ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16
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Teacher, cane thyself

This week we witnessed a sorry spectacle - the sight of 90 percent of the 18,800 schools countrywide closed because of trade union action by teachers.

Noteworthy is the fact that in schools in the North and East where there is a premium placed on education, teachers did not join the strike. Despite a brutal insurgency coupled with forced child conscription, no guerrilla group dare mess about with the school system in that part of the country.

The spiralling cost of living has hit everyone's pocket, not least the teachers, and some anomaly in having paid only a section of teachers a wage hike has resulted in the exercise of the ultimate weapon in trade union action -- a strike. It was back during the 'social revolution' of 1956, that teachers were recognised as a political force in the 'pancha maha balavegaya' along with the native doctor, farmer, blue collar worker and the clergy.

The teacher was venerated on par with the clergy and one's parents. Once a 'Sir', always a 'Sir'; once a 'Miss' or 'Madam', always one. Even Governors and Prime Ministers still 'Sired' their erstwhile teachers.

Thus, the on-going teachers' strike makes it even sadder -- that those, in whose hands the next generation will be largely moulded, should resort to action that keeps children at home.

At the rate we are having strikes in every sector, justified or not, we may next see parents or the clergy going on strike refusing to attend to rituals and give their blessings.

The sorry state of the school system, once the pride of Sri Lanka, finds children unable to enter Grade 1; once in school, having to stay at home, and once finished with their A-Levels unable to move on because teachers are not marking their exam papers.

The universities are a pathetic story by themselves. In the rural areas, schools are closing down due to lack of teachers and resources -- about 600 in the past four years. These schools come under lame duck Provincial Councils whose priority is importing duty-free vehicles for their councillors.

In the bigger schools, the destructive tide of corruption has crept in where once strict codes of conduct were upheld with pride. Not so long ago, the Education Ministry suspended four principals on graft charges, and the Bribery Commission has investigated many more.

On the sports field, staff and past pupils join hands to forge documents and break the rules so that championships can be won and hollow boasts be made. No longer does the credo -- "It's not whether you win or lose; but how you played the game" hold sway. Today, it is only about winning -- by hook or by crook.

This year, the horrendous news broke out that the worst O-Level results in history was recorded, a sad collective indictment on teachers of this country.

Private tuition is the name of the game -- and to hell with those who can't afford it. International schools seduce the best of teachers from Government schools offering pay packets only the strong-willed can resist.

This is the grim picture that confronts us. A radical and realistic re-think of the school system is long overdue. For the seeds planted today will bear fruit only in a decade, and every year delayed will be a year lost. This re-think must accept the reality that not all schools can be like the 50 National Schools in the country. And the reforms must not bring these National Schools down.

The Central College scheme mooted by the Father of Free Education, the late C.W.W. Kannangara, now ignored, must be revived and strengthened, and more and more Government scholarships given for bright rural children to the nurtured National Schools. Free education is a misnomer, a myth.

Politically, it is fashionable to support "free education", but education is anything but free today. The 'facilities fees' scheme in existence must be re-visited, because a bankrupt Government simply does not have the means to finance the school system anymore.

There is merit in adopting the practices of a bygone era when classes in National Schools had children of all communities, only going their separate ways when subjects in different language streams were taught.

This country must accept that English, is the lingua-franca of the world, and a small country like Sri Lanka - and Sri Lankans - have a huge disadvantage without knowledge of what is, without doubt, the business language of the world. Singapore realised this a long time and we can see the results. The Internet has opened new vistas in both teaching and learning, and children with knowledge of English are reaping the benefits the world over. Why not Sri Lankan children?

But all this boils down to the role of the teacher in the classroom. We publish today a tribute by a 65-year-old student of his master, now 80. That might be a good lesson for teachers to learn, and reflect upon, while they stay at home these days.

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