Textbook controversies trigger official visits and legal action

Education Ministry officials will be calling at private international schools this week to inspect teaching materials being used.
Leon Berenger reports

The education authorities have launched a widescale investigation into teaching materials used at international schools. The move follows recent controversies relating to certain textbooks in the curriculum.

These texts have been described as presenting a “misinterpretation of several subjects”, and could be deemed detrimental to the “country’s image.”

A team of senior officials from the Ministry of Education has been appointed to look into the matter and collect examples of offensive material being used in these schools, Education Secretary Sunil. S. Sirisena told the Sunday Times.

According to Mr. Sirisena, subjects ranging from history and geography to sex education have been “hopelessly distorted” in some textbooks, which project a negative image of the country and clash with its traditional values. Currently under investigation is a history textbook used at a Colombo 5-based international school, and a sex education textbook used at the Colombo International School (CIS).
Mr. Sirisena said these up-market educational institutions were under scrutiny, and that Education Ministry officials would be visiting the schools this week.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is drawing up a national education policy under which international schools would be monitored and the education system streamlined. “These private educational institutions have had a free run for decades,” Mr. Sirisena said. “They are covered by the Companies Act and operate under the Board of Investment (BOI), which means local authorities cannot interfere in the schools’ administration and teaching. All this will change once a national policy on education is established.”

Last week the Sunday Times highlighted a controversial history textbook that is being used at one of the international schools. A spokesperson for the school told the Sunday Times that the book would be withdrawn if the education authorities found it unsuitable.

The spokesperson added that there was reason to suspect a “hidden agenda” behind the raising of objections to the book. He said the cause for the controversy was another local writer who was making a bid to have his own history of Sri Lanka introduced to government schools.

“The history book under scrutiny has material from Stories From the History of Ceylon by Marie Museaus Higgins,” the spokesperson said. “There was no intent to show disrespect or disparage any episode in Sri Lanka history. This textbook has been used for the past two to four years, and there have been no complaints – until now.”

According to sources, the book describes the Sri Lankan people as descendants of persons guilty of betrayal, implying that this could be the reason for Sri Lanka’s conflicts. Meanwhile, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has almost completed its investigation into a sex education book taught to 11- and 12-year-olds at the Colombo International School (CIS).

NCPA chairperson Anoma Dissanayake told the Sunday Times that the police have recorded statements from several persons, including the complainant and the CIS principal, and that legal action would be taken.

“The NCPA is working closely with the education authorities in this matter, and every effort will be made to force CIS to remove the offending chapters,” Ms. Dissanayake said.

Meanwhile, the CIS authorities defend the book, saying that Introducing Moral Issues by Joe Jenkins is a standard text in schools in other countries, and that the book is available in the school library. Former Colombo International School principal Andrew Fowler-Watt told the Sunday Times that the school authorities should have been mindful of the local culture when they decided to introduce the book into the curriculum and teach it to children in the 11-to-12 years age group.

“I was principal of Colombo International School from 2007 to 2009, and I was not aware of this particular book. The cover of the book does not reflect is contents, and that may be one reason it slipped through the net,” Mr. Fowler-Watt said.

“In the UK, adult material of this nature is not discussed even with students over 14 years. One cannot expect the principal to read every textbook taught at a school. There are other staff members for this purpose.”

Mr. Fowler-Watt said parents too were answerable, and that they should have brought up the textbook matter earlier. While describing the CIS response to the controversy as “wrong”, Mr. Fowler-Watt said the school principal – M. J. Chappel – was a school employee who was probably following instructions.
Mr. Fowler-Watt said it was unfair to put the entire blame on the principal, Mr. Chappel. “This is wrong,” he said. “I was in London having dinner with two of my former students when we saw the Sunday Times front page story.”

The CIS sex education textbook became news when a parent asked the school authorities to remove certain chapters that contained “offensive material”. The parent’s request was ignored.

One parent who has objected strongly to the textbook is former United National Party Parliamentarian, Dinesh D. Dodangoda. He has filed legal action against the CIS authorities, and has even taken his child out of the school.

“The book contains adult material and pictures of contraceptives and sex aids,” Mr. Dodangoda, a former journalist, told the Sunday Times. “It also describes how to use drugs.” He said material like that could have an adverse impact on young minds, and the consequences could be disastrous.

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