Monday, October 31, 2011

Youth Recreation in semi-urban areas – “Let us show some sportsmanship”

Late last morning, we visited a group of young people who were playing cricket in a public open space in a village near Gampaha. We were taken there by the local PS member from our youth wing who wanted to show us their current condition with a view to obtaining assistance in improving the existing facilities.

I ask the reader, if there is ONE public playing field in the country they know outside Colombo which is maintained? That is the problem. Let us assume we found the funds and completed the floodlit-volleyball court they requested. The electricity bill of the local community hall adjoining had not been paid and the wires removed from the Electricity Board. What guarantee and confidence can we get that despite funds being provided for facilities, the young people who use them will maintain it and take responsibility for even paying for the electricity use?

There is no point whatsoever in expecting an elected body to provide everything that is required unless the users also sacrifice in its construction and maintenance. This accountability, this private public partnership at the grass roots level is lacking. This sense of community that people all around the country keep talking about is lacking. It is easy to call the crowd to play the cricket game in the morning to have some fun and recreation. However no one can organize them to clean up the grounds, provide some order, cut the overgrown weeds or take responsibility.

It is automatically assumed that once a set of people are elected to a local government body, they would take care of those aspects. They just do not either have the money or time to look into the maintenance of each and every public area.

This kind of waste of public resources is common situation around the country, and until we know we are responsible for what we have and not someone else, nothing will change. Is it any wonder that donors are hard to come by? If I was willing to donate time or money or property, would I at least get the satisfaction that it was being put for the mutual benefit of a lot of people to enhance their quality of life, which is what community projects are all about.

I must also note the absence of females from this particular aspect of recreation, as they are generally not permitted from homes to play in public places except at school organized activities including sport. So this becomes a male dominated issue as it pertains to outdoor public playgrounds in the rural as well as urban areas. It sadly appears to me that once girls leave school they have no community recreation. It is of course different in Colombo, but it is the majority I refer to.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The crisis facing the Teaching Profession and solutions are needed urgently

It was interesting and purely coincidental that my previous blog entry discussed leadership training as the first event yesterday was just that topic being implemented at a local school and I was fortunate in talking to two Principals.

I was astounded to find out that there are a huge number of vacancies in the school district that remain unfilled due to the lack of trained teachers, something I had already found out, but was more shocked when he mentioned the numbers of teachers due for retirement in the next 5 years. Though people can continue after 55 which is the retirement age, which I consider absurd, when a person is at his experienced prime, but due to this age many are waiting to hit it to retire as they are so fed up with the politics that has pervaded schools and they feel they are unable to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

We have to first address the retention of good teachers. We MUST find out the reasons for their wanting to leave their vocation and try and reduce the need. This is a priority, as once retired they either become tuition teachers and make a bundle of money or some other thing they have been dreaming off and are a loss to the education system. It is also more than likely that some of these best trained teachers join the private teaching sector further depriving the public sector.

Once that is addressed then my earlier blog entries on the need to increase the teacher training facilities and intake must take priority. They can work in tandem. When one looks at the problems facing the Education sector one has to go down into the root causes. The interference in transfers, the way promotions are handled, the way the personal issues of teachers are not addressed and the respect that teachers used to hold in society gradually diminishing are but some of the causes of this mess.

I have not seen any reference to this massive social problem in any form of media, which is an indication of their lack of awareness of societal problems due to the blinkers they wear, which is an indication of the paucity of their educational oversight and complete lack of qualification for the jobs they hold. Here is some advice to reporters in Sri Lanka. It is not the news you see that you should report. You can make news by going behind the news. There are NO good investigative journalists today. You can be the first. Delve into society find out what ails it and make the public and therefore the lawmakers aware of it and we can come out of this with a lot more satisfaction that we really did our bit for our society so that the future of our country which is what it is all about is protected and enhanced.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking responsibility and ownership of our lives as it pertains to Youth

In my series of blog entries that have so far covered the gamut of education and vocational training all this as part of providing the foundation of knowledge from where our young people can take charge of the challenges ahead. Without the foundation it is difficult to get ahead. So what is lacking from this point?

