Revitalizing education

When I was removed from the Sub-Wardenship of S. Thomas’ forty years ago, I was saddened that this spelt the end of far-reaching reforms intended to ensure a better future for the students. The school was stuck in the passivity that the State monopoly on education had imposed, and there were no efforts to think outside the box. Indeed, the Vice-President of the Old Boys’ Association, when he saw the problems I was undergoing in my efforts to reform the place, told me that I might as well give up and take charge of an International School he and his friends were setting up.

I refused of course because, though I have nothing against International Schools, my interest was not in the highly privileged, who could afford their high costs.

And though the students at S. Thomas were not in the main poor, I felt they were being stripped of the advantages earlier generations had had. In particular, I was saddened at the decline in English usage and capacity, and indeed I proposed a system to teach in the English medium, but the Warden and the Board were not interested after I was dismissed – as happened a third of a century later with vocational training courses, where the English I had introduced was summarily removed after I myself had been removed from the Chairmanship of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

But worst of all, as I found way back in 1981, was the unthinking adherence to a moribund curriculum. This was made crystal clear to me when one of my best students, who managed on his own to get a scholarship to Eton after I had been dismissed, tried to get into Oxford. I did my best with introductions, as did his housemaster with coaching, but the latter wrote to me sadly that he was afraid S. Thomas’ had not taught the boy to think – and that was what Oxford wanted, not rote learning.

A decade later, when I had returned to work in the State system, I tried to change this, by introducing thinking skills into tertiary level courses, by providing questions to provoke thought in study guides I was asked to produce, and at the secondary level too. But this I fear led to the National Institute of Education commissioning a second guide – this was for the Ordinary Level English Literature syllabus I had been instrumental in introducing – because teachers complained that my guide had only questions, and no answers.

Universal free education

Teachers could not cope with that. And I fear that, ever since independence, our educational authorities have been single-mindedly reducing the scope for the development of intelligence and initiative in our students. This is more tragic, in that when we got independence in 1948, we had the best system of education in Asia, except for Japan. We had universal free education, with boys and girls enrolled in near equal proportions, and at that stage schools all over the country functioned in the English medium, at the secondary level.

But the writing was on the wall. The destruction of the foundation Kannangara had laid, with what were English medium central schools all over the country, to parallel what had previously been available only in the three big cities, Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna, began well before independence, with the decision of the State Council to make Sinhala or Tamil compulsory for education at primary level.

That of course meant that in rural schools, students could not go on easily to study in English at the secondary level, and so our first post-independence Minister of Education, Eddie Nugawela (for sadly Kannangara had lost his seat at the pre-independence election), by a gazette notification got rid of English at a secondary level too. Though science could still be done in English for public examinations till the early sixties, this was offered in the charmed circle of the three big cities only, and thus the majority of our students lost out on wider knowledge.

To give him his due, J.R. Jayewardene, in proposing that Sinhala be the compulsory medium of education for all, at all levels (Tamil was added in an amendment), had also proposed that suitable books should be produced in Sinhala and then Tamil, but nothing was done about this. In time independent publishers, notably Gunasena, produced reasonable textbooks, but few of them had the reach in approach or subject matter of international publications.

And then even this was stopped, for in the seventies the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government decided that the production of books was the business of the State, and after that everyone had to use whatever the Government prescribed.

A few schools did use supplementary materials, notably Ladies College, which maintained standards long after other private schools had lost them; contrariwise, even at S. Thomas’, these were not common when I was Sub-Warden, for by then imported books had begun to climb in price following the devaluation and then continuing decline of the rupee that Jayewardene presided over.

Recognizing how deprived our students were, with only limited access to books they could buy and read at leisure, I started while at the British Council, which I joined a year after S. Thomas’ got rid of me, a book production programme which over ten years released 100,000 and more books into the system, beginning with slim volumes which were priced at Rs. 5 and never going above 20 until the nineties.

I have long felt that reading on one’s own is the key to education, and while at S. Thomas’ I opened my own library to the students, who used it in droves – though sadly some of my cherished books were lost when I was sacked. And I still relish the idea that the most successful of my students – who later became Warden of the place – told me that he had started studying after, as a punishment, I had made him read a novel he enjoyed.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone else in the education system believes in books, or rather in books students can and want to read. Libraries stock expensive tomes which students cannot read, which provide fortunes in commissions; the reading lists academics supply are not very practical, and indeed many resorts to actually dictating notes, as Sharya Scharagnuivel told me with horror had happened even in the Law Faculty, when she got back after a sabbatical abroad in the mid-eighties and was asked by the students to speak at dictation pace so they could copy whatever she said; and libraries are mainly used as places to study the notes students bring in with them, not to browse and read for supplementary knowledge.

