Promoting English Medium Education


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

Continued from yesterday

NIE to re-establish something like the HIEE. I believe even the Department of English Education, to which it was reduced, was subsequently absorbed by the Department of English, which has to deal with much more basic issues. But secondly, in addition, it would make sense, given the relative paucity of competent people within the system, to encourage alternative systems of teacher training. For a long time it has been argued that this would lead to inadequate teachers, but that is a nonsensical argument, given the excellence of private institutions of teacher training such as the Bolawalana College in the past.

Rather the argument is used to justify a monopoly that, like most monopolies, has led to an increasingly expensive low quality product. On the contrary, the role of the state should be to evaluate and certify training institutions, and it is certainly desirable that no one should be given appointments in the state system without certification by the state. But to confuse the need to maintain national standards with the supply of those who need to satisfy such standards is perhaps one of the last relics of the statist mindset that created such economic and social chaos in Sri Lanka several decades ago.

Indeed the excellent new initiatives of the Ministry of Higher Education show us one way forward. In addition to encouraging institutions such as the Catholic Church, and perhaps the old Theosophist Society that did so much for extending education to the less privileged in the past, to take up teacher training, we should encourage foreign institutions that come in to provide additional opportunities for tertiary education to also engage in teacher training. We should in particular encourage the development of English and Science and Maths teachers.

The products of such private institutions could, if the courses satisfy state standards, be posted only to particular schools, in line with the President’s desire to promote school based recruitment. Now the products of the state system, even if posted initially to disadvantaged areas, spend much of their time seeking transfers to more convenient places, and they invariably succeed, given that everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone of influence, or knows someone who does so, and people of influence find it difficult not to try to exercise that influence. A simple survey of teachers posted to difficult areas will show that most of them have got away within a couple of years.

My first point then is that we must encourage alternative systems of teacher training and ensure better deployment. This can be done without any unfairness or injustice, but it takes imagination and initiative to make a start. The current efforts to ensure additional delivery of tertiary education provides an ideal opportunity for reform.

Connected with this is the need to ensure more systematic monitoring and support for English medium programmes in the regions. While some ADEs and RESCs do a great job, others are neither interested nor competent. The development of guidelines as to the support that should be offered, with a mechanism at the NIE to provide training and also to study reports and suggest remedial action as needed would be helpful. In particular there should be wider understanding of the need to ensure equitable access to English medium nationwide.

In this context it would make sense to consolidate available resources. Now that the Ministry is developing schools that are Centres of Excellence islandwide, it could also establish institutes (either within existing schools or separately) that would provide high quality Advanced Level English medium education. This would allow limited resources to go further, with the few competent English medium teachers we have each serving more students. In addition to this advantage, such institutes would bring together students of all communities in the area, to take further the concept of Amity that the English medium programme originally envisaged.

Such a mechanism could also be developed in areas in which there are severe teacher shortages in two or three different schools that each cater to limited numbers. This phenomenon was brought to my attention in Mutur, where the Principals of the small Sinhala and Tamil and Muslim schools all asked whether it would be possible to have just one English medium school for the area. I was deeply touched, since this was not very long after the bitter fighting that had taken place there in 2006. But in addition to this show of solidarity by three Principals of different communities, it struck me that they were also anxious to provide a better future for their children.

None of the schools had over 500 students, all were without teachers in many subjects. If the schools were combined, far fewer teachers would be needed. I have no doubt that crash courses to develop teachers competent to function in the English medium would cost less in the long run than continuing to seek three times as many teachers as would be necessary. It would also be fairly easy to find funding for this purpose. The children, in addition to working together and learning the languages of each other more readily, would obtain competencies that would serve them and their communities well for the future.

There are several other areas in the country, in particular where plantation workers are still relatively deprived, where such English medium schools could be established so as to use resources more effectively while also benefiting children of all communities and promoting linguistic as well as communal harmony. I have no doubt that a special task force in the Ministry could easily find resources to fast forward such productive institutions.

