Colombo Telegraph

Jaffna School Closures: A Crisis Off The Radar

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Population Loss and Tamil Schools

The loss of population in Jaffna is evident in the number of parliamentary representatives we have, dropping from 11 recently to seven now and perhaps ready to drop to six if the trend continues. What, however, is not recognized is the drop in school-going children, a trend matching the drop in number of MPs. When school-going children diminish numerically, schools need to be shut down. That in itself might not necessarily be a bad thing if it is rationally done. But it is not. The loss of MPs might have political implications and our attention is therefore focused on that. But the loss of school quality is a bigger disaster for the community.

St. Mathias Church Nursery in Thanniootru, Mulliavalai, is being shut down for lack of students. An appeal was made to me to pay personally the three teachers Rs. 5000 a month each – an impossible task for me, after 8 months of unemployment after returning to Sri Lanka on the promise of a red carpet welcome from the President through a special speech in parliament. The schools are seen as a place to give jobs rather than to educate children. Worse, with women willing to work at Rs. 5000 a month (a half of what I would need to pay a cook in Jaffna), teaching as a profession is diminished.

Nallur CMS TTC and CMS Practising School

Consider the Church Missionary Society’s Nallur CMS Practising School and the CMS Teachers’ Training College (TTC) down Chemmany Road. My father, Vicar of St. James’ Parish, was also the school’s and college’s Chaplain and Manager, while my mother was a Lecturer in Mathematics at the TTC. The Practising School was where committed Lecturers taught young people the craft of teaching, so they could continue in an honoured career as Trained Teachers. The School was the laboratory for the Teachers’ College. The school gave excellent education to those in the neighbourhood (like myself) because they employed the best teaching methods to pass out as trained teachers. The school has produced many lecturers, doctors, engineers and accountants. The Practising School was a thriving hub of several hundred students then. Not one teacher was a graduate, yet the quality of education was excellent.

The School Fenced-off without Land: The Grounds for the Director of Education to Exercise?

Takeover

Then the government nationalized the two Church institutions, only to immediately shut down the much needed Teachers’ Training College. Both Lecturers and Teacher-students were moved – to Irupalai for women and Colombogam for men. The latter too was ultimately shut down. This was an incredible loss to the education system, which is continuing to show its effect in our schools.

A condition of the takeover was that the institutions should continue to be put to the same original use, and, if not, be returned to the Church. The TTC premises now function as the Department of Zonal Education. Under the law, they need to be returned to the Church because they are not used for their original purpose. The Church has not demanded the premises back because even if she ran the TTC from them, there are no church schools in which to employ the trained teachers coming out.

With the flight in population, the school has a severe drop in numbers. It has 95 students in the 11 grades up to O.Level and 23 teachers; a student:teacher ratio that would be the envy of a rich country! Reducing teachers is not an option in our vision of government as a job bank. Grade 1 had only 2 new students enrolling in January and 2 further admissions since. The school’s O.L. results that came out recently were a disaster. Out of the 10 students who sat, only 4 qualified for the A.L. The government resources needed to sustain this system are disproportionately large, yet with poor outcomes in the education of these students.

Rather ironically, the excess of teachers does not make for good education although most teachers are graduates. Students see some recent school products making Rs. 2000-2500 a day in Colombo’s building sector, which is a lot more than the Rs. 36,000 per month their graduate teachers make. Teacher salaries are this low because the market is flooded with unproductive graduates in fields no one likes to specialize in and are there to keep university lecturers in their jobs. There is no incentive to study.

Closing the School

The school is different from the TTC. If the government closed this former Church-run Practising School the way they are closing schools established by the state in Jaffna, the Church might ask for the premises back, with good ideas about what educational enterprise to launch from there. The land itself is extremely valuable.

So first, for the first time, a fence was put up between the two institutions just a few years ago. How the dividing line was decided on is anybody’s guess since the two institutions under the Church were seamlessly one. When I was a student, the school had full use of the grounds for play including the annual sports meet. The teacher-students only used a volleyball court (used by both men and women at different times) and a bar for pull-ups. In addition, plans are afoot to take some of even the little land on the school side of the fence for the Zonal Education Department and in exchange build some building for the school for conferences. With 4 students in Grade 1, the seminars will be empty in a beautiful hall.

Other schools that deserve to be closed remain open because folk of the locality insist on keeping them open or because education department officials like their continued fat budgets.

Inefficiency thrives and goes hand in hand with poor teaching.

Photo – The Nationalized CMS Teachers’ Training College: Not used for Original Purpose

Attitude to Work: the Agriculture Example

Our education system seems to be rooted in inefficiency where giving jobs is more important than funding jobs that involve real work. For example, in the year 2004, in a UGC discussion it turned out that at that time it took Rs. 250,000 a year to train an agriculture graduate and Rs. 200,000 a year to train a doctor. This was because of the large farms that go with an agriculture faculty.

Since the same pool of students from the A.L. vie for medical admission and do agriculture, dentistry or vet science only when denied medical admission, it was suggested that we were better off giving medical admission to all the agriculture students! But that, someone pointed out, the medical folk would object to, since it would depress their salaries. It was also felt that agriculture is important to national development. But most agriculture graduates are unemployed. Most graduates of the recent University of Jaffna batch, for example, are doing a master’s degree at Peradeniya, sustaining the university system as a place where unemployed people can delay the inevitable while lecturers earn lacs in fees. Others go for employment in other sectors.

It was clear that we do not need an expensive agriculture faculty at every university to meet national needs. Yet, it was politically impossible to prevent every university from dreaming of its own agriculture faculty. Keeping agriculture lecturers in employment seemed more important than sending agriculture students to read medicine at lower cost to the state and meeting a real need for more doctors.

A UGC colleague suggested that if our medics would object to taking in more students, then taking the Rs. 1 million we spend on each agriculture student and giving it to them to pay and study in India (which was within the admission rates then) seemed to make more sense. But that also was shot down as a political impossibility!

We stayed with the system although it was more rational to pursue one of the options proposed that would have led to greater satisfaction and increased opportunities for our students.

Restoring Respect for Teachers

That agriculture model is what we seem to be using with the Jaffna schools. Whether we like it or not, schools have to be closed. Such closings should be rational and not for the purpose of keeping the unemployed in seeming employment, retaining the fat budgets of Education Directors, or avoiding the return of Church lands.

Having excess staff is a bad idea since the lack of work for teachers leads to unfortunate attitudes to work. Instead it is better to retain the better teachers and pay them more than labourers. The work of a teacher must be made a respectable undertaking once again.

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