on languages, which had indeed been imposed a few years back, to stop the very popular English courses the Department conducted in those days, was based on a mistaken interpretation of what was termed a Development Plan prepared in the early 90s. Though being completely outdated, it has not been superseded, despite the requirement in the Act that one should be produced every five years. We have replaced this provision in the draft of a new act with the need for constant revision of policy in the light of emerging social and economic needs.

Meanwhile I have asked to see the letter, since it may have been sent by officials who believe that change should be resisted – unless indeed it is change that restricts opportunities as with the decision to stop English classes a couple of years back. Unfortunately we have a State Minister who, perhaps because of the rivalries the current coalition seems to entrench, also seems determined to turn back the clock. The same SDO told me that they had also been told by the State Minister that languages should not be taught. I hope that both he and I are wrong, and that the gentleman is indeed the enlightened individual I have known when I converse with him. I have asked to see the letter, which will make the position clear.

But it is possible that he has indeed begun to interfere in areas which are not his concern, because I was told recently that he has requested a report on the textbooks we have produced. On the same day he did this, he sent a letter to the Prime Minister with wild allegations of corruption. I am not sure what stirred him to this, but the Minister, who is more laid back about such matters, thought there was a connection with the fact that I had registered the responsibility of the Prime Minister for the bond scam and the blow to the economy perpetrated by Arjuna Mahendran’s interpretation of his directive that bonds should be placed only through auctions. If indeed this was sincere advice, though it made no economic sense except to someone in total thrall to the market, it should have entailed advertising the amount to be placed. What was obviously wrong was the hole and corner stuff Mahendran engaged in, advertising a billion and then wanting 20 billion taken, and finally compelling his staff to take 10 billion against their professional objections.

The Prime Minister has of course taken Ranga Bandara seriously, and decided to investigate the system through which I got excellent textbooks prepared in record time, and distributed to several agencies including his own Youth Corps. That is a small price to pay for pointing out unpleasant truths. But it is splendidly ironic that he should be working on a complaint made by Palitha Ranga Bandara.

Given the absurdity of the Ranga Bandara allegations, I should welcome the inquiry except for the time it has taken my staff to deal with them, time that could rather have been spent on productive action. What is more worrying is the possibility that Ranil, for his own emotional satisfaction, will sabotage the good work we are now doing at the Ministry. He is after all a specialist in cutting off the country’s nose to spite its fact, as I saw when he tried to destroy English medium when we introduced it way back in 2001.

At the time I thought, as Tara de Mel suggested, that his opposition was because of jealousy that she and Chandrika had introduced it, but I wonder now whether my involvement was also not a reason for resentment. After all his refusal when Karunasena Kodituwakku wanted me to stay on as a Consultant can, on hindsight, have been due only to personal vindictiveness.

As usual, he cloaked his motives in sanctimonious generalities. Kodituwakku told me that he had said I could be kept on if I did the job full time, but of course he knew that was impossible since I was also acting as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages at Sabaragamuwa University at the time – and also Coordinating the Degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy. But in all those areas there was absolutely no worries that I was not doing the job properly. Indeed, when the students asked me to take on the position of Dean, which is a full time post, and I said I could not since I had started work on English medium, they told me that half a week of my time was worth a week of anyone else’s. They were quite happy for me to take on the position in an Acting capacity, while around the same time the Commandant of the Military Academy said very simply that, while in the army there was a saying that no one was indispensable, he wanted it placed on record that I was indispensable for the success of the Degree programme in those early days.

But Ranil was determined to get rid of me from the English medium programme, and he succeeded, against the wishes of the Minister. Needless to say, I was not replaced by a full time appointment, and the programme nearly died. It was only after his brother complained to me, and I brought up the matter with him and realized that Ranil wanted to close it down, that I asked to see Chandrika, and she dealt with the problem so that it was not stopped in the few months that remained to him.

Now though personal vindictiveness may lead to further sabotage of our initiatives. I can only hope that the President, who has understood the need for greater coherence in education, will not let this happen, but will  ensure that they develop even more effectively than at present.

Ceylon Today 3 Dec 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=10426