ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43


Headlong rush into change, for change's sake

There is the need for a radical reform of Higher Education in the context of emerging national tasks and objectives

I welcome Dr. Tara de Mel's discussion on education in The Sunday Times of December 2 and 9, 2007 and in the Daily Mirror of January 7, 2008. It is the contention of Dr. de Mel's article that, there has been only a "tinkering and no reform for the past 60 years" in the education system in Sri Lanka. She winds up her article with the statement "Stop tinkering with our education".

The present educational system in Sri Lanka is extremely complex in structure, organization and composition, as it has a long history, extending to more than a hundred years. I have limited the scope of this review to the last few decades as Dr. de Mel's speech covers only 60 years up to 1997. It continues to put forth the diatribes deigned to destroy what was once regarded as the essential framework of the prevailing brilliant Free Education System of 1945. This remarkable and eventful step of 1945 by C.W.W. Kannangara had far-reaching results, heralding a new generation of educated people imbibed with national ideologies and spirit.

A great socio-economic political change took place just after Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. The political changes in 1956 led to the changing of the media of instruction to the mother tongue in 1959 and the dismantling of the denominational system in 1960/61. The Sinhala Bill and the changes created disharmony from minority perception as it led to the creation of new structures of privileges in a macro society. The comprehensive Educational Reforms of 1981 with its essential, formidable framework of polity, objectives, structure, administration and management curricula, methodology, teacher education, pre-service, in-service and continuous service testing, evaluation, examination, research, guidance and counselling, computer education, technical and vocational and science education were the best since 1945.

A radical change in any social trend can be a source of tension, imbalance and crisis requiring painstaking adjustment from the old to the new set of circumstances. By 1972 there were signs of an educational crisis. The signs of a potential crisis included the escalation of declining quality, doubts about the relevance of curricula imported from the West, New Mathematics and Integrated Science from Britain, Social Science from America, Pre-Vocational education from East Germany. The imbalance between supply and demand for educated manpower and educational aspirations and employment opportunities enforced a direct threat to socio-economic development of the country. I would like to define it as "Headlong rush with change, for change's sake".

The 1972 Education Reforms named 'Nawa Maga' were received with considerable hostility by educationists and wider community. It was recognized as a more complex even muddled, arrangement of ideas and structures formulated in haste and therefore riddled with inconsistencies.

A decade of progress
The Education Reforms of 1981 were a history of triumphs not failures, after a decade of educational crisis in Sri Lanka. It heralded the birth of a new era in education. By any criterion the proposed education system during that decade was truly remarkable. A well crafted vision was articulated and executed in 1981. It made drastic changes in the structure, content, methodology, teacher education, management, administration, examination, testing, educational guidance and counselling and research. The remarkable and eventful step had far-reaching results in Sri Lanka.

A very historical event was the opening of the National Institute of Education in 1986. It was a landmark in the developments of education in Sri Lanka.
The educational reforms of 1981 had resulted in the general trend towards the reconstruction in the worst hit areas, the changes of economic, sociological changes, conflict between cultural tradition and the necessity for re-adaptation.

The New Reforms of Education 1997
These reforms cannot be recognized as national system as certain categories were left out. They were pirivenas, schools in the plantation sector, private schools, deprived schools, special schools, international schools, non-formal and formal education. A national system of education can ill-afford to leave out very important sectors. This was a significant drawback of the system. Its implications were disunity and disintegration of the nation.

It is a glaring fact that thinking of the education system has been done by reforms of 1997 of England. There are some implications for educational planning. No educational planning is implied in the reforms. What was implied by the 1981 report has been ignored.

Just imagine the tremendous task of an education system to transfer national objectives which amount to 59 in all, to educational objectives. The achievement of one objective appears to undermine the other. This is confusion compounded. Education was a meandering process with no proper goal to aim at. As John Dewey has pointed out "acting with an aim is one with acting intelligently". So it is with objectives. Objectives need to be put into perspective, and then handled in a sensitive and creative manner.

One of the most drastic changes in the management and organization of the N.I.E. occurred with the reforms, where subjects were not considered as disciplines. As a result, for the first time in the history of the world subjects (disciplines) were handled by officers, who were clueless of the subject. This created utter chaos in the structure, management and education of the National Institute of Education.