I would secondly suggest then that government should promote the establishment or development of English medium schools that would bring together students of different communities, both to promote harmony and to more efficiently deploy available English medium teachers. In addition to special attention being paid to such schools at Advanced Level, so that all those who have studied in English medium upto Ordinary Level would have opportunities to continue, the practice could be started in areas where small schools for different communities exist side by side, many with insufficient resources.

Another area in which we need to do much better is the production of textbooks. There are continuing horror stories of mistakes in English medium texts, and sometimes it is found that these replicate errors in the original Sinhala or Tamil books. Unfortunately again we have a system whereby the state, which should evaluate the textbooks prescribed for students, also produces them.

Tara did try, many years ago, to introduce a multiple book option, to at least provide some alternatives, but the way this was done was a joke, as I realized when a gentleman at the NIE turned out to be the head of a cartel that was producing books, supposedly as an independent external provider. In short, the rent seeking establishment had found a way to subvert the reform, to spread even greater profits amongst themselves. And that these profits were massive was apparent from the fact that the unit cost of the English medium textbooks Nirmali produced was far less than those the state was producing in far greater numbers.

What we need is a system that encourages actual publishers, not cartels set up specially for the purpose, to produce texts based on the syllabuses. Unfortunately we do not have such publishers in Sri Lanka, following the decline for instance of Gunasena’s, which used to provide such excellent textbooks before the state decided to take over the business itself.

However there are excellent publishers in India who are competing against each other to produce school textbooks that are constantly improving in quality. They should be encouraged, in partnership with Sri Lankan agencies, to produce books for our students. This should not be too much trouble for them with regard to English medium books in areas in which school syllabuses worldwide should be similar, and I have no doubt that they also have the skills to adapt for the Sri Lankan context as required, in accordance with our existing syllabuses.

Their partners could be publishers or booksellers in Sri Lanka, or perhaps even regional institutions such as the Regional English Support Centres which could be encouraged to also establish Book Centres. Currently, as the crowds that flood the National Book Fair indicate, students from the regions are deprived of opportunities to buy and enjoy books, but will take full advantage of what is available, with particular attention to English language publications. It would therefore be extremely helpful if the Ministry could develop mechanisms to improve the supply of such books to the regions.

I had discussions on these lines with the current Indian Foreign Secretary when she was High Commissioner in Colombo, and I believe she would be very supportive of such a scheme, and also help to find resources to encourage such involvement by professional publishers. In the long run such a scheme would also help to raise the quality not only of the textbooks in use by Sri Lankan children, but also the syllabuses, since we clearly need better access to modern developments in science and maths, if not indeed in all subjects.

I should add that collaboration could be with publishers in other countries too. In 2005 we had a scheme in the Ministry to provide primary English readers for all children entering Grade 1, and in addition to publishers from India and Sri Lanka, we also had Malaysia involved in the scheme. Unfortunately this effort to promote such readers, which the publishers had agreed to make available at low cost for the wider market, was stymied when the Ministry failed to distribute the books satisfactorily and ignored the possibility of training teachers to use them effectively.

Thirdly then I suggest more attention to the production and distribution of textbooks, through collaboration as appropriate with established international publishers. They should be encouraged to collaborate with Sri Lankan agencies, which would also be tasked with the development of Book Centres in the regions.

Having spoken at great length, let me conclude now by noting again that English is no longer just the language of the British, a legacy we could do without. Rather it is the principal international language, one of increasing opportunities all over the world. The comparative advantage we had with regard to English has been sacrificed at the altar of a divisive linguistic nationalism, which I fear has contributed to our nation being deprived of a tool that could have helped us immeasurably. While the privileged continued to benefit from their possession of this tool, the vast majority of our people, of all communities, had no access to it. We owe it to them and to the nation as a whole to take all possible steps, in the interests of equity as well as national prosperity, to set right this sad situation.

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