Minister of Education Akila Viraj Kariyawasam in a recent interview with the Daily Mirror spoke on educational reforms and the incorporation of technology in education while responding to criticism of his ambitious strategies. Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q How effective do you think the insurance cover introduced to school children would be?
It will affect the entire school system positively. The new scheme covers Goveernment schools, international schools and even pirivenas (Education institutes administered by a temple). The insurance cover for each student will offer welfare benefits to the tune of over Rs. 500,000 which will cover students’ health, accidents, funeral expenses, medical expenses and medicine costs. Even if a child is admitted at a Government hospital, costs have to be borne by parents. Therefore this social security cover will relieve parents to a great extent. We could say it is the greatest social service that a Government and the Ministry of Education have rendered in the recent past.
Q Do you believe the scheme will be carried out seamlessly when considering the issues schools are faced with at present?
These issues have been minimised to a great length. We have recruited 4,000 new teachers sans political influence. There is no shortage of principals now. There were various administration issues in education. 852 personnel were recruited through an open examination. 250 were provided with in-house training for one year while the remainder were also provided with suitable training. All of them were absorbed into the education system while some were provided with training in foreign countries. There were shortages in several areas where teachers were concerned for which we have recruited adequate personnel. Over the next six months approximately 15,000 more teachers will be recruited.
Under the ‘Nearest School is the Best School’ Programme, 18,500 projects are being carried out in the country. We have provided buildings and laboratories. 26,000 toilets have been constructed in schools. When I was appointed the Minister of Education in 2015 only 60% of schools had electricity. We have now raised this number to 95%. We have provided not only human resources, but also physical resources in order to uplift education. There are more projects underway. The 2015 Budget made provisions for the biggest monetary allocation for education in Sri Lankan history. The ‘Suraksha’ insurance programme was implemented corresponding to this allocation.
In January, we will be providing all students who pass the Ordinary Level Exam and enter the Advanced Level class with an ipad. These ipads will be provided to teachers as well. The total number of students receiving this ipad is approximately 200,000.
- The insurance cover for each student will offer welfare benefits to the tune of over Rs. 500,000
- Under the ‘Nearest School is the Best School’ Programme, 18,500 projects are being carried out in the country
- There will be no change of Government and there is no reason to fear such a change
- A gazette will be issued to recruit 3,450 counsellors to schools
- We have already transferred 3,000 teachers while the remaining 9,000 will be transferred by the end of this year
Q What is your response to criticism over the pass rates regarding the Ordinary Level Exam?
The pass rates at the Ordinary Level Exam have been increasing over the past three years. In 2011,the pass rate was 60.80%. It was raised to 69.94% in 2016. The pass rate at mathematics had increased to 62.81% in 2016. Under the new education reform programme those who fail in mathematics will be absorbed into the Advanced Level classes through the introduction of 26 subjects under the vocational stream. The pilot project for this was initiated on October 2 in 42 schools involving nearly 5,000 students. Our aim is to ensure that no student will fail the Ordinary Level Exam in 2019. The vocational stream will include agricultural, arts, sports, robotics, hospitality, designing, technical and technological subjects.
Q Does the Ministry have adequate resources to implement this programme?
We have already concluded training for teachers who will undertake these subjects, through the National Institute of Education (NIE). The areas have been identified and provided with resources such as computers. The resources required for the next year are being evaluated at present. We are confident that 150,000 students will be absorbed into the Advanced Level stream through these subjects next year.
Q The regulation of international schools has been long overdue. What mechanism will you introduce to address this issue?
For this an Independent Inspectorate will be established, through which the learning and teaching process and also the physical resources of each school will be inspected. This inspectorate will be established in the near future and will regulate state schools and not only international or private schools.
This mechanism will replace the school inspector’s role practised earlier with which the quality and efficiency of the entire education system will be enhanced. We’re confident a Director General and Additional Director Generals for each province will be appointed by the end of this year.
150 smart classes will be established soon. When ipads are provided for Advanced Level students next year, the e-learning and e-library concepts will also be in use. This programme has been formulated to suit the next 10 to 20 years by which time the latest digital technology will be incorporated into learning
Q Policy decisions and concepts when introduced by successive Governments take a toll on the curriculum. How do you add such concepts without harming the education process?
Everything I have mentioned earlier was implemented through policy decisions. For instance, areas such as the prevention of violence against women and taking a stand against corruption have been inserted into the curriculum. Meanwhile the content in the curriculum is too heavy for children. The Academic Affairs Board of the NIE is the authority dealing with this matter. I have informed them about these issues. We have been implementing these programmes in accordance with the internationally accepted sustainable development goals.
Q In the event of a change of Government or officials, how do you ensure that these decisions aren’t reversed and wouldn’t affect education negatively?
