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The Sunday Times,
47. W.A. D. Ramanayake Mawatha, Colombo 2
Any government voted into power is inextricably bound to look after its citizens through the various services offered by the State. For this purpose there are several departments coming under the purview of various ministries and also state corporations which are expected to serve the public without fear or favour sans injustice and discrimination. For the services rendered by them, the public servants receive a decent salary, overtime, a five-day working week, subsidized railway travel, plenty of holidays and at the end of their working career, a monthly pension which is by no means small.
However, judging by the large number of letters from the public appearing in your columns and the thousands of queries addressed to the Ombudsman linked to public service apathy it goes without saying that the services rendered to the public by its servants leaves much to be desired. It begs the question whether it is fair to allow a little more than a million public servants to hold another near 17 million citizens of this country to ransom through go-slows, strikes, foot dragging, procrastination and general dereliction of duty.
The onus of providing a satisfactory service to the people rests on the government of the day and therefore it must adopt suitable measures to ensure that the government machinery functions without any hiccups to the detriment of public comfort.
It is well to remember that the public servants cannot per se topple a government but a discontented public certainly can. Therefore, it calls for a concerted effort on the part of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, MPs attached to Ministries in a supervisory capacity, Ministry Secretaries etc. in the way of introducing monitoring systems linked to the various departments in a particular ministry and requiring them to keep to rigid dead-line and time-frame imperatives in the discharge of their services to the public.
What happens today is diametrically opposite. The government employee, be he a doctor who has taken the Hippocratic oath, a ministering Florence Nightingale or a clerk is more or less mollycoddled. Powerful Trade Unions backed by political parties provide them with adequate cover and at the drop of a hat the alarm bells of an impending go-slow or strike is sounded.
At the receiving end, when this takes place, is the hapless public, who ironically pays for public servants upkeep.
The fact that efficiency in the public service is vitiated by bribery, corruption, negligence, apathy and lethargy is commonly known.
Teachers serving in government schools too are guilty of neglecting their wards to the extent that most, if not all, the students attend private tutories seeking success at examinations. It will be an interesting exercise to find out the number of letters received by a particular government department in a day and how many letters are replied. If one takes the Labour Department as an example, it appears that none of its sections work with any degree of efficiency.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of employers who dodge EPF and ETF requirements. Most of the private security firms do not make recoveries for EPF from their employees. Without exaggeration, billions of rupees ARE lost to the Treasury due to delinquent employers skirting the statutory requirement of contributing to EPF and ETF.
Some of the Trade Unions who are obliged to lead by example too fall into this category. The Labour Department is supposed to keep a tab on such errant tactics of the employers but then, does this happen?
It has all the power to nab the culprits and prosecute them and compel them to pay up. Not too often a sprat is netted but the big sharks slip though.
The public servants of yore, who entered the service from the front door were certainly a different breed. They were above board and nonpareil, imbued with a sense of honesty and dedication to discharge the responsibilities entrusted to them with unbridled efficiency. Such personalities would be an aberration in the public service of today.
During the previous regime the TV presented a cameo where two women in the public service were engaged in animated conversation on the telephone when the department head was frantically awaiting his turn to get across an official call. One woman was making love over the phone while the other was discussing the art of cake making. At the end, the officer who was late in calling, is penalized for the delay.
Talking of telephones, some telephones lie idle and dead for weeks with no attention paid. Transferring of a telephone from one address to another takes even longer. At most times such delayed attention is deliberately caused.
The necessity to oil the palm is still very much in vogue, Bribery Department notwithstanding. In the good old days a letter by ordinary post from Galle to Colombo took just one day but today with supposedly improved conditions it takes 3 to 4 days. It seems that when the big cats are warming their seats ensconced in sinecure comfort the mice are really at play.
The President has effected a Cabinet reshuffle and promoted a few more to Cabinet rank, obviously in the hope of serving the nation better than what her government has been doing in the past three years and it will be the sacred responsibility of all the Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries etc. in the government to revamp the public service, plug the loopholes and enforce more discipline in its governance.
If not, the millions of peasants who contributed largely to install this government in power will be a disconcerted lot and are most likely not to turn up for voting for the simple reason that they have not been served adequately.
International schools have come up all around the country and as a result questions and queries have cropped up in regard to the legitimacy of these institutions. For the past two weeks, two gentlemen have expressed their dissent on the setting up and existence of international schools. I cannot fully agree with the sentiments expressed by them.
Firstly, The Very Rev. Sydney Knight brought forward an argument to the effect, that Sri Lankans have the money to go to these institutions, and so this certainly creates a new social elite.
Sri Lanka, with an open economy, has adopted many capitalist economic policies. And within a capitalist economic framework, similar to Sri Lanka, there shall always be in existence a superior economic class. Inevitably this economic class will use their economic strength, to lead a life of a higher standard. Therefore, things like night clubs, luxury boulevards, sports clubs, and even private, international schools and universities, come into existence and are patronised by this economic class. What these aforementioned institutions do is not create a new social class but merely symbolise the existence of a superior economic community. Even in Sri Lanka the existence of night clubs, casinos, luxury boulevards and international schools are results of the capitalist economy. And therefore it is not international schools which create a new social class but the economy itself. And if there is the desire to eliminate this social class, then the economy itself should be changed. And Sri Lankans should embrace socialist economic policies. Therefore it is clear that international schools have no part in the creation of a new social elite.
Secondly, he states that there was a time when students of sociology were of the opinion that the private schools in our country were producing a new social class. He also asks, are not the international schools also doing that? Later on in his article he reveals that he is a Trinitian.
