It’s the 95th Birthday of Deshabandu Dr. Mrs. Wimala De Silva. The tributes paid to her could only convey how limited words are to describe the personage. It is eight years since she passed on; what she did; what she said; Her influence prevails and time has not dimmed it. Education was her primary interest [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A powerful educational force


It’s the 95th Birthday of Deshabandu Dr. Mrs. Wimala De Silva. The tributes paid to her could only convey how limited words are to describe the personage. It is eight years since she passed on; what she did; what she said; Her influence prevails and time has not dimmed it. Education was her primary interest and into it she kneaded her thoughts and ideas; in fact whenever I think of the ideal Principal, the educational leader of the school; the Democratic culture of the school evolved through the values and attitudes lived in the school it’s Mrs. Silva that comes to my mind.

Remembering Dr. Wimala de Silva and left inset, Jezima Ismail delivering the lecture

In fact we chose this topic – “A Vision for Education” because of this powerful educational force that was Mrs. Silva. Talking of vision, I just have to quote from Lilian Ratnayake’s article “The Hands that moulded Devi Balika” from ‘A convocation of memories’. “Somebody asked her (Mrs. Silva) what her vision and mission were in building up the school. She replied “I did not look at my responsibility in terms of a vision and a mission. These are modern concepts. But I certainly had a clear cut goal for the school and my own recipe to work it out. Now I realise half a century later that my objectives for the school had been very modern”.

That was Mrs. Silva. No wonder that influence was like a handprint on concrete- it will never fade away. No wonder my mind was filled with thoughts based on my life experiences with Mrs. Silva and when I articulate them both implicitly and explicitly, I can see the influence of 50 years of being with her.

Her concerns ranged over a wide area – some of the themes were Education and Empowerment of Women, All levels of education, primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational and technical, rights and responsibilities of the aged, the welfare of children, the role of language, history, culture and tradition – the list goes on. I have looked at mostly secondary education the school system where both Mrs. Silva and I had an unforgettable life.

Talking of Mrs. Silva herself, to all outward appearances she was a matter of fact person, solid and her feet grounded in reality, precise and specific about matters and meant business despite the soft voice and slow intonation and a charming feminine smile. Her characteristics were a sense of humour, dry wit which emerged in quaint witticisms. Sometimes absolutely funny and other times sarcastic but never unkind but paying its dividends in the response and reactions without causing pain and humiliation. Calm and controlled was her demeanour but again her actions were full of dynamism and innovation borne out of her creativity and alertness to changing contexts.

The title “Vision for Education” was chosen – A dream often gets caught up in cloudy thoughts while a vison stands out clear to be transplanted in steps that form the mission to fulfil the objectives and achieve the goals. Mrs. Silva believed in a Humanistic Education and personalised connotation of contexts shaped out of a Sinhala culture – oriental but also had the brush of the West. It was indeed a happy mixture of the oriental and the west enhanced by her education and travel. I quote from her book – ‘Those Phoenix Days’ – This passage is from Maliyadeva Government Girls’ College School Report 1948 where she was a Principal in 1947.

“One great defect in our curriculum is that it provides little scope for practical skills. The subjects we teach hardly cater to the needs of the children. Needlework is taught and cookery of a kind. But little else of practical use. The subjects we teach are far removed from the skills of our native soil and the needs of the land. Often I have heard the word “godayatic” applied disparagingly to this school. We are that, and we are proud of it. My complaint is that we are not “godayatic” enough and do not draw sufficient inspiration from the skills and crafts and traditions of our soil.

In this connection I would remind you of a story you all know-the story of Antaeus and the Pygmies. As long as Antaeus had his feet on the earth no one could overthrow him. But the moment he lost touch with the earth, he became as weak as a new born babe. Like all myths, this too conveys a truth-the truth that a nation, a culture and a language must have its roots firmly fixed in the soil; must be in touch with the common life of the common man. Otherwise it loses its strength and its virility even as Antaeus did. That is why I would want this school to be “godyatic”-genuinely so, not merely superficially.

She can flourish best only through the traditions, the customs, the culture, the arts and the crafts of her own soil. Lose touch with that, and we lose our individuality. Do not mistake me. I do not advocate an escapist education. We cannot cut ourselves from all the complexities of modern life and take refuge in an idyllic past. We cannot ignore the very real benefits to be derived from a foreign culture. We may not blind ourselves to the vast horizons opened to us by a foreign tongue. But it is only through our own culture and our own soil, that we can achieve fullest self-realisation”.