First of all, there will be no change of Government and there is no reason to fear such a change. We have the mandate for the next three years. We have a strategy and there is no reason to act in haste. The policies we have implemented over the past two years, will be strengthened over the next three years. For instance, the technical stream was introduced when we were in the opposition, but we have only strengthened this programme. I was a member of this committee even though I was in the opposition as it was a timely need.
Only 2 or 3% of technical colleges of education were established by the previous regime which the present Government completed. But they had established Mahindodaya Laboratories across the country and we had to build the remainder of 400 laboratories to complete the project. The projects initiated by the NIE and the policy decisions were carried out by this Government sans changes.
Q How confident are you that these programmes will be carried out after these three years?
Nobody can change these decisions. Can anyone change the ‘suraksha’ insuarance cover now? This Government distributed free books and uniforms, a decision which nobody was able to alter. The only change was that I introduced a voucher system; which can only be standardised but not changed. The existing programmes like the ‘13 years of continuous education’ nor the independent inspectorate will change. This Government will have no issue until 2025.
Q How will you ensure that there won’t be a repetition like the incidents such as the recent case in Kekirawa?
I have advised all the relevant officials to take necessary action regarding such matters. Earlier there were acting principals in schools. As a remedy to this issue 4,000 personnel were recruited. These principals should receive a good training in social science, Psycology as well as counselling. Principals should possess a deep understanding of these areas. The lack of such an understanding or education leads to these incidents. A gazette will be issued to recruit 3,450 counsellors to schools. Rupees two billion had been allocated for the training of principals and teachers last year. We hope to allocate a bigger amount next year. The target is to set a standard where it will be mandatory for teachers to possess a diploma or a degree.
Q What is the smart class concept about?
150 smart classes will be established soon. When ipads are provided for Advanced Level students next year, the e-learning and e-library concepts will also be in use. This programme has been formulated to suit the next 10 to 20 years by which time the latest digital technology will be incorporated into learning. It is a long term, step by step process where IT teachers must be trained alongside the establishment of facilities.
Q With this concept, how will you manage an equal distribution of resources and ensure that some schools don’t lack basic infrastructure?
The ‘nearest school is the best school’ Project was initiated with this in mind. The project is carried out in 7,000 schools out of the 10,353 schools in the country. Nobody can criticise us, as there are 18,500 educational projects that are being carried out in the country to uplift education. Basic infrastructure for rural schools, sanitary facilities, drinking water, insurance covers, recruitment programmes for principals and training programmes for teachers; all these have been implemented in order to standardise the education system. We have three more years to continue with our work.
Q The teacher transfer programme has stirred controversy. Your comments?
There were issues regarding the transfer of teachers, earlier. But there is no such issue at the moment. Earlier teachers hadn’t been transferred for over 25 years, especially in national schools. We have taken measures to transfer 12,000 teachers. We have already transferred 3,000 teachers while the remaining 9,000 will be transferred by the end of this year. The issues therefore are being solved. A mechanism has been introduced to avoid such errors in the future.
The teacher transfer programme was implemented with the participation of all concerned entities such as trade unions and teacher transfer boards. But some have a problem in leaving their schools. These are problems that don’t concern us. These teachers may have problems affecting their tuition classes or privileges, when they no longer work at a leading school. We have taken necessary measures to deal with such teachers. Those who aren’t willing to be transfered will face disciplinary measures.
Some have even incited racism over this matter. There was talk of appointing Muslim teachers to leading schools. But we haven’t done so. This too was a problem for some. But we don’t fear these attempts. Since we took over the Government, we have taken clear policy decisions.
These attempts are made by unable and unsuccessful parties. There have been no appointment of Muslims to these schools, but there is no fault in appointing Hindu or Muslim individuals to such schools. If true reconciliation is to be achieved in a country, such divisive thoughts should not matter. Our only focus is on whether a teacher is able and qualified to teach his or her respective subject.
The project is carried out in 7,000 schools out of the 10,353 schools in the country. Nobody can criticise us, as there are 18,500 educational projects that are being carried out in the country to uplift education
Q There is criticism that your proposals challenge the fundamentals of formal education. What is your response?
The Minister of Education should have insights to the future and his decisions should be taken accordingly. The government too should possess this quality. We can’t survive with this island mentality.
If we thought in the same manner when computers were introduced, where would we be now? The Prime Minister himself told me about the opposition when computers and mobile phones were introduced to the country. Not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world there exist groups which habitually oppose any new process.
We can’t surrender to those groups as we have the responsibility to nurture education. Future generations will reap benefits of these decisions.
If a right or wrong decision is made in education, we will only see its results decades later. Therefore I am not prepared as the Education Minister to take wrong decisions.
The roots of education may be bitter, but its fruits are delectable.
When I introduced the uniform voucher, trade unions vehemently opposed this. They claimed they would take to the streets and oust me from the Ministry.
We didn’t backtrack. Research uncovered that 30% of the students didn’t use the material for uniforms. We have saved billions for the Government and brought simplicity and efficiency to the entire process. Therefore we aren’t prepared to heed to unsuccessful groups.