I was speaking with a leadership trainer yesterday, who trains young people in giving them a sense of identity, told me yesterday how Nawaloka Mudalali, who only studied up to the 6th grade was able to build a business that employed thousands of people including countless doctors in his famous hospital. What that means is that it is not merely education that provides a means of employment it is also the attitude to work that is important. The first point to understand is one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Once that is ascertained then one can aspire to for a job in keeping with one’s abilities. Too many young people believe they are suitable for a job that their current knowledge does not permit them to do.

Under this theme the huge mass of unemployed youth covering the ages 16 to 30 must be provided with a realistic estimate of what they can do, what is available, and how they go about changing their knowledge to suit what is available, and then doing the necessary to get the jobs that are available. All too often it is the simple transaction of the parent bringing a completely irrelevant and badly prepared CV to me and asking me to find their spoilt know nothing son or daughter a job in a bank or some institution that is possibly the hardest to enter!! For fear of hurting their feelings, I just have to say I will do my best.

The worst part in all this is how ungrateful people are. If we fit them into a position in keeping with their abilities, they still think beyond that and are unhappy, and worse criticize us for finding them employment that pays too little and is beneath their expectations. It is part of daily experiences but it is hard to get them to understand their error in judgment.

In summary I believe all young people looking for employment today should partake in a seminar that is subdivided into different age and ability to groups so that their individual perceptions can become realistic ones. That done it becomes easier for them to face an interview, rejection and mental stress, and grow from their to achieve their individual goals. The lack of goals partly out of the frustration of not having a job is a universal problem that breeds resentment violence and social destability. We must do whatever we can to address these issues that are simmering in society without making callous remarks on the state of the nation by our leaders in overseas countries by giving them advice on how to live their lives, when so many young people in this country live in frustration and lack of direction.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Vocational Training where does one start and at which point is it relevant?

In considering the structure in the previous blog entries of the secondary education, I was asked about where vocational training fits in, as most school drop outs are at pre and post O level stages, unable to realistically to follow A level programs.

Before we venture further it is worth remembering that half the teaching cadre in the state sector is quite unqualified to teach. They cannot be removed due to union pressure, and due to a lack of replacements, further emphasizing the importance of increased teacher training. Money spent on teacher training is NOT wasteful as it does not involve money being spirited in the form of commissions.

I would prefer that all students obtain the basics of being able to read and write, have a general knowledge on a broad area and numeracy and computer skills along with some knowledge of English as even a technician or a vehicle repair or service hand will have to read operational manuals and basic instructions only in English. This therefore means that teaching up to O level standard as earlier envisaged is appropriate. However due to the lack of trained teachers, this will not be possible for the next 5 to years until the resources are allocated here.

We should fall back into a vocational training class at grade 10 level at schools to prepare those who show little aptitude for O levels to choose from. Examples such as Agriculture, Carpentry, Masonry and Electrical, which schools could be asked to include, along with basic subjects for O level competence. After grade 11 they can select a vocational training institution such as we have in Godagama, where if they have a day job they can follow evening or weekend classes. Auto mechanics, Cooking and catering can be taught there. Schools are not the places for them.

The hugely equipped Godagama Vocational Training schools is grossly under used. I am sure that there are many other such places in the country. These places must hold classes 7 days a week and fully utilize their facilities rather than setting up new Vocational training schools which the Government is talking about to train the required 1 million workers for the hospitality industry. Governments love building, as it is money for jam for the politicians to make commissions. We must get out of that tendency and put all our resources and energy to training the right people who can teach the growing body of youth looking for skills. I have had people with CVs showing certificates in all manner of fields, but they are mere paper qualifications that do not mean a thing. Multiple short courses should be discouraged as it just creates a sea of good for nothing certificates. Skills required by the economy are needs to be filled, not all and sundry to cater to all comers.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Private Education at Primary and Secondary Level in Sri Lanka

In a state that is now aspiring to a GNP per capital of $2,500 per annum this year, the Private Education sector in Sri Lanka is growing by leaps and bounds, along with the market forces of supply and demand. This is throughout the country and not restricted to the Western Province. I know of poor parents one of whom is overseas primarily to fund their children’s private education in the belief that it is the only way their children will get a good education today in Sri Lanka.

