On What Conditions should Teachers on the Street be Allowed Back in the Classroom?
Posted on August 9th, 2021

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today

How to resolve the issues of the principals and teachers is no longer the question. The real question is whether we should allow these individuals to teach, influence and mould the character of our children. A teacher by definition would be an educated person. However, the ongoing trade union action by the primary and tertiary academic staff has challenged the very definition of an educated person. 

A misconstrued education 

The purpose of an education ought to be to understand the correct method of pursuing a matter. The sophistication of an educated person thus overrides all other adornments, may it be money or muscle. A person’s insight on specific subjects or overall surroundings becomes the measurement of his education standards. Independence in thought and action is the ultimate hallmark of a well-educated person. 

Most unfortunately in Sri Lanka, education is not a means of personal growth in terms of character or knowledge. Instead, it is simply a stepping stone to society. Without even the most basic education certificate, an average Sri Lankan citizen cannot gain a foothold in society. Therefore, the entire Sri Lankan education system is geared towards pushing its students to collect these paper qualifications. 

The children must push past the numerous bottlenecks in the system to collect these papers. Students in schools less facilitated than the established schools in developed cities are challenged not only by lack of labs for science and computer subjects. They also suffer from a teaching staff with a high turnover. These schools are often without even water for sanitation or drinking or a proper ground for sports. 

The solitary path to degree courses are by gaining the required marks at the Advanced Level exams. Gaining university entrance is however not an automatic process for the deserving. Out of nearly 300,000 students who sit the Advanced Level exam, only about 30,000 students gain admittance to a tertiary education. A student in rural areas may enter a better facilitated school via the grade V scholarship programme. However, that student may still lose a place in university to a student from the home area. The reason being, the aggregate needed for university entrance from a rural area school is much less than from an urban area school. 

There are other avenues now to gain different levels of qualifications, especially in vocational fields. However, the entrance to these is often constrained by narrow minded criteria. This writer once interviewed a chef who had achieved the rare feat of consecutively winning two gold medals at the Culinary Olympics – the highly competitive International Exhibition of Culinary Art. He shared his difficult journey to the culinary field as the Hotel school rejected his application on the grounds his fluency in English was poor. 

Naturally, this highly competitive rat race to gain paper qualifications breeds a generation entirely absorbed in their own advancement. They do not have the space for compassion for even their own fellow students. From the day a child enters the Sri Lankan education system the focus is to get him (or her) through the Ordinary Level exams – the basic of qualifications. That same pressure is applied for the subsequent qualifications to be achieved. 

Hence, the child’s other experiences are greatly curtailed. Our education system, a leftover by the British forced occupiers, does not cultivate patriotism or nationalism. Empathy and compassion, as noted above, are devalued currencies. Memorising instead of reading is encouraged for a scripted answer is assured of a good grade. Independent work that might deviate from the standard answer is a risk students are discouraged from taking. 

Our education system fails to realise that all these exams and qualifications are to enhance the quality of life and not the life itself. If we were to approach life the way our education system approaches education then we from the day of birth will feel compelled to lie still in our coffins for we would only be concerned of the final destination and not the journey itself. 

In summary, our education system has degraded education into a mere certificate. This is producing a citizenry demanding that the society be responsible for their individual needs, whilst refusing to be responsible for the society. 

This is the background to the ongoing trade union actions by school principals and teachers at the height of an unprecedented pandemic that has engulfed the entire world. This situation is not to be taken lightly. The education system’s narrow framework contributes to psychopaths as Rohana Wijeweera and Vellupillai Prabhakaran being able to manipulate teenagers and young adults. 

Students have been trained from a young age onwards only to rely on a given note as the only true doctrine. Teachers extract these notes from the Government issued text books without challenging its veracity. The shocking contents of Government issued text books for Islam lessons in the aftermath of the Easter Attack is a case in point. Neither the teacher nor student is encouraged to broaden their knowledge base. 

Hence, the generations that are coming forth are increasingly behaving mindlessly and selfishly. On the pronouncements of an individual entity, the followers of the JVP and LTTE perceive mostly imagined grievances against society. Those two eras destroyed too many of our promising youth. Those who escaped the clutches of those two devils are now in responsible positions as school principals and teachers. However, it is obvious that they are still susceptible to becoming someone else’s pawns. 

