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The muddle that is Sri Lankan Education

23 January 2019 01:25 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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he recent fracas over a Lyceum International School student gaining first place at a local exam makes me realize how confused the public is by the International School system. The term ‘International Schools’ is badly misunderstood on a regular basis and the public often do not know what comprises these ‘International Schools.’   
This misunderstanding extends to politicians who should know better, or at least take the trouble to find out exactly what International Schools have become since the system was first started by that outstanding educationist, Mrs. Elizabeth Moir over 35 years ago. More about this later.   
Let me explain that there are  THREE types of International schools. Not all of them are instituted along the lines of what has unfortunately come to be regarded as elitist schools catering for the affluent.   
All International schools are fee levying. They are privately owned and have shown the public that on the whole they are extremely well run. There are three types of International Schools.   

1. There are those schools whose students study only for foreign examinations and sit for either the Edexcel or Cambridge OLs and ALs.   
2. Then there are those schools whose pupils sit for either local or foreign exams depending on their preference. The school teaches the syllabuses of BOTH local and foreign exams.   
3. Finally there are schools whose pupils DO NOT do foreign exams but are taught in the English medium and do the local OLs and ALs in English.   

All three categories have one thing in common in that they use English as the medium of instruction. Accordingly the 3rd category call themselves ‘International’ although there is no connection with an international body.   
I suppose it would simplify the confusion if they were to call themselves ‘English Medium Schools’ but most parents understand the differences even if certain pundits in the Government and elsewhere do not.   


A distinction is made by the Government which does not allow students of the first category to enter Sri Lanka’s National Universities. Frankly, I think this is a trifle unfair. Why should ANY Sri Lankan citizen be barred from getting a place in our Universities if she/he has passed a world recognized qualifying exam?   
Anyway children of the 1st category have no choice but to go abroad or else seek a higher education in Sri Lanka itself at one of the many mushrooming institutes of Higher Learning. There are some excellent such Institutes of course. But alas! there are some that really make educationists wonder how they get away with a non-supervised, substandard education. The Government made a huge fuss over the SAITM standards but no one bothers about all these other institutes that are awarding degrees quite cheerfully with no restriction on them whatsoever.   
I must admit that there are also many good institutes in Sri Lanka that are affiliated to Universities abroad and the students sit for the exams which are set and corrected by those Universities. The Royal Institute for instance has an impeccable record. Papers are set and corrected by the London University. Many other Institutes do likewise.   

 

"I suppose it would simplify the confusion if they were to call themselves ‘English Medium Schools"


I therefore see no reason why there should have been any problem when a student of Lyceum (which falls into the 2nd category) should have been questioned as to the eligibility of being awarded first place at the local OL exam which she sat for (in English) through an ‘International School.’   
Do those who make silly comments even understand the system of education in this country which is so fractured that educationists themselves hardly know what to make of it.   
Yesterday’s news tells us that 301 schools in the country do not have Principals. The Daily Mirror of January 17th in a full page advertisement inserted by HNB Singithi quotes from what has been issued by the Ministry of Education. It is all very impressive if one believes a word of it. There are smiling photos of the President, the PM, the Minister of Education and the State Minister of Education all looking mighty complacent. Also in the line up is a picture of Vijayakala Maheshwaran whom I thought to be in the doghouse over various anti-government statements not so long ago. That was a quick rehabilitation I must say.   
Among the listed accomplishments stated by the Ministry of Education are the following. 

1. The training of 3000 graduate teachers as Primary School teachers.   
2. The restructuring of the Grade 5 exams so that the burden on students is less.   
The Grade 5 exam has been soundly criticized by almost every educationist in the country but this is the first time I have heard anyone from the Ministry accept that some re-thinking was necessary.   
3. Introducing activity based text books in English for Grade one and Grade two from 2018. 

Now this really needs discussion. Who wrote the textbooks? When and where were they introduced. Indeed were they actually introduced to all Primary Government Schools in the country or to just a few.   
Since we are on the subject of English, I now come to a pertinent point. We have in our country the founder of the International school system, Mrs. Elizabeth Moir ( M.A. Oxford) .She founded the Colombo International School in 1982 with the intention of tutoring a few eager students to sit for British exams. The response to her idea was so overwhelming that a new school sprang up within a few weeks.   
Quick to realize the widespread desire for a good English education, interested entrepreneurs visited the then President J.R. Jayawardene who asked them to go ahead and proceed to establish schools catering to students wishing to do the British exams .   

