Reforming Education: Challenges to Change | Daily News

Reforming Education: Challenges to Change

Tara de Mel, who was the moving spirit behind educational reforms in the late nineties, has finally broken her long silence about this and produced a fascinating account of what she tried to do, and what went wrong. It covers a great deal of ground, from primary to university education, taking in the seminal reintroduction of English medium in 2001 plus efforts to provide better schools in the regions while also reforming the corrupt and corrupting effect of the enthronement of National Schools in the national psyche.

Challenges to Change is an interesting read, and provides food for thought in a context in which the need for educational reform is obvious. But it is unlikely to bear fruit without a capable Minister. Ironically this book comes out when we have a Minister who is the target of Tara’s most sustained criticism. She must have had hysterics when recently he declared that ‘The main issue with (students) is that they do not have qualified teachers for mathematics, science and English subjects’, a problem he failed to address despite having been Minister of Education several times over since 2000.

Unfortunately Tara is more diplomatic than she needs to be, and does not name names.

One reason for the failure of Tara’s reforms is that they required a radical change in teacher training, and this she was unable to ensure, given the stranglehold of the Ministry and the National Institute of Education on training and training institutions. This was held at bay briefly when English medium was first introduced, when as Tara puts it I used different personnel (not from Sabaragamuwa as she says but rather from Sri Jayewardenepura mainly), but that was put paid to by Ranil, with only the production of materials continuing for a second year under a lively team under Nirmali Hettiarachchi.

Dr. Tara de Mel

With regard to the seminal reforms in primary education, inspired by the dedicated Kamala Peiris, to whom Tara gives due credit, the failure to reform the curriculum at teacher colleges, and to develop decent materials, proved fatal. A recent attempt by Madhubhashini Ratnayake to introduce more activities has unfortunately not moved as quickly as it should have, though it would have done much to change teacher approaches. And I was able to see way back in 2004 how Tara’s idea of Activity Based Oral English was perverted when a good textbook was replaced when she was out of office by a bad one, with no effort make to train teachers in concentrating on activities and oral practice.

With regard to university education, Tara mentions the IRQUE project which she initiated during her first stint as Secretary, but it was perverted after the change of Government. Without her guidance it degenerated into formulaic approaches and rent-seeking, as when those who ran it later modelled improvements on an Indonesian initiative that was based on private universities seeking to attract students. And the Labour Market Observatory section was hived off, and its results have not been heard of since.

But she has to be congratulated for the establishment of the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology and starting the practice of state encouragement of private institutions, and also for the innovative Uva Wellassa University with its dynamic first Chancellor Chandra Embuldeniya. Though its innovations have slowed down, the spirit continues with his capable disciple who is now Dean of the Management Faculty and has just introduced a multidisciplinary degree programme which Susil does not seem to have registered. Otherwise he would see this as one way forward, instead of complaining that ‘75% of university students used to apply for arts and commerce faculties’. Without Tara to guide him, there is no way he will be able to think outside the box.

One area which Tara has omitted to mention, perhaps because her bete noir stopped it even getting off the ground, was a comprehensive curriculum revision which the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education undertook in 2005. She had not encouraged this when she came back into the office, thinking there was plenty of time, but then she realized time was running out and asked that it be done immediately. But though much work was done, progress was slowed by the archaic figures Chandrika had appointed, without consulting Tara, to head the National Education Commission and the National Institute of Education.

There is much in Tara’s book about Lakshman Jayatilleka, who headed both those institutions during the nineties, but instead of such a visionary Chandrika gave a job as head of the NEC to Prof. Suraweera, who was not at all amenable to new ideas. Even worse was Jagath Wickramasinghe, another USJP academic, who did not understand secondary education at all and was dominated by his dogmatic underlings at the NIE.

Tara could not supervise everything herself, but she does note some of the admirable officials at the Ministry who supported her. Sadly she does not mention her Deputy there in her first stint, Lalith Weeratunge, for they fell out later because of the hostility that developed between Chandrika and Mahinda Rajapaksa who made Lalith his Secretary when he became Prime Minister in 2004. That was a pity because by then the excellent additional secretaries Tara had had in 2001 had scattered, following the tenure of the appalling Secretary Ranil put in, ignoring for personal reasons the recommendation of those he had appointed to advise him that Lalith be appointed. This reinforces a point I have tried to entrench in constitutions since 2015, that secretaries should not be changed at whim. The continuity that educational reform requires will come only with a permanent secretary or at least statutory provision for handover mechanisms.

There is however another reason for things falling apart in the Ministry in 2005, which led Tara to begging me to reconsider when I resigned since things were not moving forward, adding that there was hardly anyone else she could talk to at the Ministry. Unfortunately talking to her when I most needed her had not been easy from the beginning of the year, for Chandrika, furious when Mahinda Rajapaksa seemed to have handled the tsunami devastation well when she was abroad, took charge of relief herself and appointed task forces of her favourites. Unfortunately Tara was amongst them and so had to dance attendance at President’s house.

She told me, when I informed her that the Ministry was disintegrating without her, that she would make sure she was there every afternoon, but the very next day she was summoned and kept for hours. As she says in the book, Chandrika could not and would not keep to time. That may not be the only reason that the reforms she promoted failed, but it is symptomatic of the lack of professionalism that vitiates public life and makes so sad the failure of Tara’s dedicated efforts.

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