Promoting English Medium Education


By Prof. Rajiva wijesinha
(A speech delivered at the Sabaragamuwa University recently)

Continued from yesterday’s MidWeek

I remember a bright young lady in a tiny coastal school in Kalutara relishing the opportunity to use the language in which she had got her science degree, which she had almost forgotten since she had begun to teach within the state system; I remember the school in Kalmunai where, after a fun session with the Grade 6 students, a primary school student came to me with a garland and exclaimed, obviously carefully rehearsed, ‘When can we start English medium, Sir?’; I remember the Principal of St. Patrick’s in Jaffna, now I believe the Vicar General of the Diocese, flying down to Colombo himself to make sure he got books for his students in time; I remember the wide-eyed boys and girls of Nugawela Central with a few eager teachers, who knew their English, and a more eager Principal who knew hardly any; and I remember a wonderful English camp which Trinity College ran, with participants from Colombo and Jaffna and Batticaloa and a couple of much smaller local schools.

But after a year I had to leave the programme. Kodituwakku told me that the Prime Minister had forbidden him to extend my contract. The argument advanced was that he thought the programme needed someone full-time, which was indeed what Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed when later I told him that I had gathered he was responsible for getting rid of me. That it was all a subterfuge was apparent from the fact that no full-time substitute was appointed – and indeed his Cabinet Secretary, Mr Weragoda, whose sons had been amongst my bright boarders at S. Thomas’, indicated to me when we met later that the real intention had been otherwise. Ranil also granted this when, in October 2002, encouraged by his brother who was worried about his son’s education, I told him that the programme was collapsing. His response was that he had told Karunasena not to start, and now he would have to stop.

He claimed that he was not opposed to the idea, but that he had no time to do it himself, since he was concentrating on getting the economy to rights. He granted that the Secretary to the Ministry was not very competent, but there was no one good to replace him, the only person he could rely on being Eric de Silva, his own Secretary when he had taken over the Ministry of Education himself in 1981. Eric unfortunately was unwilling to take on the post, though I called him after that and tried to persuade him.

It was then that I thought of appealing to the President, and Tara arranged a meeting, which was the one and only occasion when I have spoken at length with Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was a delightful experience, for she was clearly a warm and well-intentioned person, though with a total incapacity to concentrate. She knew this herself, for once, when I think she found some bemusement in my face when she soared from one topic to another, she told me that her children thought she had a butterfly mind. They were obviously very perceptive children.

But, though she found authority difficult, and allowed things to slide when she had power, President Kumaratunga was extremely courageous and determined in adversity. She agreed to do her best to resurrect the programme, and had some public meetings at President’s House, attended also by Cabinet Ministers such as Rauff Hakeem who was strongly supportive of English medium, and I think Ranil got the message. I should add that the determination of Karunasena Kodituwakku to make the programme a success also helped, for this meant the Secretary to the Ministry did not go against him, and that in turn meant that the NIE’s opposition had to be covert – so that the many sensible people in the NIE who wanted things to succeed, but had to knuckle under to its heavy-handed head of training, could also do their part to promote things.

The Ministry also had to continue to allow Nirmali and her team to produce the books, for they had no capacity at all in this regard. I was bullied by some people in the Internal Audit whose report was much more about the content of the books than the financial provisions, but a positive thinking Accountant at the Ministry came home to be briefed about the situation, and his support enabled us to continue in the previous creative fashion, at least till the end of the first year. The Ministry took over the production of English medium texts after that and, though the books suffered in quality, with some egregious language errors, the creation of opportunities for profit through book production – perhaps the only reason for the continuing state monopoly on the production of school textbooks – meant that there were now people in place with a vested interest in ensuring that English medium continued.

We did have trouble with the Maths book towards the end of that first year, for we found it had been prepared with no attention to logic or sequence, and I found much understanding of this in those at the NIE who were trying to revise the Maths syllabus. I was able to bring this to the attention of the President at one of the meetings on education she had summoned, and she was shocked, because she had been under the impression that the Maths syllabus had been successfully modernized. But a rather sheepish former NIE Director General confessed that, while Primary Maths had been changed, they had not followed through from Grade 6 onward.

This absurdity made clear the importance of one of the terms of reference that had been included when we set about the translation of the existing materials. This was to draw attention to inadequacies in existing materials, through the possibility now of comparing our textbooks with those used in other countries. As I had suspected, years of functioning with a frog in the well mentality had meant that we had not thought about ensuring that our children were getting an education at least commensurate with that given to children in the rest of the world, and in particular in neighbouring countries, which had soared far beyond us with regard to essentials such as Maths and Science – and of course English.