Teachers pay hikes: an unjust call

KLL Wijeratne who retired from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service and functioned as the Secretary of Salaries & Cadres Commission from 2006-2009 and Chairman of the Salaries & Cadres Commission from 2016-2019 gave the background of the salary anomalies in ‘The Island’ of 03 August   . 

Prior to the establishment of the Teachers Service on 06 October 1994, teachers’ salaries were based on their qualifications as trained teachers, non-trained teachers, honours graduates, general degree holders and diploma holders. Thus five salary scales determined the pay of nearly 25 categories of teachers providing neither a grading system nor a promotional scheme” writes Wijeratne.

On 27 September 1994 the Minister of Education & Higher Education Richard Pathirana sought Cabinet approval to establish a Teachers’ Service. Chandrika Kumaratunga as the Finance Minister whilst accepting the proposal on principle to establish such a Teachers’ Service cautioned that the salary scales included therein would create anomalies on the Public Service Salary Structure and emphasised the need to first examine and compare other sectors of the Public Service depending on work norms and other conditions of service. Irrespective of these observations the Cabinet Paper 94/14/13 was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on 28 September 1994.”

Wijeratne continues to say This approval included the implementation of the proposed salary scales. In response, Finance Minister Kumaratunga sought Cabinet approval for amending the Cabinet decision by including the words ‘it was decided to refer the proposals to the Salaries & Cadres Committee for a comprehensive examination and report before implementing the proposals’.”

However, this caution was thrown to the wind when UNP Presidential candidate Srima Dissanayake issued a full page notice promising to implement the proposed salary scale, recalls Wijeratne. Immediately, Kumaratunga who was also contesting at the 1994 Presidential Elections gazetted the salary scale. This is the first time a salary scale was gazetted before establishing a Service” observes Wijeratne. 

As expected this paved the way for anomalies to arise in the education sector and other parallel services – especially in the Principals Service Salaries.  To resolve this issue the Supreme Court directed principals’ salaries to be increased. This created anomalies between the salaries of Teacher Educators Service and the Sri Lanka Education Administrative Service (SLEAS).” The matter again ended up in the Supreme Courts” states Wijeratne.

This was finally resolved in 2006 with the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government issuing a new National Wage Policy with a salary structure and promotional scheme considering all the grades of the Public Service, removing the anomalies between the Principals Service and the SLEAS. Therefore there are no anomalies between the Principals Service, the SLEAS and other Services due to the overall, overarching comprehensive new salary structure and promotional scheme adapted across the entire Public Service.

Moreover the pensionable salary of all public servants has been increased by more than 100 per cent between 2016 to 2020” concludes Wijeratne.

The Treacherous Target

If as Wijeratne explains there are no salary anomalies, then arises the question the reason for the protests. Even if Wijeratne is wrong and the principals and teachers do have a justifiable grievance, gives rise to the question as to the reasons for the trade union actions to erupt at this particular juncture of time. After all, by the admission of the protesters themselves, this is an issue that has been festering for nearly quarter of a century. 

These protesters could have taken to the streets with this same intensity during the last Government. After all, the then Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam earned the wrath of teachers for his ill-conceived decisions. His directive to forcibly transfer teachers who had served in the same school for a decade was deeply resented. Teachers personally felt that they were being punished for a wrong they did not commit. Many felt humiliated for having to exchange places where they had to take up positions due to lesser qualified teachers whilst the lesser qualified took places that required greater experience. Consequently, teachers with training to teach larger classes ended in smaller numbered classes. They were replaced with teachers who could not handle a large group of students. Many suspected that the then Minister took this foolish decision to justify the appointment of his supporters to teaching positions without the necessary teaching experience. 

The same protest organisers

The protests initially started to oppose the proposed Kotelawala Defence University Bill. When Ceylon Teachers Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin and other organisers were detained and sent to a quarantine centre, releasing him became another demand. It was on top of this the grievances alleged to salary anomalies was added. 

Before the principals and teachers began their protests, the farmers protested over the agrochemical fertiliser ban. In all these protests, the same organisers could be seen. 

Judging by the response generated in social media, it is clear that the public too is beginning to suspect a scam. 

Sri Lanka is on a very tight rope. It must balance both the raging pandemic and the directly impacted economy. This is the opera that the Opposition never dreamed of getting. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic the Opposition would have been sulking ducks they were soon after the successful completion of the war against terrorism. 

Despite the challenges and doomsday predictions, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration is still holding the economy together. When the Administration recently settled the USD 1 billion loan, the Opposition was left speechless. They see their only recourse to discredit the Government is to upset the carefully managed pandemic. 

