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NewsIf we fail with regard to education, we will not be able to avoid disaster

If we fail with regard to education, we will not be able to avoid disaster


”Mr Speaker, the emphasis throughout His Excellency’s Budget Speech on education and training makes clear the importance this government attaches to the subject. I am aware however that, in some areas, excellent ideas are not implemented, sometimes because of a lack of will, sometimes because of a lack of capacity. As we saw in Welikada a couple of weeks ago, the penalty of such neglect can sometimes be disastrous.
(The Prepared Speech on Education that was not Delivered in Parliament)
 Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha

It is not accidental, Mr Speaker, that, following immediately on the items that come directly under His Excellency the President, we move today to the subject of Education. It is perhaps with regard to Education that the Budget Speech of His Excellency introduced the most important innovations in the programme of the government this year, and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in their favour.

One of the more balanced, if trenchant, critics of the economic policies of this government has mentioned that, while infrastructure development has been impressive, we have not kept pace as regards human resource development. That is vital, if the essentially liberal programme of this government is to be successful. Whilst ensuring that the private sector remains as the engine of growth, and develops its potential, it is also important to ensure that social justice is promoted. For this purpose we must devote more attention to equality of opportunity. A comprehensive human resources development programme is therefore essential, with stress on ensuring equitable provision nationwide.

I think it has been recognized even by critics of the government, Mr Speaker, that it was an inspired decision of the President to create a Ministry of Economic Development, and entrust it to someone with no previous Parliamentary experience, but with a track record of proven practical capacity, as the swift programme of Resettlement in the East and then the North made clear. An Executive Presidency demands technocrats at the helm in areas of urgent concern. Though we suffer from a preposterous constitution, the only one in the world that confuses an Executive Presidential system with the Westminster model of government that abandons even any pretence of the separation of powers, the institution of a Ministry devoted to development has achieved wonders. This was because of the concentration it permitted on results, without the need to work also on parochial political concerns in a particular area.

I had hoped something of the sort would happen with regard to Human Resource Development too, when a Senior Minister of proven competence was assigned responsibility for that subject. Sadly, the capacity to ensure coherent action is not possible with the current administrative structures we have. However the development of a policy document in this regard will I hope lead to more effective action, without the delays and uncertainties that stood in the way, for instance, of rapid implementation of the reforms the Minister of Higher Education so bravely put forward. The failure over several months of the Legal Draughtsman’s Department to finalize the Act that was proposed may yet prove the biggest drawback to the programme of development in which this government has otherwise been so successful.

The President stressed, in dealing with the remarkable recovery that has taken place in the North, access to education and health as well as electricity and water. Provision of these has proceeded at an impressive pace, and, while obviously there are requests for more, and greater speed, there is general satisfaction with regard to progress on water and electricity, as well as with regard to health. Indeed I must also again congratulate the Ministry of Health, and the dedicated doctors who serve in those areas, on the fact that, though there is diffidence amongst some about serving in the North, by and large services have been excellent, and productive use is made of the infrastructure development programme the Ministry embarked on.

However I have often pointed out that, though school buildings have come up apace, though uniforms and books are now supplied well on time, teacher shortages seem endemic. Rural schools suffer the most, and are without English and Science and Maths teachers. Now I am aware that rural schools in the South also suffer in this regard, but that is no consolation to parents who would put up with other hardships provided they are confident of a decent future for their children. And, given the traditions of education in the North, society as a whole is aware of the importance for the modern world of both English and Maths, as well as Science.

In this regard the President has long advocated more practical methods of teacher deployment, including school based recruitment of teachers. Though I can understand the reluctance of Ministries of Education, National as well as Provincial, to allow their power in this regard to be taken away, it seemed preposterous that this seminal suggestion of His Excellency should have been ignored for so long. But the Budget Speech makes it clear now that recruitment of teachers within respective localities, plus training them on the required subjects, is the practical solution to be pursued.

The allocation of funds therefore for Provincial Teacher Training programmes is most welcome, and I hope this means imaginative and effective programmes. In this regard I hope His Excellency will take up the suggestion of educationists from all four religions practiced in this country, that teacher training should also be undertaken by the non-profit sector, perhaps initially only in those provinces where there are shortages, and only in subjects as to which there are great needs. While independent evaluation can and must be done, by Provincial or National bodies, before the products of such non-state institutions are engaged within the state sector, we must never confuse the obligation of the State to ensure education for all with a monopoly on provision.