How bad the situation was I found when I was in charge of the reintroduction of English medium in the Government system, which happened in 2001, to supplement the expansion of English in the tertiary sector which had been my task when I left the British Council. Appalled at the content of what was imposed on children, I wrote into the terms of reference for the book production component of the project a requirement to provide additional information, and my team was brilliant at getting students to find more information and discuss this amongst themselves.

I was inspired to do this by the book I had produced together with Oranee Jansz for the pre-University General English Language Training course, which we called Read, Think and Discuss for which she devised the most interesting exercises. Our purpose was to expand the minds of our students, and that we were on the road to success became clear when, in a little village school, a teacher told me that in 2003 a student had remarked that Iraq was a river valley civilization. Such awareness was not available to those stuck in the mud of the textbooks the NIE produced, which continued to extol the glories of Anuradhapura over several years, with no effort to instil awareness of the difference between that civilization with its glorious reservoirs and the river valley civilizations that were the norm in other nations that developed through agriculture.

Sub-standard material

But our efforts were not popular, not least because we showed up the enormous amounts squandered on the books the State produced. What we produced cost, for each book, a fraction of what the State spent on each Sinhala or Tamil book, and this despite economies of scale which meant the comparatively few books we produced should have been more expensive. It is no wonder that, more than once, there have been scandals at the Ministry about corruption with regard to the production of books. My cousin by marriage Walter Ladduwahetty was a victim of these when he was Secretary to the Ministry, and resigned after a particularly bad incident, but of course, those responsible within the system continued in place.

And if money was made on the printing, and money expended lavishly on writers of sub-standard material, ministry officials worked out ways of subverting efforts at change.

This happened most appallingly when Tara de Mel introduced a multiple book option, designed to get international publishers to produce books for our children. But what happened with regard to the subject of Social Studies – and perhaps others too, though this did not come to my notice – an Assistant Director General at the NIE set up a cartel, using writers who had little knowledge of the subject.

When as Chairman of the Academic Affairs Board of the NIE I began to question them about their credentials, he called me up and confessed and said he would for the future ensure that instructions about improving the product were followed. Whether this would have been possible I doubt, for those were the days when the NIE produced a curriculum for history (which dominated the subject of Social Studies) that managed, in the whole secondary school curriculum, to leave out the French and the Industrial Revolutions, which are seminal to an understanding of the modern world.

But my reforms were stymied when, with a change of Government, Tara was removed and the AAB was reconstituted. That was the end of the long overdue modernization of our school curricula, to bring it in line with international standards and facilitate productive employment both within the country and outside.

Perhaps the saddest casualty of the stultification of the new regime at education was the decimation of the Life Skills syllabus we had prepared. I was reminded about this by two sad stories I heard last month, about the destruction caused by our failure to develop a sense of civic responsibility in our people. One was the story that the toilets in the recently constructed Nelum Pokuna had been vandalized. The other was the same story with regard to the German Technical College that had been set up at Vavuniya, during the period when I chaired the TVEC. It had been entrusted to NAITA, which I thought was a mistake, because the existing German Tech had managed to maintain its reputation in part because it was under independent management.

Social awareness and responsibility

I was told about what had happened at Vavuniya, which had made it impossible to use the place for training, by the Governor of the Northern Province who is fighting an uphill battle to reduce corruption and provide a better service to the people. Now I cannot claim that our Life Skills syllabus would have ensured a difference, but I do know that Cambridge University Press in India asked me if they could produce a textbook for the syllabus we had prepared, because it seemed to them better than anything India had at the time.

But the regime changed, and our syllabus was changed, with the thinking skills component removed, and the activities designed to develop social awareness and responsibility bowdlerized. Sanctimonious dogma became the norm again, understandably for our education system strives to remove our children from the real world. So, they have to make their way on their own, and that so many do well is a tribute to their competence – which could take them so much further, with just a little help (or even perhaps just the absence of negativity) from the State.


– Daily News Sri Lanka

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