 

"Do those who make silly comments even understand the system of education in this country"


Of course this was against Education Department Regulations, so such schools were categorized as Businesses and still remain so. I am talking of the first two categories only because I do not know how the 3rd type is listed . At the start, these new International Schools were barred from competing in National Sports but that ban was soon lifted and now all children from any school in the Island may compete in National Sports events.   
 Every so often, however, the Department of Education issues various orders to the International schools on the teaching of Sinhala and Tamil and also the teaching of religion. The International Schools were teaching the National Languages and Religion in any case and had no difficulty complying with such decrees.   
The high standards of the ‘Good’ International Schools can be seen in the excellent results produced year after year. If anyone has doubts about this all they need to do is to check out the lists of Distinctions, World prizes etc that are published in the Press by the bodies conducting the Edexcel and Cambridge exams.   
I now come to Mrs. Elizabeth Moir whose expertise was recognized by the then President R. Premadasa. Just after the JVP problems he realized that English was the sword (the Kaduwa) separating society into English speaking and non English speaking sections. Accordingly he sent for Mrs. Moir and requested that she set up a teaching programme which would benefit the standard of English Education islandwide.   


Mr. Premadasa well knew whom to choose for such an undertaking. The “FOLLOW ME” programme was set up by her and thanks to her personal efforts and influence was sponsored by the University of Warwick. Mr. Premadasa was willing to give her anything she needed to set up this excellently planned programme.   
It soon became so popular that the Dept. of Education admitted that more students were sitting for the ‘FOLLOW ME’ exams than they were for the OL exams. It was a huge success and Mr. Premadasa was a satisfied man. He held regular meetings with Mrs. Moir and assured her that the programme that was bringing English to so many (who otherwise had no access to good English teaching) would have his Government’s total backing. Most attractive was that the cost of sitting for the exam was only Rs.100. It was within everybody’s grasp.   
Several teachers were sent abroad and training for the FOLLOW ME programme took place under Mrs. Moir’s watchful eye. The encouraging feed back would have gladdened the heart of any politician. Almost all those who got the “FOLLOW ME” certificate from Warwick University were able to get good jobs and were grateful to a far thinking President who harnessed the best person available to fulfill his ambitions for the country in this sphere. Truly, what a President we lost when Mr. Premadasa was assassinated.   


Mrs. Moir has made Sri Lanka her home. She has not only founded three schools in Colombo (the CIS, the British School and the Moir School) but year after year the Moir School has gained 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place for the best results in THE WORLD at the Edexcel exams.   
Her name was on The Queen’s Birthday Honours’ List and she was awarded the MBE in 2014 for her services to the advancement and teaching of English in Sri Lanka. Had Mr. Premadasa not been assassinated we might have had a far better system of teaching English than we have at the moment. He recognized and made use of expertise when he could. Why don’t we do so now?   
So I ask “why does the Government and the Education Department not make use of someone like Mrs. Moir who so clearly loves this country and who has already done so much for Sri Lankan education?” It would be a good idea for politicians who talk so glibly of ‘helping the people’to actually show that they are doing so in Education at least?   

 

"why does the Government and the Education Department not make use of someone like Mrs. Moir"


Mrs. Moir well understands the aspirations of the Sri Lankans and is perfectly capable of advising us how to re-organise our ‘systems’ along lines which will help our students (a clever bunch as we know) to realize their full potential. Local experts like Mrs. Nirmali Wickremesinghe could also be harnessed and chauvinistic pundits kept out of the formation of a liberal and modernized education policy .   
And a final thought. Politicians should be told to keep out of schools and universities. They get political mileage out of frequent appearances at tree planting ceremonies, building opening ceremonies, prize days, etc. Political interference permeates every aspect of Government Schools - from teaching to administration. Remember the appalling incident where a teacher had to bend down and worship some politician on his order?   
Our politicians are pampered and praised, they are cosseted, watched, admired and flattered beyond belief. Many are stupid enough to believe all this adulation that our people seem stupid enough to give!   


What we badly need are not only structural changes in the school’s system but also a code of conduct for a highly randy set of teachers and principals who are daily facing charges of abuse and sexual abuse according to the Press. Are we expecting too much to ask for a re-haul of the Education System? We are! We have one of the most uneducated Parliaments in the world. How can we even hope for anything from those without a basic education themselves? So are we doomed to mediocrity forever? It is a horrible thought but what is in the foreseeable future for our children? Educationwise - not much! 

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