I trust that this is kept in mind in fulfilling the commitment in the Budget Speech to deepen the scope of free education. No child should be deprived of education because of cost, but the current interpretation of free education in this country means that there is no charge for admission to most schools, and for attending class in them. However, in order to gain further qualifications, much money must be spent on tuition. This is a disgrace, and while those who provide tuition for those who do not get enough attention in schools must be admired, when such tuition is provided by those supposed to provide such attention in school, it is clear that the whole concept of free education has become a complete joke.

We must aim therefore at making sure that what is provided in school does not require supplementation, and also that disparities between schools are reduced. The appalling stratagems required to gain admission to some schools, while others are neglected by parents as well as the state, suggest that radical measures are needed, and I hope that free education is brought back to the ideal it embodied when Mr Kannangara introduced the concept. For too long now has it been an excuse for rent seeking and continuing discrimination against rural communities and underprivileged children.

In this regard I also welcome the innovations mentioned with regard to technical training, and the need to provide proper qualifications for this. For years we have been suggesting that degrees should be provided, on the basis also of soft skills acquired on a modular basis, for those entering vocations. The failure of the University set up for the purpose to provide degrees on a large scale for our many accomplished technicians is a mark of the academic orientation of those in charge of educational policy in this country. They still replicate the old British model of education, without realizing that Britain moved beyond this many years ago. Indeed a recent discussion on the difference between France and Germany in their capacity to overcome the current economic crisis highlighted the more practical German model of education.

It is a pity, therefore, despite the superb services provided by the German Technical College over many years, that we have failed to replicate it in more, if not all, of our Provinces. And we should not only replicate it, but we should build on the model to also provide modules in the skills needed for the modern world, communication skills, thinking skills, management skills, accounting skills. Sadly, despite efforts to increase employability through introducing such skills on university degree programmes, many of our universities still continue to produce graduates who cannot gain employment, so that the state then has to create jobs for them, after having paid for what passes for education over several years. I can only hope that, under proper management, and with the possibility of innovation before impractical approaches get entrenched, the Skills Development Ministry will be able to ensure a more effective model of training.

Working together in this regard with the Ministry responsible for Foreign Employment is desirable, given that the Budget Speech also notes the need for enhancing the skills of those going abroad for employment. Our workers are now at the bottom of the market, whereas equipping them with soft skills as well as better technical capacity will enable them to command better wages. Such training should also inculcate self confidence, and I hope programmes such as those the international education agency Aide et Action has conducted in the Galle District, with extensions now to the North, will be used as a model, given the high employability of their products.

In this regard, I hope the government will also encourage other service providers to enter the field. I have argued previously that we should make better use in this regard of the forces, whose training capacities are amongst the best in the country. As with other countries that give vocational training to servicemen before they retire, we should set up institutions that will also allow the public to have access, on payment of a fee that covers costs, to such courses. And specialist cadet colleges in rural areas, with encouragement of sports and social service, along with good teaching in all three National Languages, as well as Maths and Computing, will enhance opportunities for those without ready access otherwise to such subjects.

I should add that that would also be an effective way of ensuring delivery with regard to the training in Agriculture that His Excellency mentioned. That is an area in which we have neglected training for too long, and I hope that the scope of such training is widened, to also include value addition for agricultural products. Marketing and entrepreneurship should also be provided, and setting up training centres for this purpose at Divisional level should be a central concern in enhancing the impact of educational reforms.

For this purpose we should use the physical resources of schools, and develop the concept of life long learning, with the community making full use of buildings that are now wasted for half the day and half the year. I was delighted recently to hear that the Northern Province Education Ministry has supported the establishment of Vocational Training Centres in schools in the Mullaitivu District, and I hope this is an innovation that will be replicated nationwide. The idea of learning centres – some of which should also become cultural centres – must be developed, so that a holistic education is available for all those who wish to improve themselves.

Mr Speaker, the emphasis throughout His Excellency’s Budget Speech on education and training makes clear the importance this government attaches to the subject. I am aware however that, in some areas, excellent ideas are not implemented, sometimes because of a lack of will, sometimes because of a lack of capacity. As we saw in Welikada a couple of weeks ago, the penalty of such neglect can sometimes be disastrous.

If we fail with regard to education, we will not be able to avoid disaster. I hope therefore that this House, in supporting the innovations that have been proposed, will also ensure careful monitoring of delivery, so that all our people will be in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities we are trying to open up.

(This speech was not delivered and I was told instead that I was expected to speak on Resettlement and on External Affairs. I had however prepared a text, which seems even more relevant now that the ‘Educational Policies and Proposals for General Education in Sri Lanka’, based on what was presented to the Special Parliament Advisory Committee on Education, has been circulated again for comment -Rajiva Wijesinha)

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