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The Care of Children 35 - The importance of equalizing opportunities

( Created date: 26-Apr-2013 )


A couple of weeks back I was told that I had been rudely attacked on a television programme by a member of the government, who had deplored what I had done in the field of education. I have not tried to find out the actual focus of the attack, because I have now got used to attacks from that quarter, which occur about once a year on some pretext or another. 
 
This time however there was an unexpected bonus in that several of my students from Sabaragamuwa wrote in indignantly, and some of them were actually stirred to write to the papers, in Sinhala and Tamil as well as in English. I was moved by what they said, not least because they suggested that my contribution to education was unique. They registered the fact that, despite what they described as my own privileged background, I had tried hard to provide similar opportunities to others. 
 
Obviously I have always felt that I was doing the correct thing, but given the larger canvas on which I am now trying to pursue educational reforms, and encouraging others to demand this as a right rather than a concession, it was heartening to see that people of different backgrounds registered how they had benefited. I decided then that I had been far too modest in the past, in tolerating the attacks on my social and educational philosophy of those who seemed to care nothing for the expansion of opportunities, so I asked several others I had taught to also set down their thoughts. 
 
What they wrote was a spur to urging action on education too on the part of those concerned with the protection of children in Divisional Secretariats. One former student noted that when I first started work in a secondary school, ‘it felt as if someone in the school actually cared about the scholarly pursuits of students and took a personal interest in the wellbeing of individual students’. A student at Sabaragamuwa wrote, with reference to students from rural backgrounds whom we permitted to follow a degree in English, ‘Prof’s meticulous feedback and relentless prodding to get everyone to speak in the class made them shed their reserves about the ‘alien’ language and made us all equals’.
 
Unfortunately the Ministry of Education is really doing nothing about enhancing opportunities for students in the rural sector, by ensuring quality teaching and also an effective monitoring mechanism, as required by the National Human Rights Action Plan. The ill effects of this are most apparent in the North where, though the building programme is impressive, the lack of teachers in essential subjects is still a problem. No efforts have been made to look as required at alternative forms of teacher training, so rural students continue to suffer. 
 
I have therefore suggested that schools should be monitored by the community itself, with Grama Niladharis preparing schedules in which they register inadequacies. These should include not only teacher availability, but also physical conditions such as availability of toilets and drinking water, transport facilities and also whether the school provides sufficient extra-curricular activities.
 
Fortunately, Grama Niladharis now have dedicated assistants in the form of graduate trainees who have been allocated to each Division. This scheme was originally incoherent, and many Divisional Secretaries did not know what to do with the hundreds of graduates imposed on them, but gradually they have begun to allocate them to particular tasks. There are still complaints – not least from the more lively of the graduates – that they have not been adequately trained, and one even said that their time was being wasted, but those Divisional Secretaries able to plan have now made some preliminary allocations. With a little bit of training – which I hope the military will provide, if no one else does – these trainees should be able to set goals and develop teams to pursue them, and report coherently on their work.
 
But, in addition to checking on the situation in each school – usually just one or two in each GN Division, which is why it should be easy to develop a sense of responsibility and promote accountability on the part of the Principal – we need a team at Divisional Secretariat level that is able to take remedial action. This can easily be done by the Women and Children’s Unit that the Ministry has now set up. Though these are not yet fully functional, and it is high time the Ministry of Public Administration sent out a Circular together with the Women and Children’s Ministry to set out duties and indicate how to set about these, I can see that in some places there is heartening understanding of the potential of such interventions. 
 
This is more apparent when the graduates, and other officials, come from the area and are aware of the deficiencies in services that need to be overcome. One factor I have stressed is that the Child Rights Protection Officer must look also at fulfillment of the Right to Education. That is cherished by all segments of society, and its importance is recognized by parents in the North even more than elsewhere. It is therefore essential that the Protection Team in each Division monitors the schools and requests remedial action from Education Offices as well as other decision makers where there are shortcomings.
 
I should add that I also stressed a factor that the Secretary to the Ministry has highlighted, namely the need to also affirm the Right to Leisure of children. I am shocked at the failure in many schools to ensure that children can play and express themselves through cultural and social activities. Fortunately the youngsters I am dealing with seem to recognize the importance of this, so I hope that they will pursue not only good teaching in all the schools they cover, but activities that will restore, as was suggested at the Conference on Education I attended in Hyderabad last year, the joy into schooling. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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