By Nedra Karunaratne –
Today this country is facing a dilemma over education at all levels. The universities have been closed for over three months due to the academic staff strike. Previously it was disfunctional for a month because the non-academic staff staged a strike. The students have been at home for more than four months. The clock is still ticking the hours away wasting the lives of thousands of young adults in their prime. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Who is fiddling while the long established successful education system is showing signs of bursting into flames? What measures are needed for reforming the system to re-establish the once hallowed portals of learning? As a parent, how much do you know and what do you feel?
It is known that the primary schools in most rural areas are running at bare minimum. The most affected are the rural poor who do not have the means of sending their children to schools with better facilities miles away from home. When the Grade V scholarship results were released, it was heartening to note that the first place was shared by a rural child from the hill country with a more privileged child from a prestigious school from down south. The hardships this rural child had borne to access a school from her home is unthinkable for those used to a comfortable city life attending city schools within their reach (2 miles or a few school van miles away!). That too, in order for this girl to attend the closest school and not a National school that many fight to get their children in. The proud parents of the child from the city school had the opportunity to get an audience with the president. What of the poor child from the village? This is a good example of the privileged having facilities and the means to attain their objectives, while the poor are left to wonder where their next meal is coming from.
In the process of writing this article, the sentiments expressed by Prof. Carmen Wickramagamage regarding scholarship examinations grabbed my attention. “A tale of two kids and future of free education in SL” in the island of 3rd October 2012 is a story relating the anguish of both parents and little children subjected to a useless process in the name of education. It narrates the two cases where support (pressure exerted in many cases) given by parents in the case of the child from the city and the natural ability of a persevering and enterprising child from the village had yielded the same result. The question here is why parents take such pleasure in advocating excellence at this young age. The inherent abilities and creativity are suppressed with no room for free thinking when examinations dominate the life of the child. The blame should partly go to the education ministry for making this a compulsory examination. It used to be optional and only for the purpose of selecting the bright from underprivileged areas for better educational facilities in the cities. In todays context where no child who fails in a class from year 1 to year 10 is kept back, why subject children to this unnecessary exercise depriving many of a happy and carefree childhood. This is the only period in our life time that we can really say we had no burdens to carry. But can the children of today anticipate happy childhood memories? Parents please do not deprive your children of their fundamental right to a hassle free acquisition of knowledge useful for their future life. The Grade V examination does nothing to enhance useful knowledge or inculcate character traits. On the contrary, all it does is to create a hostile environment between class mates and over ambitious parents.
The education ministry cannot be proud of the secondary schools in that many are ill equipped in teaching staff and resources. The number of secondary schools that can provide a good science based education is only a small percentage. Parents with the facilities to get their children into such schools are fortunate that their children can strive to become doctors and engineers. One can argue that science is not the only subject in the curriculum that needs to be available in all schools. True if an adequate number of schools with reasonable facilities are available. However, free education does not only mean that no fees are paid, but more the freedom for a child to pursue his desired discipline. Therefore concerned parents should be aware that our free education system is not free in the true sense. The question is- why are parents silent when schools are neglected and many shut down by the education ministry. Those who protest are few and far between and generally tend to be voices in the wilderness.
The recent happenings at Vidyaloka Vidyalaya in Galle leaves much food for thought. Do parents and children have the right to protest against appointments of educators? The extent to which the attack on the principal was carried out appears that it was pre-planned. According to the editorial in the island on the 3rd October 2012, the old boys of the school and a political monk are responsible for the dastardly act. A spate of such violent agitations have been reported in a number of schools. What are the moral values that parents teach their children by instigating violence in schools? These children will believe that rioting and vandalism is a normal form of protest. Parents who are quick to protest at little things like appointment of a principal fail to show their strength on more serious issues which affect their children. Everyone wishes the best for their child, but rules should not be violated and justice must prevail. In an earlier article which appeared in the Sunday island of the 5th August 2012, I had detailed the issues that affected our education system. A radical change in teacher attitude as well as reforms in teaching policy may be the only solution.
Of late, the rejection of newly appointed principals by parents and teachers has spread over several schools. This is a problem for the education ministry to solve and protestors must express their concerns if any in a more civilized manner. What is the purpose of schools and education if no learning in any sense happens there?
This week, Minister Sarath Amunugama expressed his concern regarding the current situation in the schools and universities. He stresses that reforms are needed and a rehauling is a must to get us out of the mess we are in. This is mainly in response to the crisis in the universities. In my opinion, the present deadlock between FUTA and the government can be easily solved with a little intelligent discussion and sound judgement. We would probably not be in this predicament if the correct choice was made in the appointment of the minister of higher education. The need for change is evident. Changes in school curriculum for the worse over the years, and the changes in the A/L syllabus many times with no apparent purpose has precipitated much heartache for students, parents and educators. Thus reforms are most welcome in this sphere and minister Amunugama, the man with a vision, mission and dedication (as claimed in his website), could well be the muscle needed for the execution. Certainly in the settlement of the Z score issue which still is an unhealed wound, the fears and anxiety of parents and candidates have not been allayed. Reforms to prevent such fiascos need to be established.
A large number of students awaiting correction of their A/L papers, the many students who still have not been selected pending the Z score settlement and all the students who will sit for the A/L examinations in the coming years are affected by the delay in the commencement of negotiations. Closure of higher education institutions for too long is detrimental to development. The reforms necessary for these institutions could be ironed out amicably if both parties thrash out the issues and do not rest until an agreeable solution is found. Now that the High priests of Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters have agreed to mediate, both parties should take this opportunity to resolve the problem and get our graduates back to where they belong. News reports that the partly successful bargaining between FUTA and the Minister of Economic Development and Dr. P.B. Jayasundera would begin shortly. The entire academic community is waiting in anticipation for the end of this saga. How much longer is the country going to be held in ransom?
In conclusion I quote from the editorial which appeared in the island of 4th October 2012: “The FUTA has not walked away from negotiations with the government or refused to talk. It has shown flexibility and the government should reciprocate by resuming talks with the strikers and going on negotiating as a national priority until a solution is found. It should desist from driving the university teachers to extreme action and labeling them as traitors. That is the only way to bring about a win-win solution in keeping with President Rajapaksa‘s thinking or Mahinda Chinthana”.
Parents isn’t it time that you reactivate your exuberance displayed in the primary education of your children by lobbying the authorities responsible to expedite a speedy settlement towards the tertiary education of your children?