I was able to address some of these concerns when Tara went back to the Ministry of Education in 2004, following the change of government. In addition to returning to the Ministry as Adviser on English, with what seemed a larger brief, including the strengthening of Primary English, I was also asked to chair the Academic Affairs Advisory Board of the NIE, and we worked hard on a new curriculum. Though unfortunately we were replaced before we had quite put things in place, at least some positive changes were made.

The change of government in 2004 I think saved the English medium programme, for it restored confidence in the many principals and parents who had thought it was being undermined. I did not however think I should interfere with the systems in place for training and for book production. My hope was that the new systems we were trying to put in place through more radical reforms at the NIE would serve the whole system better, including not just the English medium programme but English in general as well as other essential areas such as Maths and Science, in which the rural areas lagged far behind. We also needed much better teacher training programmes, with what had once been flagship institutions, the Colleges of Education that had started in the late eighties, now being understaffed, with archaic curricula that inhibited wider learning.

Unfortunately we were too slow, and some of the personnel President Kumaratunga had put in place had no idea about either education or administration. A mark of her chaotic way of running things was the fact that she did not consult Tara at all about the appointments she made to the principal positions at either the NIE or the National Education Commission. It was only by virtue again of a chance meeting when Tara was trying to ensure practical action at the NEC that I suggested Sterling Perera, former Chief Commissioner of Examinations, as the Vice-Chairman, and he did work strenuously despite his years, but he could not achieve much. And at the NIE the Director General kept being swayed by one influence after another, and kept putting off decisions that meant little was accomplished during his tenure.

Tara too suffered from the fact that capacity at the Ministry was down to almost nothing, given the havoc wrought by her predecessor. Most destructively, the Ministry had lost Lalith Weeratunge who, as her Additional Secretary, had complemented her strengths with tremendous efficiency and commitment. I had indeed, when I realized that there was no way in which Ranil would keep Tara, suggested to the Committee in charge of appointing Secretaries that they select Mr Weeratunge, and they had in fact recommended him, but the Prime Minister had thought otherwise.

Without him, Tara had no one on whom she could rely, who was also able to iron things out within the system which she, as an outsider, did not always appreciate. And things got worse when, after the tsunami, the President in effect took her away from the Ministry for days at a stretch. The situation got so bad that I in fact sent in a letter of resignation, on the grounds that I was achieving nothing, but she sent me a charmingly persuasive reply, noting how alien she otherwise found the Ministry, so I stayed on.

With the election of President Rajapaksa at the end of 2005, the situation initially got worse. The new Minister of Education, Mr Premjayanth, had not got on well with Tara earlier, and those opposed to her thought it would be a good opportunity to undo all her work. Mr Premjayanth was not himself so mean-minded, and did his best to ensure the continuation of productive programmes, but it was not always easy to get through those who surrounded him so as to ensure swift decisions. I was on sabbatical by then, and due to travel to Italy for the launch of the translation of one of my novels, so I resigned from the Ministry at the end of 2005.

Thos elements in the NIE who wanted to get rid of English medium thought this was their opportunity, but the President had already made it clear that he wanted English medium to continue. With Lalith Weeratunge, as Secretary to the President, keeping a keen eye on education, which continued to be of special interest to him, I felt confident the programme would survive. And so it has done, with the President once memorably rebuking the greatest opponent of English medium at the NIE when she suggested, at a meeting he had summoned to discuss his Spoken English programme, that promoting English as a second language was better than English medium.

Upto that point, His Excellency had allowed those running the Spoken English programme to field questions. But, realizing the thrust of the question, he leaned forward and said very simply that it was because the NIE had made such a mess of things that he had had to take this particular component under his own wing. The applause of the entire audience made it clear how negative teachers round the country felt about that particular element in the NIE.

In 2007 the first batch of English medium students countrywide sat for the Ordinary Level Examination. They did comparatively well, putting paid to the canard that students in the Sinhala or Tamil medium would have advantages at public examinations. Then, in 2010, this batch did their Advanced Levels in English. Numbers were fewer, for the Ministry had not looked into the question of ensuring good English medium teaching at Advanced Level islandwise, so some students reverted to Sinhala or Tamil in less privileged areas. However those who sat did well, and enough secured admission to university to ensure that fears of comparative disadvantage would not hold back students in the future.

Continued tomorrow

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