Last efforts for English in the school system

Before I conclude my account of work with regard to the reintroduction of English medium, which took up some of my time and much of my devotion in the first years of this century, I should record the other efforts at value addition we made, and in particular with regard to primary English.

During my latter stint at the Ministry, for a year and a half from 2004, Tara de Mel who was back as Secretary set up for me a separate unit on the top floor of the Ministry and I was able to hire OraneeJansz again along with three of my students who had just finished their degrees at Sabaragamuwa, English Majors from the fourth Advanced Level batch.
By now we were attracting students who had done Advanced Level English, and these three were familiar with the language when they entered. One of them, Shashikala Assella, was about the best student of English I had at Sabaragamuwa, and she went on to a very distinguished career in academia, becoming in time Head of the Department of English at Kelaniya.

Oranee and the girls had a decent work environment, unlike the students who had worked for me earlier, but with a few exceptions they found Ministry officials unsympathetic. I myself however had less to do, during this second stint at the Ministry, with officials there since the basic English medium programme continued on its own and we were working more now on value addition, including most importantly on revision of the curriculum, which was also to encompass revision of the curriculum at the Colleges of Education for English teachers. The effort I made then, to introduce degrees for teacher trainees there, was completely forgotten after my time, though I was vastly amused to find that once again that is being contemplated. I have no doubt however that what emerges, if anything, will be dry as dust without the participatory learning that degrees for teachers should inculcate.

Sense of urgency

One reason our efforts failed is that Tara did not initially share my sense of urgency but told me to wait before starting on radical reforms, and by the time she gave me the go ahead we did not have time, though we did finalize the required changes, to entrench them. The new curricula went up on the website but were almost immediately taken down when the new Minister removed me from the Academic Affairs Board and I was replaced by an aged academic in the field of education who had no idea of what was needed in subjects at primary and secondary schools.

Much of this new work I was entrusted with was at the NIE. At the Ministry perhaps the most interesting work my unit engaged in was selecting and acquiring suplementary readers for primary schools, to overcome the boredom of the existing texts which had clearly been produced without reference to the colourful materials available in other countries including India. We finally agreed on a selection, multiple copies of I think ten books, multiple copies of a few of each were to go to schools for students to use. Most were from Indian publishers, and the books were ordered before the election, but they were forgotten when they arrived.

A few of the colourful primary readers we had acquired at the end of 2005 did get into schools, where they were shut up in libraries, and never looked at. And long afterwards I gathered that some had simply rotted away in a Ministry warehouse, while there had been no question of the workshops to make use of them that we had planned taking place, which would have helped immeasurably in developing familiarity with the language in youngsters. Such initiatives were totally beyond the hidebound lady in charge of training at the NIE, who believed in dogma and nothing more, jumping from one system to another, 5 Ks and 3 Ts and so on, with no understanding of what would enthuse students.

Political orientation

So my connections with the Ministry of Education ended early in 2006 and then in 2007 I was asked to head the Peace Secretariat and for the next eight years my work was political in orientation. During this period Shashikala joined the staff of Sabaragamuwa University, but she found work there difficult and left and went on her own to do a doctorate in England. When she came back however she helped me immeasurably with the curriculum reforms I had initiated as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

I have dealt with these elsewhere in talking about developments in Vocational Training, and innovations that were discarded when I was dismissed though I now gather some courses I introduced and which were very popular have not been brought back, though on a payment basis. These were developed and refined at a series of workshops with the most dynamic of the teachers which were arranged by the excellent staff I had at the TVEC.

Most of these training sessions were for language education, and how to deliver the different Career Skills courses we had devised. But as mentioned I had also started a diploma in English and Education, and that also had a literature component, though the purpose of that was to show how texts could be used to develop language skills. The main point of the training, which Shashi and I did jointly was to ensure students were just asked questions about the prescribed and encouraged to answer these through careful reading and discussion groups. We could not stress enough that there were no right answers, that there were no hidden meanings (beloved of traditional teachers of literature in this country) which required an external authority, nothing that could not be understood by students keen on reading the text and discussing it with their peers.

I have enormously fond memories of the days we spent at that pleasant hotel in Negombo, where we held most of the workshops, which I had first come across when it was managed by someone who had been at school with me. I used it to house Geraldine McEwan way back in 1984, and was delighted when my staff at the TVEC identified it and I found it was the same place, much modernized but still recognizable. And it was a great pleasure to have, working together there, students from AUC days and from Sabaragamuwa University and from the Military Academy, making sure that all the teachers from the Technical Colleges and the Vocational Training Centres under the Vocational Training Authority were comfortable and participated actively in the sessions.