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Rescuing English Medium

by damith
September 19, 2023 1:20 am 0 comment

When the renewal of my contract to look after the reintroduction of English medium was delay, I asked the Minister, Karunasena Kodituwakku, who had wanted me to stay on, what the problem was. Awkwardly, he said there was a difficulty in that, though the Prime Minister had not refused this direct, he had made a condition that was impossible to fulfil. He had learned that I worked part-time and he had said I could only be renewed if I took the post on full-time. But that I could not do, as I had explained to Tara when she asked me, for I was functioning as Dean of my Faculty at the University and coordinating the Degree Programme at the Military Academy.

As my students had told me, when they asked me to resume the position of Dean, from which I had resigned some years earlier, and I told them I had lots of other work I could not give up, they thought half my time was worth more than the full time commitment of anyone else. And certainly none of the work had suffered, not least because I knew how to delegate and had wonderful staff I could rely on.

I had to go. No one else was appointed as the Cabinet Secretary admitted to me when I told him I had been got rid of, and he said not at all, it was just that Government wanted someone to work full time. So the programme would, doubtless as was intended, have collapsed, had it not been for the commitment of the principals and teachers who had embarked on it and the enthusiasm of parents who had finally got for their children what they knew would lead to a better future.

Mutual acquaintance

Once I spoke to the Prime Minister about it, after a mutual acquaintance had asked me to do so. He had been immensely proud when his son was admitted to the English medium at Royal College, having himself suffered from having studied in the Sinhala medium at a time when there were few opportunities for using English.

Whereas his mother had criticized my enthusiasm for the cause on the grounds that both her older son and I had studied in the Sinhala medium and our English was perfect, she forgot that this was because of family usage, and by the time her two younger children were growing up there was little such usage in their home or the school environment and they could not communicate in English. It was only because their father sent them abroad for vocational education that they acquired the language and a sophistication they had lacked before, and the youngest was well aware of this.

When I mentioned what I had been told, and that the programme was collapsing. The fact that nearly 8000 children, in two cohorts, would be adversely affected, did not seem to matter. When I asked whether he was opposed to English medium he said no, but he had to concentrate on the economy. He told me that no one else could handle this, and so he could not spare time for English, and since no one else could handle that, it would have to stop. He was of course well aware that I had been doing it very efficiently and he had needlessly got rid of me.

Teacher training

After that conversation I told Tara to arrange a meeting with Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was still President though not treated seriously. And she was motivated to fight back, adversity as always bringing out the best in her whereas success made her lethargic, and she had a meeting about Education where it was clear most of the Cabinet wanted English medium to continue. Indeed Tara claimed that, having realized that the prevailing solipsism leading to problems, there had been feelers to her about coming back. But before anything more could happen, the President took over some Ministries and when the Government would not compromise she called an election and was able to take over the Government again.

So, English medium survived. But the damage had been done. The teacher training programme I had put in place had been forgotten, and instead it was taken over by the National Institute of Education, where the Additional Director General in charge of training understood formulas and little else and could not evoke the participatory skills, essential for active use of the language, that Oranee and Paru, and also Nirmali Hettiarachchi who had introduced the used of dramatization in the classroom, had achieved.

The production of materials had survived for a second year, given the contract the English Association had been given, and we produced textbooks for Year 7 on top of those for Year 6, but it was well into 2004 before Tara took charge of education again and the Ministry had started production of the next set of textbooks, and begun work on new versions of what we had produced.

They had also been furious that we had introduced additional material into the books, to widen general awareness, and ruthlessly removed all that so that English medium students were also now straitjacketed in the dull regurgitation of facts that dominated the education system.

Substantial concession

I had had to part with my students from the first batch who had helped with the programme two years earlier, but in the few months in which we worked together I was delighted with their commitment, and their concern that the programme should go well in the schools they visited. And one of them did a great deal more than the rest, for I used him together with Kithsiri to deliver books to schools and in doing so to check on how work was being done.

We had found that the distribution system the Ministry had in place could not be relied upon, since schools were supposed to collect books from the Zonal Secretariat and often they could not do this swiftly. So I decided to courier the books, and an old boy of Wesley College, who was delighted that the school had resumed English medium after so long gave me a substantial concession through the courier company he owned. And there were examples of principals coming to Colombo to collect books, so keen was their commitment, the Principal of St. Patrick’s in Jaffna even flying down to take back a consignment as luggage to pass on to the students.

Professor Rajiva Wijesinha

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