The March of Folly How Ranil sabotaged English medium
Posted on February 27th, 2018

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

Now that it looks like we have Ranil to stay for a few months more, it may be instructive to examine how he often cannot help cutting off his nose to spite his face. What happened way back when he was Prime Minister came back to me when he set up two years ago a committee to look into vocational education (naturally without consulting the minister concerned). It was noted that one of the problems with regard to employment was the lack of English amongst those trained, and we were urged to address this issue.

After the UGC Chairman had spoken about his efforts in this regard I noted that, while as Mahinda Samarasinghe had instructed English was now compulsory as a module for all National Vocational Qualifications, the UGC and we were just applying plaster to wounds that should have been healed in school. I told him that he needed to do more about English there and said I hoped he had given up his opposition to English medium. Typically he dodged the question.

This determined opposition had occurred after English medium had been permitted in the State system from 2002. The initiative began in 2001, and constitutes what I sometimes think will be my most important contribution to reconciliation as well as the future prosperity of Sri Lanka.

The initiative began by accident, simply because I met the then Secretary to the Ministry, Dr. Tara de Mel, at a workshop on English held at the British Council in 2001. Her ideas seemed innovative so, though English medium was not her immediate concern, I broached it with her and she said she was thinking of starting it in a couple of schools at secondary level, in Colombo and Kandy.

I told her that starting at secondary level in just a few urban schools was a mistake, and would reinforce the perception of English as elitist. She should rather throw it open to any school that desired. She argued that there were not enough teachers, but I said there were more than she thought, and schools confident of running a programme should be allowed to do so.

Amity school programme
Tara rang that evening to say that she would start if I joined the ministry and ran the programme. It was an offer I could not refuse, though she agreed I could do the job part-time. She wanted a concept paper straight away, and I did a draft which she promptly followed through on.

So I began work at the ministry, to commence English medium in Grade 6 the following year. We had met in May, and the Circular was issued a few months later, for Zonal Directors to implement.
The programme was entitled the Amity School programme, because we hoped it would enable children of all communities would be able to learn together.

That happened in schools which already had children of different communities in different language streams. But sadly we had no time to pursue actively the idea of bringing students from different schools with single language streams into schools where they could learn together.

Initially only 93 schools volunteered to start the programme in 2002. Some Zonal Directors had been enthusiastic, others ignored the Circular. These last included the Colombo Director, and it was only Ananda College – along with its neighbour Asoka Vidyalaya – that applied from that Zone, having found out independently of the director what was on offer. The private schools were more positive, and for instance old boys of Zahira and Wesley contacted me enthusiastically to find out more details. Royal College was not in the first batch to start, in January 2002.

We got World Bank funding for teacher training as well as materials production. For the former we set up an excellent team, based largely at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, which had helped me devise tertiary English programmes for students who had not offered English at the Advanced Level. That was why I had gone back into the University system, having been asked by Arjuna Aluwihare to advise the English Diploma programme at the Affiliated University Colleges, the precursors of the new universities of the nineties.

The USJP staff I had worked with then took up the new challenge, and introduced innovative approaches, which many teachers embarking on the programme saw as a breath of fresh air. Some of the NIE staff who joined the training programmes were not however very enthusiastic, which I should have seen as a warning sign.

For materials I set up a team under Nirmali Hettiarachchi who had looked after the low cost readers’ programme I had started while at the British Council. Later Nirmali ran the project through the English Association of Sri Lanka, which received much funding from the Canadians, Australians and even the European Union.

Internal Audit
Producing translations of school texts was not then a problem for her, though we did find some strange mistakes in some of the original texts which had to be corrected. We also put in additional information which students would benefit from knowing, and questions to promote reflection.

These caused some problems later, when the Internal Audit of the ministry claimed we had exceeded our brief. Fortunately I was able to show them the terms of reference for the project which included the provision of supplementary knowledge. We also added attractive illustrations and by January we had the lessons for the first term printed and ready for distribution.
The Internal Audit was not interested in the cost of the books. This was sad for they should have noted that the total cost of books for the four subjects we covered was under Rs 200 per student. Government spent close to Rs 700 for books for each child, covering a few more subjects, but printing hundreds of thousands of copies, whereas we printed just a few thousand.
In short, officials of the ministry were obviously making money hand over fist through commissions. Moreover, the politicians benefited, and perhaps not only because those who printed the books produced publicity material for them free of charge. So, in Richard Pathirana’s time, textbooks were printed by and large by printers from Galle. And indeed there was once such a scandal about this that a Secretary of Education had to resign.

Tara had tried to stop this corruption through what was termed a Multiple Book Option, but this was sabotaged by a range of forces. In addition to the rent-seekers in the ministry, Sri Lankan book-sellers did not want experienced producers of school books in their market. Oxford University Press told me they had been threatened not to bid and, not wanting to lose outlets for their other books, they refrained.

International publishers were essential for the concept to succeed, since Sri Lanka has not really had educational publishers after Gunasena’s was destroyed in the animosities of the seventies. So, with the field left to locals, the project turned into a competition between different groups of officials who set up cartels to produce books. An Additional Director General at the National Institute of Education for instance had teams with little knowledge of the subject matter bidding for books in the social studies area, and not surprisingly got many of the contracts.

The corruption endemic in the ministry I discovered only later. Back in 2001, in my first stint at the ministry, I had to concentrate of getting the programme off the ground. But we had great support, not only from Tara, but from a host of Additional Secretaries who were intelligent and committed. Chief amongst them was Lalith Weeratunge, whom I met then for the first time.
I was so impressed, that I even told him that I was surprised to find someone so able in the public service.

But I was not able to work with him or with Tara for very long. For late that year the government changed, and they were got rid of by the new Prime Minister. Tara not being kept on I could understand, since she was a political appointee, and known to be very close to Chandrika Kumaratunga, whom Ranil Wickremesinghe in those days loathed. But it was sad that, though the committee he appointed to suggest Secretaries to ministries recommended Lalith, Ranil allowed his personal animosity to prevail, and instead appointed an absolutely useless secretary.

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