Dr. Mrs. Wimala De Silva would have been happy to hear President Maithripala Sirisena’s comments on the system of education where he urges the experts to bring about a modern-day approach to bring quality to the National Education system. The occasion was the centenary celebrations of St. John’s College Nugegoda. He questioned the success of the National School concept and the practical implementation in improving the standards of the education system to provide an equal opportunity to students to practise their right to education.

Continuing, he said that the country has approximately 10,000 schools with 390,000 students receiving education and there is discrimination of students as a certain proportion of schools has been recognised as National Schools while the majority have no such recognition which discourage students studying in such schools. He further questioned the criteria and the guidance under whom the authorities follow in such categories of schools. This would naturally affect negatively the students. He further commented adversely about the categorisation of schools according to ethnicity and religion which we all know has been the cause of many issues that contribute to disharmony and affect social cohesion and integration leading to a lack of peace.

My reference to this report was to illustrate the fact it is not usual for a President of Sri Lanka to be so specifically critical and that too so positively and identify two issues that need immediate attention. Mrs. Silva’s code of ethics had as its priorities, fairness, transparency, justice and non-discrimination especially in education and these we see are of utmost importance in the President’s speech.

To add to these negative factors research reports and evaluations exercises reveal that there has been a sharp decline in the standard and quality of education. “The General Education Reforms of 1997” written by the Presidential Task Force on General Education reports “ The education system does not produce pupils with knowledge, understanding and skills and attitudes appropriate for successful living. Total personality development characterised by creativity, initiative, discipline, team spirit, respect and tolerance of other people and other cultures is not achieved. Therefore reform and restructuring of the education system has been an urgent priority”.

Citizenship Education
Reform and restructuring the education system has become an urgent priority and is an integral aspect of the development process of the country where every citizen should be empowered providing all with access to valuable resources of knowledge and information. In the efforts to build the nation after the troubled periods, education reform should not as usually done focus on technical aspects such as building more schools, introducing computers, bridging the gender gap taking gender parity to gender equity. These are necessary but what should be focused on is the basic human component.

We need young people to know at a very early age what it means to be citizens and be able to make decisions, how to gather information and use one’s initiative to be innovative and independent. Modern skills and key competencies for life-long learning for instance language learning, mathematical competence, basic skills in science and technology, learning to practise social and civil competence, entrepreneurial and cultural awareness and experience should be the essence of the learning programme.

Further in order for students to learn what it means to be democratic would entail reforming the environment of the classroom and nurture a democratic culture. This culture should be for the entire school especially the principal and the teachers to develop their own competencies in citizenship skills through in-services professional development programmes. Essentially the didactic lecture based approach should give way to a teaching approach that emphasises open discussion and active learning in political and social issues. In a multi-cultural state such as Sri Lanka it’s the pluralistic environment that one has to grow.

A classroom of a democratic culture as envisaged as one where collaboration, creativity and cultural sensivity is fostered; where young people learn to live not only within the confines of their own community but also in the pluralistic nation. Furthermore this could be extended to the world culture so that young people are able to address the challenges of a globalised world. These issues in fact when analysed motivate and inspire young people because it is relevant to their everyday lives and concerns. Citizenship education gives a sense of empowerment and can be classified as a key 21st century competent. Civic competence which contributes to the development of other competencies is required for life long living.

This type of education is not easy to effect but when it does take root, in short, it will give rise to students who would have the capacity to engage in community, national and global issues. It must be remembered that this education does not need a new subject. It could be woven into the existing subject. What is new would be the methodology of teaching.

Values, religion and moral education
Another area of great importance that should be looked at seriously is the areas of values. Mrs. Silva was one of those who walked the talk. She modelled it. In her book ‘Those Phoenix Days’ she wrote – I quote “I am not too happy to write on value education and personality development as though they are distinct from what happens in the classroom. Trying to do so is like the proverbial attempt to unscramble the scrambled egg. Nevertheless there are aspects of school life which lean more towards such intangibles”.

Many in education believe that moral education should emerge from the ethos of the school, in particular from its personal relationships rather than from the formal religious education.