It was followed by a reshuffle of the staff. We were witnessing a progressive decline of the NIE in Sri Lanka. The country possessed in the N.I.E. a unique asset with a collegiate structure, the prestige of great scholars and scientists, national and international, combined with a long experience of educating the adult and young, close relations with the best of the country's secondary and primary schools. All these seemed to indicate the possibility of their playing an important and leading role in the new era. And of course to some extent they had succeeded. All one can say is that the N.I.E. that achieved academic excellence and cultural pursuits, today loses its claim to the nation's gratitude and esteem. Institutions that lose faith in themselves are doomed to decline.

In Dr. de Mel’s article the activity of educational planning, as the main instrument of managing education policy is not even discussed. The wisdom of planning is with respect to the government administration – the mainstay of routine school management etc. The necessity of paying more attention to policy implementation strategies, the requirement of handling the apparently paradoxical problem of under education and over education of the population, decline in educational standard are not even mentioned. Never have the urgencies and priorities in education been felt so badly. Education planning in a reform of education should confront these issues with due rigour and imagination, while continuing to provide a frame of coherence and vision of the future of education. The economic and social crisis, the major problem facing education, the role of education and the role of the state in society should have been examined in educational planning.

The implementation of policies, plans and programmes requires an improvement in the management and administration of education. I believe that there is the need to pay more attention to the schools themselves, where the pupils are and where learning takes place and to institutional management. No genuine solution can be found for the modernization of administration and management without a review of recruitment procedures aimed at ensuring a higher level of staff professionalism, or without an improvement of administrators working conditions. Among measures to be taken to improve the quality of education, the provision of teaching material and other pedagogical equipment is not considered as an essential priority. The need to remotivate teaching staff in remote deprived areas, such as in terms of staff retraining, provision of living quarters, and in salary increases is not even proposed. It is evident that it is not enough to set on just one or two input variables. Improving of quality of education is one of the necessary conditions of development.

Education and unemployment relationship are not evaluated and concern about it is not addressed. Over-education of graduates with respect to economic absorption capacity, the under-education of a large part of the labour force and the insufficient quality of higher education have been overlooked. Thus we are beset with old problems, which persist along with new problems which compound them. All this must be addressed in establishing priorities.

The core component of Educational Reform is the discussion and review of the various concepts, issues, factors, and methods, which must be taken into consideration in setting objectives, priorities and strategies. This is not there. The whole course of training of teachers needs a vast shake up. The distinction between pre-service, in-service, initial and continuing teacher education has become blurred with the introduction of unstructured seminars and workshops carried out unsystematically now and then.

In-service training of unqualified teachers has been inadequate in 1999 because programmes were poorly designed and their contents are lacking in relevance. What bewilders me is the overlooking of the glaring disparities of the provinces and districts on transport, water facility, health, parental income announced by the N.E.C. based on an intensive, scientific research study done in 1992, where later Dr. de Mel served as a committee member.

The examination system is notorious as it is not based on scientifically constructed tests. As a result the tests are not valid and reliable. It is an appalling situation leading to unfair, subjective assessment of students and the growth of a meritocracy in Sri Lanka. The cost-consequences of each component of the reform are not stated and indeed information is totally lacking on the financial implications.

Any reform that does not indicate its cost is considered as a "shopping list" by economists of education. As a result the implementation of the plan remains superficial and does not contribute to reaching national objectives. The practicability of its implementation is not stated -- how with limited resources, and unlimited demands, who should be educated, at what expense, at whose expense.

Nearly 10 years have passed and we have not witnessed the implementation of most of the reforms proposed. Not all change is progressive and not all reversion is regressive. When a course of action has proved erroneous, it is rational to abandon it. But all the sort of stuff Dr. de Mel has been noting boils down to tinkering -- that may be to avoid arguments on the merit of the cases. In the exact definition of tinkering, her argument is not valid. What Dr. de Mel normally assumes, indeed, it is a matter of dogmas. Her slogans cover the usual gamut of abbreviation CT, CD, PETS, GATS, TIMSS, PISO with respect to themes.

There is the need for a radical reform of Higher Education in the context of emerging national tasks and objectives, which should have been expressed as priority one. It is not even discussed. Without a well structured H.E. system, how is it possible to implement a comprehensive H.E reform?

Dr. de Mel should be encouraged to devote herself to the obligations and disciplines of her profession and leave free to respond to the need of the nation in the way its educational professionals feel is best and most efficient. Only if they fail or have been accused of failing to respond – would there be any justification for the constant policing, harassing and direction to which education is being subjected.

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