Despite sadistic expectations from certain quarters including credit rating agencies, the Government managed to get honor the USD one billion loan ahead of time. Whether the trade unionists’ protests that has intensified since then is coincidental is quite questionable. Trade unions that were dormant during the Yahapalana Government to suddenly rise to an issue that has been festering for 24 years seems to be motivated by more than an actual grievance. 

When the Health sector too tried to kick the Government in the belly via its trade union muscle the military took over the vaccination drive and produced far better results. By August, 86 per cent of those above age 30 had been vaccinated with at least one dose; 19 per cent has been given both vaccines and 50 per cent will have got both vaccines by mid-August. 

Instead of supporting this effort as responsible citizens a total of 120 protests have been held across the country on the month of July alone. Each protest has had over 1,500 participants. The sudden spike in COVID-19 infected, especially with the dreaded delta variant, is due to these protesters who refuse to follow the health guidelines has been the observation of the intelligence services. 

The trade unions of principals and teachers have stated that until they get the pound of flesh, they will continue to agitate in the streets. According to Minister Gamini Lokuge, Rs 56 billion would be needed per month to fulfil this anomaly. This is an impossible demand. Yet, the trade unionists have rejected Education Minister Professor GL Peiris pledge to address these anomalies at the forthcoming budget proposals that are only three months away. 

As State Minister Dr Nalaka Godahewa noted that the annual state sector salary and pension bill is a staggering Rs 1.2 trillion. To meet this commitment in the face of the dwindling revenue is a mean task. 

Responding to a question raised by the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarchchi noted that in comparison to the 1000-1500 infected per week detected in the past, the new numbers have jumped to 2000-2500 per week. Ragama hospital among others are now treating patients three times its capacity. If this situation continues, the country will be again forced into another lockdown. This is clearly the target of the unionists. Minister Lokuge recalls that even in 2014 similar protests, instigated by foreign funded NGOs took place. 

The discerning public should understand the objectives of these foreign funders’ attempt to derail the incumbent Government. Memories of the Yahapalana Government are still fresh. These western oriented funders applauded and praised the servitude of a weak and bumbling Government even as the country’s economy and national security crumbled. 

Way Forward

Whether these trade unions are politically motivated or acting on the orders of foreign agents is a moot point. Either way, this issue needs resolving. 

If the principals and teachers want a higher salary, then the Government as the negotiator of Sri Lankan citizens must also forward certain demands. Chief among these must be that teachers must prove their performance. Teachers’ salaries are paid by the people’s taxes. Then, it is grossly unfair for the parents to pay more to meet teachers’ salaries AND also pay to privately tutor their children. The burden of coaching children should not fall on the parent either and nor must the child be overburdened with homework. The education ministry must play an active role to ensure that children have adequate play and rest time after school hours, which means that the set homework must be reasonable and possible for children to attend without a parent’s intervention.

This is a most reasonable demand and would be much welcomed by all parents. Teachers today have lost their respectable standing in society. They, who have flouted healthcare regulations and are holding the entire nation hostage, will have an uphill journey to be taken seriously as disciplinarians. Their only recourse too would be to prove their commitment to their profession. 

(ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com)

3 Responses to “On What Conditions should Teachers on the Street be Allowed Back in the Classroom?”

  1. dhane Says:

    In most developed countries Teachers should perform their duties to the best satisfaction of the students. If the students are not happy with the performance of the teacher they could complain to authorities and could be sacked. In Sri Lanka Education Minister Professor GL Peiris should introduced this system. Thereby most of the students need not go for private classes saving parents money. Most teachers are not doing this job properly at school but give private tuition in the evening. These trade union action will be stopped automatically once this systems is introduced.

  2. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Like in the developed nations, the teaching profession should be decentralized. Teachers should be employed by the school authority with a standardized range of salary scales. Schools should be run by local school management governing committee consisting of Parent Members, staff members, the authority appointed members community members, and sponsor members. Then it will be easier for the local school governing authority to choose and appoint best teachers locally to satisfy their specific requirements. The school governing authority should have the power to recruit better teachers by offering them an attractive salary.

  3. Nimal Says:

    Teachers must set an example to rest of the people and get back to work without demanding…This not the time to seek pay rises etc.This is part of our balu culture I have been writing about all the time.We have made a paradise in to a hell.

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