I wish to ask him whether at any point in his schooling career, if his school, Trinity College had ever imparted wrong values? Myself, being a Thomian, have always had unpleasant experiences, where I have been branded a "snob" and an "elitist". Whatever it is S. Thomas College has never given improper values, and has never been instrumental in producing elitists. And after having very long acquaintances with students of international schools, I find it difficult to understand the logic behind the statement that private and international schools create elitists. It further surprises me, that the Very Rev. accepts and presents this criticism, being a Trinitian. I am sure that many International School students would agree that they are more Sri Lankan than most other Sri Lankans.
Thirdly, he brought forward an argument, that since these children are prepared for foreign education, they may not come back to our country. And that we might lose them in the global employment market, therefore a loss to the country.
If people who have paid for their education here and abroad, do not return home are a loss, I would like him to consider the greater loss the nation suffers at the hands of the thousands and thousands of students who study in government schools free of charge, enter university at the mercy of the standardisation and have their education at universities at government cost.
After obtaining their degrees, they take up jobs in the private sector, eventually leaving the country looking for greener pastures. In fact the recent controversy within the Health Department revolved on the same issue. Where doctors who had been educated all their life on government funds do not discharge their office in government hospitals but in contrast do private practice. What I want to show is this, it is not only international school students who do this, but even the government school students. It is clear that this "brain drain" is not a result of international schools but an inherent fault of Sri Lankan society, where self takes precedence over society.
Then of course both gentlemen touched on the issue of teaching standards and discipline. If it is a question of teaching standards, not only international schools, even government schools suffer from this malady. And even on the question of discipline there is much to be desired with regard to the discipline prevalent in other educational institutions.
Nevertheless, I do agree with the Central Bank report, where it calls for the monitoring of international schools. This I am sure is a great relief to all the international school administrators, students, their parents and all those people interested in the welfare of Sri Lanka and of Sri Lankans. This could stop the guerilla warfare waged by both parties, through the press and other modes, and eliminate unnecessary and baseless criticism and in contrast help formulate a clear and appropriate education policy for Sri Lanka.
The importance of English education cannot be denied. And today even private schools have made appeals to reintroduce the English medium of education. India a country with a similar background, similar environment and facing similar problems, a country from where even our constitution is to be borrowed from, has a system where it allows education in both English and the vernacular media. It is left to the discretion of the parents as to the media in which their child is to learn. This has proved greatly successful and has benefited the nation at large. Let us take a lesson from it.
Having been a teacher in a lead ing International School in Colombo, and being the grandson of a Principal of the oldest International School in Colombo, I am pleased to contribute my views on this subject.
At the time the Overseas Childrens School was established in Colombo in the 1950s it was exclusively a school for expatriates, a majority of whom were the children of Diplomats. Subsequently due to political pressure the doors were open to local V.I.Ps children. Unlike the Overseas School which is built on a 5 acre campus, like our leading Colleges, most of the new tutories or cram shops have, under the guise of the trade name International School , borrowing prestigious English names located their Campuses in rented out houses. Here without even sufficient ventilation , students pour over books in crowded classrooms.
In this context I welcome the Presidential directive to educational authorities to lay down standards that should be adhered to by these International Schools. However, I must add that with such a large number of V.V.I.Ps children attending these schools, it is quite possible that even these standards will be flouted.
What I feel is that the government should prohibit schools from functioning outside the purview of the Education Department , with perhaps the exclusion of schools like the Overseas School which caters mainly to expatriates. A majority of the International Schools operative today cater to local students, it is International only in that they present students for foreign exams. These schools ironically if judged by international standards are perhaps some of the lowest in the world, our local schools will perhaps fare much better.
Although it is argued by many that these schools are run for those who opt to study in English with the intention of going abroad for higher studies, I know of thousands of students from local schools who have fared brilliantly in foreign universities after completing around twelve years of secondary education in the Sinhala or Tamil medium.
On the contrary I feel the need to send children to International Schools is a superiority complex on the part of a new rich business class, who want their children to rub shoulders as it were with their equals. This new breed of Mercedez-Benz, Inter-cooler driving class is a danger and threat to our society. If Mrs. Bandaranaikes Government of 1960 aquired private schools to prevent elitism why does the present government turn a blind eye to these commercialized tutories?.
Having been educated in a leading private Catholic college myself, I had the privilege of associating in my own classroom during my school days with the son of a former cabinet minister , the sons of leading businessman as well as middle class and poor children who were granted scholarships. This enabled us to realize the vast socio-economic divide in our society. This is in my view is the first step to a students understanding of the socio-economic background of this country, which is necessary since these children are all potential leaders of this country in various spheres.
Learning a smattering of Sinhala or Tamil for half an hour or observing Sinhala New Year by gobbling down a few Kavums in the International Schools in an exhibitionist and snobbish manner will not help to inculcate cultural values but make a mockery of them instead.
I strongly believe that this hesitation on the part of successive governments to solve the International Schools question and to prohibit the opening of secondary schools which are outside the purview of the education department is due to vested interests.
We are not unaware that two Heads of State and several cabinet ministers over the years have sent their children to these schools where these children get the special attention they will not get in the leading private schools where all are equal once within the school.
If the international school question is not openly discussed and the problems solved it will only prove that the proposed Educational Reforms are another political gimmick to hoodwink the poor masses of this country.
I would appeal to the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to also state what the future UNP policy would be on International Schools.
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