Affirming the Right to Education
In discussions at District and Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation
Committee meetings, one of the most common complaints is with regard to
teacher shortages in rural schools. The lack of English and Maths and
Science teachers is seen as deeply detrimental to the education of
children in the area, but even though this is recognized at all levels
of government, for decades little has been done to remedy the situation.
The complaints I hear come in many forms. In Cheddikulam it was said
that, though the Division suffered from a lack of teachers, the Zone had
more than enough - Vavuniya town being its Principal component - so it
was not possible to demand more. In Mahaoya the Zonal Director of
Education said that his Wednesdays were full of parents coming to him to
complain that their children had no teachers. In Batticaloa again there
was a distinction between the town area, which did comparatively well,
and the rural Divisions, with Grama Niladhari areas belonging to
Batticaloa Town Division also suffering.
These anomalies are amongst the greatest injustices our people
suffer, for they serve to perpetuate inequalities. Though we have moved
beyond the days in which political movements claimed equality was a
right, and thus destroyed both initiative and growth, accepting the
absurdity of this must go hand in hand with an active commitment to
equality of opportunity.
Teacher shortage in rural schools, a problem
For this purpose nothing, not even health facilities, vital though
they be, are as important as ensuring that all children get a decent
What can be done to promote this? The fact is, we all believe that
there are good reasons why someone we know - or whom someone else we
know well is acquainted with - deserves a transfer to a more accessible
area. And one official made a significant point, the answer to which I
cannot provide, given the other Rights that are involved, that new
teachers marry and get pregnant during the years in which they perform
compulsory service in difficult areas.
Availing themselves of all the provisions available with regard to
leave, they spend very little time teaching rural students, and are then
ready to seek a transfer when the period in which they can obtain leave
That depressed and depressing official indicated that the several
requests he had made were ignored. Taken together with the point made in
Cheddikulam, that the ministry had a cookie cutter approach to
deployment that took little notice of rural realities, this suggests
that we have to move beyond ministry officials to find a solution. After
all the politicians who must make the policy decisions required to
ensure justice will not be affected by the requests of bureaucrats.
They need voters to sway them, but unfortunately our parents have not
yet registered the fact that schools must belong to them, not to
Principals or to even more distant administrators. We have not yet
managed to empower parents to request that their Rights, or rather the
Rights of their children, be upheld. Perhaps that is because it is more
convenient not to change the status quo - but decision makers must also
understand that perpetuating the status quo is pernicious in the long
run, and leads to much additional expenditure as the state then strives
to provide employment for the youngsters whose capacity to find
employment has been killed by inadequacies in the education system.
Providing them with adequate skills in English and Maths and IT is
then an urgency, and we should encourage parents to demand this. I would
suggest indeed that Rural Development Organizations, or those committed
to Human Rights in the positive sense, take out a Fundamental Rights
case based on the comparative deprivation that rural students suffer.
Meanwhile, I hope Grama Niladharis will encourage parents to know
what is going on with regard to the schools their children attend, and
address requests direct to the authorities when remedial action is
necessary. Perhaps parents will be the catalyst to promote the idea the
President put forward seven years ago, of school based recruitment of
teachers, which the Education Ministry has failed to implement or even
to consider seriously.
Such requests may also be the spur the ministry needs to allow
alternative systems of teacher training. If there are insufficient
teachers in various subjects, then the right to produce them should be
extended, with the ministry only reserving to itself the right of
accreditation for those seeking employment within the state system.
Given the influence Sri Lanka exercised in many developing countries
through supplying teachers in the days when we had excellent training
schools, both state and in the non-profit sector, we should be
encouraging a revival of that earlier situation. The Catholic Church can
I am sure contribute to this, but - even if the Theosophist Society is
moribund - the Mahabodhi Society can also help, and even perhaps a
training organization set up by the Olcott schools, which have
contributed so much to educational development.
Finally, I hope parental pressure will also lead to a much more
active approach to extra-curricular activities than the ministry now
manifests. Encouragement alone is not enough, there must be mandatory
provisions for such activities, with Principals required to develop at
least two sports activities, two cultural societies and two social
service clubs working all the year round. In addition to contributing to
the full education children need, such involvements will also take away
from the time children now expend either in expensive tuition (to make
up for inadequate teaching in schools, often by the same teachers who
take tuition classes) or in even more worrying activities.