However in Sri Lanka it would be difficult to take religion off the curriculum and efforts should be made to the teaching of this subject which needs to be more realistic and relevant to the life of the pupils. The contents of religious education, to consider one aspect of it should be much more than telling stories and talking of anecdotes. The purpose clearly is to help the pupil to consider as deeply as possible the ultimate questions posed by human existence, by his own existence and then to face them with a faith which is his own because it’s freely chosen.

The chief objective of religious education is to be seen not in ecclesiastical or evangelical terms but in educational ones to the broadest sense. Like the rest of educational goals, it should help the young to grow into whole mature people at one with themselves, able to develop good relations with others capable of responding to the highest elements. There is no doubt there is certainly a spiritual dimension to human life and one of the religious objectives is to create an awareness of it and to provide the opportunity for its growth. This process would provide the avenue for the emerging of values necessary for life and living.

Educational leadership vs management
There is no doubt that a school principal wears many hats and at various times must be administrators, managers, diplomats, teachers and curriculum leaders. However at no time should she forget she is primarily an educational leader. It is a balancing act where the principal should be able to fluidly move from one role to another. Mrs. Silva would often grasp opportunities to teach in the classroom. Apart from her regular periods on the time-table when teachers were absent or a class was without a teacher, she would fill in. She was convinced and in fact convinced me that teaching in the classroom had a positive effect in that it helped to keep one’s finger on the pulse of the school.

The ideal Principal or education leader should be one to make effective use of resources and apart from knowing the strengths and weakness of the institutions should be able to provide allocation necessary for the staff. The environment should be free of all politicization and teachers together with the principal work for a democratic culture in the school.

The recognition of teachers is important and good work needs appreciation and acknowledgement. Principals should be excellent communicators not an orator but a speaker to be able to communicate their beliefs pertaining to education to convince and a sincere effort to convinced those around that every student is capable of learning. Inter personal or people’s skills are crucial to the successful principal and it is these skills that inspire trust, spark motivation and empower teachers and students. It is imperative that educational leaders tune in to all the pertinent issues and current events related to curriculum, effective assessment and pedagogical strategies. Such knowledge should be enhanced by including knowledge of a general nature too.

In order to promote the ideal Principal what is urgent is to shift from a “management” model of working on administrative and financial tasks and emphasise educational leadership. It is necessary in the present context to redefine the role of the principal and focus on bureaucratic structures and procedure to be removed and relationships reinvented. The task should embrace building a vital community of learners, professional development of staff members, creating a climate of integrity leading to a more meaningful learning environment.

The present context of Sri Lanka, recovering from the years of turbulence demands a total approach to education in terms of the development of people, and of regions. In order that general education pays the highest dividends it should not take place in isolation and requires expansion and creation of opportunities for higher education, technical education and for vocational training. As the General Education Reforms 1997 say – that there are “strong arguments for a major shift in education policy and a comprehensive and coordinated approach to change. The principle elements of this shift are: self-realisation, life-long learning with emphasis on learning to learn, inculcating of human values and emphasis on stimulating the balanced mental and physical growth of the individual.

The key factors to such education are the principal, teachers and other personnel of the school. Teachers are crucial and should be motivated committed and dedicated. Their effectiveness and efficiency will no doubt add quality to education. It is not the buildings, neither is it the hierarchy of officials outside the school that matter. The educational leadership of the leader – the principal supported by efficient management processes would definitely deliver quality education.

This is a sort of a postscript
This presentation was written and was about to be finalised when I came across this article of July 12, 2015 in the Sunday Times. A vision is indeed healthy as it prompts thoughts, planning and action. However, it needs to be hinged to reality and in Sri Lanka politics and its players are a definite reality and without political will very few plans will become action. In fact education needs a superhuman effort for reformation and the backing of political leaders is a must. In the article it was heartening to read the title “President promises education of the heart”. The President made this remark at the ceremony to mark the 150th jubilee of St. Benedict’s College.

That he would soon implement a comprehensive plan to reform the whole education process and structure so that there would be education not only of the mind but more so of the heart. He revealed that as a child in a poor farmer family in Polonnaruwa he had to walk five kilometres to school. Thus he had a deep experience and commitment to develop thousands of regional or rural schools because education was vital for all to become good and intelligent citizens who would work hard for the common good of all.

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