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Governtment of Sri Lanka

The Care of Children 32 - Subverting efforts to make education holistic

( Created date: 05-Apr-2013 )

A recent news item about what transpired at a meeting the President had presided over at the Ministry of Education seemed to me to sum up much that is wrong both with our system of education, and the manner in which consultations take place. No one listens to what others say, or rather they do so only with their own preconceptions in mind. Only this can explain why the very sensible ideas the President has advanced about education are utterly ignored.
This time round it was a very simple point the President made, namely that ‘some form of sport too has to be made compulsory in schools as most students suffer from some sort of depression due to lack of exercise to their bodies.’ The response was that ‘a Cabinet Memorandum has been prepared for the compulsory allocation of time in schools for physical exercises…new physical training instructors would be recruited to the Ministry to give children physical and theoretical knowledge to the students.’
Begging the question of what the physical knowledge to be given to children consists of, the reply suggests that the Ministry, in its wisdom, is going to introduce yet another item to the national curriculum. Given the way the Miinstry proceeds, we can expect children to do physical exercises for ten minutes or so, and then take down notes that explain why the exercises are helpful. Such theoretical knowledge will then doubtless be examined at length in question papers set by Provincial Education Ministries, and even by the National Department of Education, so that they can be duly leaked to the tutories. These last, it should be noted, will be much more adept than the Education Ministry at providing physical knowledge to the children, or at least facilitating this. 
What the President wanted is in line with what finally the Ministry has included in its proposals for education reform, after the matter had been brought up repeatedly at the special Consultative Committee. This is that extra-curricular activities be made compulsory. We had proposed not only sports, but also cultural and social service activities, all of which will help with the problem the President  diagnosed, which is that the current educational system serves mainly to depress students. It is no wonder that students forced to concentrate on theoretical knowledge, without the leisure time collective activities that add joy to schooling, contribute to one of the highest suicide rates in the world. 
The trouble is that extra-curricular activities will take away from the precious time that is now the prerogative of the tuition industry. The Ministry policy paper has decided to deal with the tuition menace by banning tuition classes during school time, which is a telling comment on the system that prevails. But obviously, given the symbiotic relationship that exists now between the State education system and the tuition industry, it will do nothing about tuition at other times. And since extra-curricular activities might take students away from tuition, the answer is to ignore what the President wanted, and instead engage in physical exercises, along with a healthy or unhealthy dose of theoretical knowledge, during school hours. For this purpose, naturally, more teachers will be recruited, which will give serving teachers even more leisure. This could perhaps be used for more tuition classes, and parents will have a good excuse to send their children for such classes, on the grounds that that will be more productive than doing physical exercises in school. 
Given the primacy of tuition, what should happen in all schools, which is extra-curricular activities conducted by teachers after the regular teaching periods, is unlikely, unless the Ministry takes a proactive role in promoting this. But such commitment is I think inconceivable, in the Ministry, though given encouragement many good principals would ensure the implementation of such programmes.
The manner in which the Ministry manages to subvert the sensible suggestion of the President reminds me of what it has done with his effort to introduce school based recruitment. That is the only way to ensure that teachers are appointed to rural schools and stay in place. The President seems to understand this instinctively, but since he does not conceptualize such instincts, but leaves them to professionals to flesh out, it is easy for those professionals to ignore them and instead pursue their own ideas, which are much less sensible.
So, in order to get teachers into rural schools, the Ministry has introduced a system of mandatory transfers for anyone who has served more than a given number of years in a particular school. Unfortunately, those in rural schools who were moved to urban schools have fulfilled orders, but those in urban schools transferred to rural schools have resisted. Thus I know one example in the South where the rural school, which had already lost large numbers of students because of the failure of the Ministry to appoint a proper Principal, has now lost several teachers. And recently, in the North, I was told about similar complications, the problem there being compounded by the fact that little effort has been made for decades to develop teachers from the comparatively deprived Districts in the Wanni. 
So, too, efforts to develop bilingualism are floundering, because of a paucity of teachers, despite the evident commitment of the President to learning of the second national language. Since the Ministry cannot think outside the box, and refuses to look at the provision in the National Human Rights Action Plan that it should consider alternative methods of teacher supply, we continue to lack teachers in Tamil and Sinhala for students of other communities, as well as teachers in Science and Maths and English. Unfortunately the Ministry of National Languages, which could set up teacher training institutes, given its mandate, has not thought of this either. And so the suggestions the President makes will fade away, given the unwillingness or the incapacity of our administrators to bring them to life. 


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