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Governtment of Sri Lanka

The Care of Children 33 - Providing education for all needs

( Created date: 12-Apr-2013 )

J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame produced last year a novel entitled ‘The Casual Vacancy’ that is advertised as a novel for adults. Perhaps it is for adults, since it tells, with her usual skill, a very depressing tale, or rather several depressing tales. But to my mind it is very much about children, children presented as the victims of adults with a range of problems, who take them out, deliberately or otherwise, on their offspring.
The world of a small town in the West of England, where the novel is set, may seem miles away from Sri Lanka, but the difficulties the children face are not entirely dissimilar from those we face here. Though the world of drugs, and sex (and fantasizing about sex), and bullying may seem exaggerated, and is I trust an exaggerated portrait even of what goes on in England, the desperate situation of youngsters with specific disfunctionalities at home, and callousness based on generalizations at school, is something we should all recognize.
How does one deal with all this, or at least try to put in place mechanisms to alleviate some of the problems? Though one hopes that many children lead relatively happy lives, and that schools provide them with opportunities to learn and develop socially, we must also realize that we need to prepare for the worst. We need monitoring systems to recognize when trouble is brewing, and support systems to provide assistance that is required.
One area in which we must obviously do better is that of counseling. I have become more acutely aware of this in my visits to the North, but we read of enough problems in schools even in Colombo to realize that rarely do schools have sufficient trained personnel to provide necessary support. Though all schools are supposed to have in place teacher counsellors, their training has generally been cursory, and in many instances, I gather, instead of counseling and support, we only find exhortations to try harder.
We seem in general very far from the ideal advanced at the seminar in Hyderabad I attended last December, that the joy should be put back into schools. I should note though that one does see joy in some schools, and I realize from observation that this is related to the role and attitude of principals. But given the impersonal relationship many principals have to their schools, exacerbated by the system of transfers we have developed – and made worse by the failure of the Ministry to appoint Principals in recent years – it is rare to see the collegiality amongst Principal, staff and students that would help create a joyous and spiritually fulfilling learning centre.
Meanwhile we need to recognize that the social problems that affect students are much more complex than in an earlier age. Drugs are more pervasive. Sex, though obviously it has been high on the radar of adolescents for centuries, is now much more obtrusive, with more vivid visual imagery readily available. Competition is much more intense, and stress on exams with emphasis on individual success has taken away from the team spirit that greater attention to extra-curricular activities would provide.
And as stress and strains increase, the comforts that the home should provide diminish. We live in a world in which both parents tend to work. This is yet another reason for the universal dependence on tuition, since what else are parents who do not get home till late to do with their children during long afternoons? And when parents do get home, tired and having to deal with domestic chores, the quality time children should have with parents is necessarily limited.  
All this may sound very bleak, and to think of solutions for such problems may seem impossible. Sometimes, indeed, I wonder whether one should perhaps cease to worry about such matters, and instead gradually settle into a restful retirement, reading novels that are more inspiring than J K Rowling in adult mode. But, recalling the positive impact of a happy childhood, one feels obliged to keep thinking of what might be done to make things better.
One simple solution, I think, would be to go back to the idea of school being a total experience, occupying and developing children right through the day. I believe that a grave disservice was done to children, as well as to parents and teachers, when we made single sessions mandatory in schools. I did try to change things, when I was Sub-Warden at S. Thomas’, and for six months students did have a much better time, able to play in the intervals and stay on for extra-curricular activities, but the teachers who were involved in tuition classes hated it and were able to insist on a return to the old system.
It would be more difficult now to change things, given the even greater hold tuition has on students as well as teachers, but I believe we will continue to have social as well as educational problems unless we try. It may be necessary of course to pay teachers more, if they are to spend longer hours in schools, but this will be a small price to pay if they are at the same time given job descriptions that make it clear that greater responsibilities are expected from teachers than simply pedagogy over a limited number of hours.
At the same time, delivering a more rounded education would be easier if alternative delivery systems are permitted. Private schools that are now so popular should be allowed to set up branches in the provinces – which would also serve to reduce the large numbers travelling long distances to get into prestigious Colombo schools. Given how much is spent on travel and on tuition, parents would probably be glad to pay fees on the understanding that the school fulfils wider responsibilities than they can expect at present. And with such models, perhaps some state schools will also reach higher standards.




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