I am a product of private education throughout, and my parents had to make a significant sacrifice to do so. I am aware therefore of the rationale for this sacrifice, as they value education and note that the State sector is failing miserably. I have referred to this in earlier blog postings, where teachers supplement their income by providing tuition to the same kids they teach in the state schools. This is simply better off parents voting with their wallets to opt for private education in preference to state education, due to a whole host of factors, which include schizoid approach of the Government to dealing with this issue. They have simply lost faith. I know of parents who cannot speak English who send their children to International schools whose medium of learning is English and the exams their kids are trained for are the foreign ones from the UK. When I ask them why they do this they simply say that they have no other choice to ensure that their kids will get a good education. They further point out to the proliferation of private tertiary institutions which accept these results for their intakes unlike the University system in Sri Lanka that only accepts the local O and A levels.

There is one problem with International Schools. They are not regulated by anybody, and it is up to the parents to do their own investigations before choosing their suitability. There will no doubt be some bad apples that take them for a ride!

It is worth remembering that private schools, Trinity College, Kandy as an example are fee paying schools. They offer the Sri Lanka syllabus of O and A levels, but therefore are regulated by the Ministry of Education and must abide by many rules that state schools are guided by. In order that kids of poorer families also have a chance, then bursaries and scholarships is the only way to ensure some form of equity, to obtain a sprinkling of high quality students, from lower income households. I know for a fact that they are currently facing a dilemma, namely whether to increase the fee scales to attract a better quality of teacher to improve the standard of education at the school. If that happens it will be impossible for a greater section of the population, including some old boy’s children from entering the school. We cannot get away from the fact that “RESOURCE” equals quality.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hap-hazard, buck shot, trial and error approach to reform of Secondary Education

The Minister of Education has just announced yet another change to the O level syllabus, ostensibly so that students are able to adapt to the A levels! The compulsory subjects are one’s mother tongue. English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, Religion and History. Three additional subjects need to be chosen from the expected subjects at A level. These are expected to be taught from grade 10 as the O levels are done at Grade 11. There are two years to follow the subjects.

Those wishing to do Science at A levels must choose Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Those wishing to do Mathematics should choose Combined Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Those wishing to follow the Commerce stream should choose, Economic Science, Accounts and Commerce. Those wishing to follow the Arts stream which in reality are 90%+ students should choose a language which is other than the mother tongue or English, Buddhist Culture and Civilization, and Drama and Theater Studies.

Consider what this means? We are directing students at the 10th grade to a stream for their future education. Look around you. Do you honestly believe the students at 15 are able to show a clear direction in their field of study at A levels and beyond? In my time there was no Economics, nor Accounts or even Commerce. Should we insist on the majority doe three languages at O levels when they can barely manage with English? Why would those already taking Religion as a subject have to subject themselves to Buddhist Civilization as well? Drama and Theatre Studies should be more a general subject that is only optional for O levels.

In my view the basics at O level should exclude Religion, which should be taught extensively at a much younger age, namely at Primary stage, when kids are most likely attending the Daham Pasalas. My O level list for students would go as follows:
Mother tongue, English, Mathematics, History, Geography, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and one other of either Combined Maths, Commerce (encompassing a hybrid of economics and accounting as well) Drama, Art or Literature(of the language of the mother tongue) and a third language meant for those with a different mother tongue. This makes for 9 O levels which give a complete grounding necessary to all students. There is no reason once this breadth of subjects is chosen to also include a subject called Science and Technology, which is basically IT training, that can be taught at a younger age where students find it much easier to grasp computing and their structures of logic and reasoning. This proposal is rational and reasonable subject to the availability of suitable teachers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs – Notes ‘mortality motivated him’

Think “Kalpanakaranna!” The attitude one has to the enjoyment of living, and knowledge that each day on this earth theoretically can be your last, is likely to energize the productive and innovative streak in us to perform to the fullest of our expectations and abilities, and not waste a moment in self pity.

