Promoting English Medium Education


By Prof. Rajiva wijesinha

(A speech delivered at the Sabaragamuwa University recently)

I am grateful to Sabaragamuwa University for organizing this Seminar on English, and in particular for allocating time to discussion of English medium education. Perhaps more importantly I should also place on record the contribution of this University to the programme of English medium education in the state system that commenced in 2001. The then Vice-Chancellor, Prof I K Perera, had no hesitation in approving my appointment, even while I was Acting Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages, as Coordinator for English at the Ministry of Education.

He very generously permitted me the leeway to work a couple of days each week at the Ministry, and also conduct workshops and travel widely to monitor the programme. And the Student Union of the Faculty, which had first persuaded me to take on the position of Dean with a petition signed by the students (a condition I had thought they would never manage to fulfil), made it clear that they felt I was amply fulfilling my responsibilities, when the unimaginative bureaucrats then running the University Grants Commission thought I was not performing my duties satisfactorily.

And I must also pay tribute here to the graduates of this University who worked for me at the Ministry, Dinusha Rambukpitiya (who was later a Lecturer here in Japanese), Amani Abeydeera and Lakmal Manatunga from 2001 to 2002, and later Shashikala Assella (who is now a Lecturer here in English) and Nadisha Deheragoda from 2004 to 2005. In addition to intelligent and imaginative work, they also kept me sane when I had to deal with the sometimes overwhelmingly negative attitude of the Ministry bureaucracy.

We also used several graduates from our second batch as assistants in book production and distribution, and I must thank Samantha Wijesirigunawardene in particular for travelling the length and breadth of the country, along with K G Kithsiri, to provide books to schools in even distant places that had taken up the challenge. I found the story of their travels fascinating, ranging from using the Trincomalee - Horowupatana Road, which I had been told was far too dangerous a couple of years previously, to being taken for travelling salesmen and being offered appropriate diversions at the small guesthouses which was all the budget could afford.

All this arose from the fact that English medium at secondary level all over the country began almost accidentally, because I met the then Secretary to the Ministry, Dr Tara de Mel, at a workshop on English held at the British Council in May 2001. I had been told that she was imaginative, intelligent and competent, qualities which had for years been lacking in the Ministry, and that I should talk to her at length. I found the characterization was quite correct when she spoke about what she was hoping to do. So, though English medium was not the subject, I broached it with her afterwards, and she said that she was thinking of starting it in a couple of schools at Secondary Level, in Colombo and Kandy, to complement what she had already started, namely English medium in the Science stream at Advanced Level.

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 permit any school that desired to commence English medium education. She argued that there were not enough teachers, but I said that there were more than she thought, and schools that were confident of running a programme should be allowed to do so.

Tara rang that evening to say that she was prepared to start if I would join the Ministry and run the programme. . It was an offer I could not refuse, though she agreed in the end that I could do the job part-time. She had wanted a concept paper straight away, which was a nuisance since I was due to go abroad the following day, but after some gentle but steely persuasion, I did it and she promptly followed through. She circulated it in my absence and, after some discussion on my return, which led to deciding that English medium would be permitted only at Secondary level, starting with Grade 6, I started work at the Ministry and the Circular was issued in the latter part of 2001.

The programme was entitled the Amity School programme, because one reason for promoting it was the hope that children of all communities would be able to learn together. That has happened with regard to classes in school which already had children of different communities in different language streams, but sadly we have not actively pursued the idea of bringing students from different schools with single language streams into schools where they could learn together.

Initially only 93 schools, if I remember correct, volunteered to start the programme in 2002. We had worked through the Zonal Directors, and we found that some were enthusiastic, while others ignored the Circular. Interestingly, the Director of the Zone in Colombo which had many prestigious schools was not interested, and it was only Ananda College – along with its neighbor Asoka Vidyalaya – that applied, having found out what was on offer. The private schools were naturally more positive, and I had for instance old boys of Zahira and I think Wesley contacting me enthusiastically to find out more details.

Later, when I was distributing the first set of books, I took the opportunity to visit Principals who had taken up the challenge, which I found a fascinating experience, not least because it made me realize how many excellent administrators we had who were being stifled by bureaucrats but who would make their schools Centres of Excellence if simply allowed the chance. The Ananda Principal I found particular interesting, for he spoke little English himself, but indicated that he felt an obligation to ensure that his boys obtained advantages that had been denied him and his peers.

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 also taken up the challenge set by the University Grants Commission in the early nineties to devise tertiary English programmes for students who had not offered English at the Advanced Level. That indeed had been why I had gone back into the University system, having first advised the academics at USJP about the English Diploma programme at the Affiliated University Colleges which were the precursor of the new universities of the nineties, Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba and Rajarata and the SouthEastern one, as well as the Trincomalee and Vavuniya University Colleges.

