A Final Educational Fling – 14. A Commonwealth Quartet

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

14It was at the Cambridge seminar I think, in February 2016, that I realized how much could be done to increase opportunities through vocational training. This was the way the world was heading and, unless someone took the lead, Sri Lanka would be left far behind.

It also became clear to me there, given the reactions to my presentations amongst the more innovative Indians, that I was uniquely equipped to introduce new ideas. I had greater experience of all aspects of education than anyone else in the country, having worked in universities and in the Ministry of Education, and then, while in Parliament, having devoted much attention, as well as funding from my decentralized budget, to vocational training centres. Then there was also the fact that had allowed me to do more to bring English to rural youngsters than others, namely that, with my academic qualifications, no one could claim that I was lowering standards.

Mahinda Samarasinghe was right then in saying that he knew that, once I became committed, I would devote myself to the task. But in March 2016 I had a few commitments, albeit of a personal nature, that kept me from embarking on the massive reforms I have already described.

The first was another trip to India, for a meeting of the Board of Aide-et-Action, organized together with a field trip to visit educational projects they were implementing for tribal communities. This was near the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which allowed for a safari into the Park, though once again I was not fortunate enough to see any tigers. But the Park was beautiful, and so was the Lodge at which we stayed, with a couple of stunning sunrises.

But even more impressive were the schools and creches the organization ran, with a couple of bright youngsters from urban areas devoting themselves in this remote outpost to building up teams amongst the tribal communities. It was heartening to see the innovative materials they used, ensuring that the children did not lose their mother tongue, but were also introduced to the tools that would allow them to compete in the future.

At my request, on the way back to Raipur, the capital of Chhatisgarh, where we were due to meet with university personnel to discuss further collaboration, we visited the Boromdeo temple which had seemed the most interesting of the sites described in the brochures I had picked up when we landed at the airport. It proved a magnificient site, an isolated example of intricate art set deep in the forest. And to add depth to the experience, AeA arranged the final debriefing in the grounds of the temple, so that we had a glorious architectural backdrop to the concentration of the teachers and teacher trainers discussing how they could improve the services they offered.

A week later I was due to meet Vasantha Senanayake in Zambia, where he had gone for the Inter-Parliamentary-Union conference. Initially I had planned to go back to Colombo, but I realized that it was much cheaper to fly direct to Lusaka. However there was the problem of how I was to fill in the time. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 13.Winding down households

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

14 JanShortly after the first return to Orissa, in December 2015, we celebrated a family Christmas at Lakmahal for what proved to be the last time. The previous year we had, as had happened for decades, had the 5th Lane cousins, along with a few old friends of my parents, two sisters of my brother-in-law Romesh Bandaranaike, and also Vasantha Senanayake and his mother.

We had it seems said then that this might be for the last time so, when in 2015 we decided to repeat the exercise, we found that the 5th Lane cousins had made other arrangements. I wondered whether this was a boycott of sorts since I had been heavily critical of Ranil during the year, but that this was not the case seemed apparent from the fact that the youngest cousin, Channa, who bore the initials of our grandfather, attended with his elder son.

We had only two tables this time, instead of the usual three (there had been a year or two when we had had to have four), with lots of milk wine and cake before, and then the usual turkey, with my sister’s superb Christmas pudding to follow.

I had hoped then that we could repeat the exercise in 2016, which would have been the 80th Christmas since Lakmahal was occupied. But towards the end of 2015 it became clear that soon my sister and I would have to reach a settlement about the house. It had been left jointly to both of us, and I thought that perhaps my mother had assumed that I would live there during my lifetime, and then my share would pass to the children of my sister.

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Acts of Faith Revisited

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Expanded version of the presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the session on ‘Buried Alive: Stories that never saw the Light of Day’

At the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, January 30th 2017

I thought I would talk at this session about my own work, having dealt with general principles, as well as discussing Sri Lankan writing in general, during the two previous sessions at which I participated, on the Word and its Public Space, and on Conflict Literature.

This topic is particularly timely, for I have just had republished in Sri Lanka my first novel, which has appeared previously only in India and in Italy. The printer way back in 1985 panicked, and returned the proofs of the first few chapters, but fortunately then the distinguished bibliophile Ian Goonetilleke arranged for Navrang, an innovative Indian publisher, to bring out the book. But sales in Sri Lanka were limited, the book being kept under the counter it seemed, given the stranglehold the then government had over information. So it is only now, courtesy of Godage & Bros, that the novel is freely available in the country in which it is set.

20170129_174532For the book dealt with the riots of 1983, putting the blame foursquare on the then government. This was not a story that the extremists on either side wanted told. Sinhalese nationalists had tales of excessive Tamil demands and did not want highlighting of the numerous abuses Sinhalese governments had engaged in. Conversely, their mirror images, the Tamil extremists, wanted a narrative in which all Sinhalese were tarnished, and my exposition of the actions of just some in government did not fit well with their claim that living with the Sinhalese was impossible.