We must be taught at a young age, how fleeting youth is. We should not waste a moment of our youth. However, I spend a lot of time interacting with youth in Sri Lanka whose attitude to life is negative. Society has given them a false sense of entitlement. They expect someone to help them. I have people who want us to provide them with sports equipment if they want to play, or provide them with a sports ground to play. They want us to give them jobs, and when we give them one say that it is not what they want! Then their parents come with the CV that would not have any place other than the bin, and say their kids must be found a job without delay as they have been committed party workers for three generations, and that this is the least one can do for that commitment.

These examples mirror the attitude, with the finding of government jobs being considered the prize goal in life. The need to excel in studies and obtain the necessary qualification for them to succeed in the future seems to be the furthest. There is always a reason why that is not possible. Usually, it is the lack of financial resources to follow the course of study. It is surprising that for young people satisfying their alcohol and smoking habit is considered in priority to paying to study for a qualification.

The question facing nearly every country on earth is how to deal with youth unemployment. I am more significantly pursuing the practical solutions to this problem in Sri Lanka, and what distresses me on first facing this is how the precious period of youth is wasted, particularly by many of our young men. I do not as yet come into contact with our young women, so am unable to comment on them, though I do believe they are more diligent in setting goals in life, but get sidetracked by the devious qualities of young men who attempt to distract them in that process, partly out of jealousy and partly out of peer pressure to score!

The youth of today have so many more opportunities than were available to us older people a generation ago, and I still live by a discipline of not wanting to waste anytime bemoaning the lack of time to carry out all the tasks I have set myself. It is better to be in a hurry than to hurry to be idle!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Education Policy - Suggestions for an overhaul Part 4

continuation from the previous blog entry

One may ask, how I rationalize small class sizes with culling 4,000 schools? I said it should be done progressively with a plan, say 10 years. Do not forget Education is not a short term matter. We are paying a heavy price for some of the mistakes in the past decade and half. There is no issue with reducing class size of some of the schools put up for closure, but only go as far as O level classes where equipment and teaching can be improved without too much cost. Then the basics up to O levels can be taught. These schools are losing students so class size reduction is already happening. It is teachers of quality that are lacking.

Today, the one period set aside daily in every class in Sri Lanka for teaching English is wasted as most classes DO NOT have English teachers. English and IT training is a must, but despite the Govt. emphasis, has not got off the ground. This simply is due to a lack of qualified teaching staff. I don’t wish to belabor the point about English, when the President is talks of a trilingual nation. but this need of the hour is a separate project in training 5000+ teachers first by teaching them English and then teaching them how to teach students followed by IT, without any delay.

The Education Department then has to be overhauled by first identifying the objectives of teaching and restructuring the department to facilitate this objective, rather than the reverse that is happening. Political interference in schools via people in the department, as far as transfers and appointments are concerned deprives the students of consistent quality in their schools. The grading of the capability of teachers, and their suitability for the courses they teach is a very sensitive subject. Teachers are highly emotional people, the best of whom believe they are providing a service to the community with little reward either in kind or acknowledgement. The country is full of dedicated teachers toiling with little appreciation. That too has to change if the vocation is to attract the best in the business.

In summary it is obvious that the emphasis has to be on training new teachers and retraining the existing teaching cadre if we are to gain any inroads in the technology hub we propose to become. The best facilities are useless if we do not have the proper manpower to maintain and develop them. This is not on a politicians priority as there are no kickbacks for training the best to be the best.

If one makes the above proposal to the Minister, he would agree with you, but say he is not allocated the funds to carry out this activity, as the allocation seems exclusively for the benefit of people with last name Rajapkse. I therefore contend that it is incumbent upon the line ministries, if they are to avoid criticism to stand up for their needs and fight for sufficient funds to be allocated.