The USJP staff I had worked with then took up the new challenge, and I should pay tribute here to Oranee Jansz and Paru Nagasunderam for their devoted work and innovative approaches, which many of the 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. When the Council turned into mercenary mode and declared that it was not its business to take bread out of the mouth of British publishers, Nirmali ran the project through the English Association of Sri Lanka, and received considerable funding for production of books as well as training from the Canadians and the Australians and even the European Union. Producing translations of school texts was then not 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 we felt students would benefit from knowing, and some questions to promote reflection and thought. These, I should note, 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 had also added attractive illustrations so that, by January, we had the lessons for the first term printed and ready for distribution.

By then however disaster had struck. The government had changed, and to my astonishment the new Prime Minister was opposed to English medium. Fortunately the Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, was all in favour, and told me at our first meeting, when I asked if we should continue, that he wanted the programme expanded. He was surprised that Royal College had not opted to join, and he asked me why I had not informed them. My reply was that that was the business of the Zonal Director, but in any case my interest was in schools outside Colombo, not the privileged who would have access to English anyway.

That indeed had been one of the arguments I had put forward in explaining why English medium was an urgent need. I knew from the many able students I had taught from rural areas that one reason they found English difficult, even though they were bright and highly motivated and even when they had had English teachers throughout, was that they had had no opportunity to use the language except during the English class. It seemed to me obvious that studying even one subject in English would make them understand its practical applications, while providing them with opportunities for practice.

That was why I thought ridiculous the argument of the then Bishop of Colombo, who issued what amounted to a sort of fatwa against English medium education. Fortunately hardly any of the schools under his control took him seriously, except I think S. Thomas’ Prep. He had argued that identity was a function of culture, and culture was a function of language, which I thought bad enough, since it suggested a determination to differentiate in a fundamental fashion between Sinhalese and Tamils, with some confusion too about the status of Muslims, which was certainly not what the country needed. I also thought he was being particularly silly, since that sort of dogma would allow others to argue that identity was a function of religion. Given the premise he had advanced, he would then find it difficult to claim that Christians could be Sinhalese or Tamil.

When I challenged him, and pointed out the fact that children who functioned almost entirely in Sinhala or Tamil would not lose their identity because they worked in the English medium in school, and that otherwise they would not have proper access to English, unlike their more privileged urban brethren, he relented. However he claimed that he did not want children in the Anglican schools to become deracinated, which he thought might happen since they also functioned in English at home. Evidently he had no idea of what really went on outside the charmed circle of families like his own, or possibly in Ladies College, where a high proportion of the students functioned mainly in English. Even in S. Thomas’ however, I had found in the early eighties that a majority of the boys spoke almost exclusively in Sinhala or Tamil amongst themselves, and I would have thought that by the year 2000 that tendency had increased.

And that was why I found preposterous the argument advanced by one of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defenders, that he had learnt in the Sinhala medium but his English was excellent, so why should the same not go for others? The answer was quite simply that he had lived in a milieu where English was commonly used – and perhaps a better answer was provided by the fact that his youngest brother, who had not been so fortunate, for the common language of even Royal College had changed in the decade between them, was delighted when his son was chosen for the English medium. With Karunasena Kodituwakku encouraging them, Royal too had commenced this, a term later than the original 93 schools, in the second term of 2002. By the end of that year I think there were about 400 schools in the scheme, though some were to drop out as teacher problems increased.

By then the programme was flagging. Without Tara’s strong support, her replacement as Secretary of Education being a complete twerp, NIE hostility to the programme became overt, and we no longer had support for the additional training I had planned. The NIE instead took over, and reverted to the old formulaic methods which seemed designed to kill initiative and enthusiasm. This is one of the reasons we still have problems with regard to teachers, whereas the programme we had commenced in 2001, with utterly dedicated trainers and active encouragement of teachers in rural schools willing to take a chance and work hard to succeed, would have certainly have by now provided the radical remedies we still need.

What kept us going over the first few months of 2002, as the bizarre combination of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the doctrinaire chauvinists at the NIE wrought its destructive toll, was the keenness of the schools that had started the programme, the bright teachers who relished the opportunity to impart their special knowledge and skills to students, the enthusiasm of the students all over the country. Galle was a particular source of strength, making clear the practical intelligence of teachers and parents of a segment of society waiting to take its place at the top, but restricted previously by the limitations of the state education system that had therefore allowed those in Colombo to continue to maintain the gap between their children and the enormously talented youngsters in less privileged areas.

To be continued tomorrow

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