My story was set in the decision making drawing rooms of Colombo, and highlighted the factions in the then UNP government as well as the domination of family connections. I now realize that the book may explain the animosity Ranil Wickremesinghe has displayed towards me, as when he tried to stop English medium in 2002, preventing Karunasena Kodituwakku from continuing me as an Adviser to the Ministry. At the time I thought that his opposition to that initiative was based, as Tara de Mel put it, on jealousy that she and Chandrika had started it, but I now feel that my own role was also a red rag to him. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 12. Two trips to Orissa

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

By October 2015, having come back from Sikkim, I had broken the back of the task I had set myself, and a couple of books were ready to go to press. I therefore had some time on my hands when I was approached about helping Mahinda Samarasinghe at his Ministry. I agreed to do so on condition that it would be part time work, and he thereupon had me appointed Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. I had told him that that might make him unpopular with the Prime Minister, but he said the appointment was in the hands of the President, who had been positive about the idea.

I started work in November and set the ball rolling with regard to what had been his principal priority, the introduction of compulsory English and Soft Skills modules on all Vocational Training Courses conducted under the aegis of the TVEC. In addition we developed an NVQ Level 1 Building Career Skills Course, which was an extended version of the Career Skills module for NVQ Level 3 courses.

Before we started training for this however I went abroad again, for I was still determined that part time meant part time, and I should not be tied down by the position or the work. This trip was also to India, where Aide et Action was having its South Asia Advisory Board meeting in Bhubaneswar. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 11. End of year efforts

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I feel quite shattered as I write this, for the last week has been quite hectic. We had an extra meeting of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission on Wednesday, at which we presented a number of ground breaking papers. Most important were the curricula for the Diploma in Technology and Education, which will be delivered at a number of Technical Colleges and Colleges of Technology from next year.

fbffc6b3We will be working in five areas, namely Automobiles, Production Technology, Construction, Electric and Electronic Technology and Airconditioning and Refrigeration. The course is open to those who took up Technology subjects at Advanced Level, but here they will study in depth the practical applications of the knowledge they acquired. They will also develop soft skills, and in particular English communication skills. And most important they will be introduced to interactive teaching skills, with much emphasis on group discussions, on reflecting on experience, on sharing and assessing ideas.

We had much experience of this at the workshop we had conducted the previous weekend for teachers on the English and Education course that will commence next year at ten colleges round the country. The original plan had been to confine this to five colleges, but it seems there is much demand from students, who have been enthused by the active approach to teaching adopted by many of the teachers at this College. The NVQ Level 4 course we started in Galle a couple of months back had for instance nearly a 1000 applicants, but we were able to take in fewer than 200, and that was stretching it. If the present initiative works well, we will soon have overcome the decades long problem of enough English teachers for the country – and indeed the problem of teachers of Technology, given that the Technology stream was started without attention to teacher supply.

We had our lively and committed German consultant to introduce the new pedagogy curriculum, since it will be the English teachers who have to handle this for the Technology and Education students as well as the English and Education students. It was fascinating to see the way in which the teachers reacted, including the older ones who were encouragingly enthusiastic. The new Asst Director in charge of English at the Department of Technical Education and Training seemed to have made an excellent selection, though I have noted that there are other good teachers too, and by next year we should be able to run the course in many more centres. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 10. A Plethora of Publications

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I had lots of work after deciding to support Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy, and then after he won and I was made a State Minister. And even after I resigned there was much to do, culminating in working for a UPFA victory at the August 2015 election, as I thought the President wanted. But both the UPFA and I – and in the end the President too – fell victim to the infighting within the SLFP. Extreme elements on both sides destroyed the compromise between him and the former President that I believe he had wanted when he gave the latter UPFA nomination for the election.

So he found himself with a government in which the UNP had a majority, and used its power for more sophisticated corruption than he had originally objected to under the Rajapaksa regime. And he also found it with no clue as to how to run the economy, plunging into greater debt than had been objected to previously, and at higher interest rates.img_6277-1

What went wrong in 2015 is however the substance of the last section of the Endgame series I am also writing. Here I am concerned only with what I might term the personal fulfillment I turned to when I found myself no longer in Parliament. A man must after all have an occupation, and since I do not smoke, and since I did not think I wanted to resume regular work, I decided to take up writing in a serious way.

I was helped to this decision by Ariyawansa Ranaweera, one of the poets I had published in ‘Mirrored Images’, the anthology of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry from Sri Lanka that I had put together for the National Book Trust of India. I had arranged readings of the poetry at the launch in Colombo, and then at the various other launches that were arranged in cultural centres round the country, including at several universities. Continue reading

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