This series of suggestions is now finished.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Education Policy - Suggestions for an overhaul Part 3

The further I delve into this subject, I get the sense that there is a completely different picture of what the laypman in Sri Lanka seems to believe about education. The use of our high literacy rate when we pompously talk about our attributes hides an enormous void in our education. Just think of the 10,000 schools in Sri Lanka, which I propose to gradually reduce to 6,000 for the sake of productivity. We only have 600 that teach science subjects at A level. That’s right only 600, while only 100 schools produce the annual entry into Medical College, considered to be for those with the best results Island wide. The question becomes do we help the best schools more or try to have science taught in 6,000 or just increase it from 600 to 1200?

The short answer to that is that we must learn to walk before we can run. Let us set up some realistic goals and try to achieve these such as by increasing the science stream trained teacher quantum so that more schools can teach science subjects.

I ask again to look at the A grades in A levels and you will find the majority in the following subjects, Buddhist Civilization, Sinhala, Political Science and Geography. They come to me assuming that they are thus highly in demand! Why is it left to me to burst their bubble? Someone should explain the facts of life!

In yesterday’s Sinhala paper, the Lankadeepa, an event where the Education Minister has supplied 3,100 teachers in the fields of Visual and Performing arts was highlighted. However what was not said was that this was a means to employ 3,100 graduates who have been sitting at home waiting for an appointment! It is easy to train them for a month and send them to schools. This is just adding to the problem, not reducing it, all in the interests of political expediency. From my knowledge the Minister is a highly accomplished teacher, who owns a tutory. He should know more than most what is needed to be employable. Why is he acting in this manner? Is it because he is just given a measly allocation of funds and told to be grateful for even that? I don’t know the answer, but the policy makers ‘suck.’

The free education system is no longer free, when parents have spend fortunes transporting children to schools, and then spend another fortune getting the school teachers to teach their kids after school at tuition classes. Do they not teach kids at schools? I did not go to tuition classes, but maybe if I had my grades would have been better, I don’t know!

Smaller class size plays a part in the quality of education, as teachers can give individual attention to failing students, who are now ignored. This is a category that requires special help as they now become early dropouts before O levels.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Education Policy - Suggestions for an overhaul Part 2

(continuation from previous entry)

There are some concerns that the Grade 5 exam (shishathvaya) is too taxing on young students and should either be scrapped or delayed to Grade 8 or allow those not getting the required standard another chance at Grade 8 to get into a better school. While I understand that there is intense pressure to get into better schools and this test is a means to do so, I am not sure why a student who does well in Anuradhapura is then allowed into Royal College, Colombo and who then has to find accommodation in Colombo to pursue his studies. Of course if he gets into Royal most parents would move heaven and earth to do the needful to have him study there.

In my view the competition should be to get into the best school in one’s district and to have two or more district schools of a high caliber, based on the respective populations and promote them as schools of excellence. They should in my view permit entrance on merit, and to a degree on point scores depending on home, and connections to the school. Private schooling is completely independent and let the private schools determine an equitable mode of entry. I am concerned here on entrance into state schools. One problem is that many schools that are lower down on the level of excellence have fewer students wanting to get in, and thereby cause a natural decline in attendance. A structure of limited availability into the merit schools is the way to prevent these schools just increasing their parallel class sizes, another huge problem in Sri Lanka.

I refer above to the increasing size of the schools in demand, such as the one close to my farm in Godagama, the high demand Subharathi School which has not stopped building new classrooms since I began living there in 2004. I am also surprised at the school vans bringing students from long distances to this school, and the student numbers have doubled in 7 years, a staggering increase. There must be a commensurate drop in other feeder schools.

With school populations now decreasing, there is NO need for more school rooms or increasing the parallel classes of good schools. The emphasis should be on increasing the quality of the remaining schools, after the culling of the uneconomical village schools at the secondary levels. The emphasis would be on improving the quality of the teaching staff, which is also considerably lacking due to the automatic assignment of graduates to teaching. They if untrained are quite poor teachers, with a very poor motivational mindset for encouraging free thinking creativity and innovation. There really should be a crash program of training teachers to teach the subjects that are considered essential for the future, if we are to grow as an economy. It takes a while to train. Out of a training intake only 50% make the cut in the end though due to shortages the others also get posted, so these resources should be added to the budget today, and I sincerely hope that the opposition can fight for this in the debate and try to increase this allocation before it is too late!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Education Policy – A complete overhaul is long overdue – Part 1

As a follow up to my last post on the paltry allocation in the coming year’s budget for Education, there are many aspects of this topic which includes Tertiary education that require a sea change. I will no doubt refer to different aspects in follow up blog entries, but let me start first on the subject of entry into schools.

One of the perceived steps to one’s growth and future in Sri Lanka on the circle of life is the school we attend. It is less so in the US where 90% of the students are bussed into their Public School (state schools with no fees) a few minutes from their homes in the now familiar yellow buses. The University is their determinant.

Those lucky in Sri Lanka will send them to a school of their choice due to the proximity of the home to the school or obtain the relevant points for entrance. Others have to pay, either for International or other schools, and sometimes give huge donations to the building funds, or have to obtain influence through a Principal or a Minister, while paying huge under the table money or kind for this deed. Due to the belief that the school matters so much in future life, the price parents are prepared to pay is high and the kids will also pay an equivalent price in commuting in cramped school vans for hours to get to and from school.

The flip side of this is that when a school is not favored it has few students wanting to go and they die. There are thousands of schools in Sri Lanka with less than 100 students and likewise with teachers who are also of a lower standard. There is NO point in pretending these schools can be resurrected as teachers with the best will in the world or higher wages will not travel daily and do a full day’s teaching. I will personally take you to schools in the Western Province in Kalutara District to prove this point. Educated parents therefore take their kids out of these schools

The need of the hour today is a complete evaluation using new technology, population census and birth rates to ascertain which schools must be closed, and divert funds to transporting students at government expense to the better schools. These remaining schools should then be developed into a national standard where parents do not find every devious mode to send children to Colombo. The teachers there MUST be given a higher salary than Colombo teachers! Controversial idea but necessary if this project is to be successful.

It is similar to the 1000 school program the Minister of Education has set out to implement, but needs further refinement taking the overall issue of closure of uneconomical schools into account. (to be continued in the next installment)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Education a Priority – Not for the Government though! What a shame!

I was saddened to hear the President of Sri Lanka explicitly state in a speech in the Batticaloa District yesterday, that the opposition is bent on preventing the improvement in living standards of the people of Sri Lanka. In my opinion the quality of life of a person and his or her ability to better themselves in life depends on the level of education they receive and in that respect I challenge his words.

In looking at the current appropriation bill presented to the Speaker, the fact that the funds allocated for education are 15% of that allocated to the Ministry of Defense is a travesty of the worst kind and proof of the lie that the President appears to perpetrate to hoodwink the masses he seems to want to keep ignorant!

I come across so many CV’s of people today, mostly of youth between the ages of 16 and 26 and I find their level of education staggeringly below par, and shockingly unaware of how to obtain employment. Upon investigation, one finds that most of this is not their or their parents fault but of the whole education system in Sri Lanka that just does not have the resources allocated to them to train our people to even the basic levels.

I was recently at a school not half hour away from Colombo, to donate 30 chairs from an MP’s decentralized budget. I cannot think of a more ridiculous thing for an MP to be asked for such on behalf of a school, when the Government must ensure that the school has chairs for the pupils to sit on. I sat on a school chair during the course of the function and the speeches of thanks from the teachers, and I can honestly tell you my backside hurt from sitting on a school chair. I challenge Bandula Gunewardene, the Minister of Education to sit on these chairs for half an hour and then he would insist schools have basic chairs for students to sit on before providing any other equipment and then demand that the President double his education budget by cutting the allocation for Defense.

This “Miracle of Asia” is a pipe dream if we are not able to educate our citizens, first to be able to read and write in their mother tongue and then have the numeracy and English skills necessary for any job in Sri Lanka, except perhaps in a bloated government bureaucracy. Education is the best investment a Nation can give its people. It cannot be shortchanged, like the current road building program where 50% of the cost (all borrowed money) goes for the commission and bribe industry. We do not want a country with more roads for wealthy to travel on than brains the poor can live by and improve their quality of life. So please stop politicking and start governing, Mr. President you have had a long innings, but knowledge is bust!!