Wednesday, 8 January 2003  
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Tiresome work

The Storm's Eye by Prof.Rajiva Wijesinghe

I was quite ill over Christmas, and indeed spent most of the first few days of the break fast asleep. Apart from the strain of a bad back, and an appalling cough, I was in a state of total exhaustion, having had to send to press between the 18th and 20th not only the entire English medium Social Studies Text for Grade 7, but also enough material for Science and Health and Mathematics to keep the project going from the beginning of this year.

Needless to say I was informed by dear Mr Medagama, about the last professional left in the Ministry of Education, that the Ministry would be calling for tenders for printing the Grade 6 books by the end of December - these for children beginning school on January 2nd.

Of course I did not have to prepare the books all by myself. I had the most fantastic professional assistance from Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and Maithri Jansz, who really understand education and what children need. In particular the science material prepared by the last is so inspiring that I suspect many schools will switch to English in Grade 7 if only to have the benefit of user friendly material instead of the confusing grey matter produced by the NIE (though the Health book, she told me, was much better, indicative of at least some residual professionalism at that soporific institution).

I also had wonderful technical support from my team, including the Project Officers who had worked with me at the Ministry until last June. Their contracts were not renewed, so I have had to scrabble about desperately within the Project to find money to pay them. Sweet Mr Kodituwakku assured me that they would be renewed, at the same time he said he had asked for a cabinet paper to extend my own period. The paper was prepared after several months, but Mr Medagama informed me that the Prime Minister had turned it down, on the grounds that a fulltime person was needed.

Of course Ranil, who is as honourable a man as Mr Kodituwakku, may have his own special reasons, but I have no doubt he was not told that it was after a fruitless attempt to find someone permanent that Tara de Mel had asked me to take on the post part-time. And though Ranil has a point, in that working part-time with Tara one could accomplish a great deal, whereas all those unfortunate to have to work even fulltime with the present Secretary find it impossible to do anything, the result of his honourable intervention is that now I have to work even harder, because there is less assistance, with no remuneration whatsoever.

For Ranil obviously knew, as Mr Kodituwakku does, that I would not abandon the project in mid-stream. I did try, but both Mr Medagama (for whose own extension the Cabinet paper had still not been got ready when we last spoke, so that he too had to work gratis for the moment), and Nirmali Hettiarachchi, the Team Leader for the Project, pointed out that it was only the children who had begun English medium work so hopefully last year who would suffer. So, three months after we stopped work when the Ministry failed to pay its dues, when Mr Medagama called, I gave in.

The Ministry, since then, has been sweet as honey, and prompt in its payments. Indeed the Accountant, also I am told a very honourable man, has even agreed to investigate the exorbitant sums paid for printing of the Sinhala medium books the previous year, nearly Rs 800 a set I gathered, whereas for half the number of books, on a much smaller print run, and many more illustrations, our project paid only about Rs 160 a set. Of course he will probably give up, or be stymied, but at least he now understands that spending government (or rather public) money properly is not only a matter of procedure but also of obtaining value for money.

That of course is the problem. When one takes on a job one has to do it properly, so there were long sleepless nights editing and re-editing the books. My most sympathetic critics, my father and Mrs Hettiarachchi, while assuring me that whatever I write is very good, also point out frequently that the English is so complicated that no one can understand it. So, particular for the poor Grade 7 children, one has to simplify and simplify.

Pagination has to be perfect. Illustrations, that take ages to enter and download (for we are all working with our own old and increasingly decrepit equipment), have to be fitted in precisely. The printer has to be persuaded to give us much time on his computers, and several transparencies to correct mistakes - this in the midst of his own Christmas rush, with all the wonderful girls who usually help us packing up diaries for the army.

Still, it was all done. English medium students in Grade 7 will get their Social Studies book later this week, and the Science/Health/Maths text next week. The Ministry even agreed to let me work on the principle of the multiple book option, so apart from the 7500 books we shall be sending free to the Amity Schools, there will be 2500 more paid for by a commercial publisher available for students who have got their Sinhala or Tamil texts but would also like to make use of the English version.

If Mr Kodituwakku had any sense, of any strength of character, he would build on this start immediately, and get material in English ready for the entire secondary system during the course of this year. He could easily turn too to the many Indian publishers who have sent in bids under the Multiple Book Option, since with very little adjustment they could produce excellent English medium books for Sri Lankan students in all secondary levels classes, and indeed in others. Thus, in terms of the circular he has already issued, any school that wanted could move to English in whatever subjects they could manage.

In addition to this, the teacher-training programme I was running, which the World Bank had agreed to fund but which the Ministry managed to kill, could be reactivated. Much needed reforms could be implemented at the Colleges of Education. The Technical Colleges, which now run English syllabuses with texts such as Anna Karenina, could (as proposed in Tara de Mel's time) expeditiously produce English medium teachers who would at least do a better job than those we are now producing on the utterly impractical syllabuses now in place.

But none of this will happen. The funds the World Bank has set aside will be squandered, and indeed stolen, in the ways I pointed out to the Bank a year ago, with no results (the Specialist keeps e-mailing me from Washington to the effect that he has ordered an inquiry, but of course the Ministry knows how to deal with that sort of order). Our children will continue to suffer - and I certainly, after the present responsibilities are concluded, do not intend to fall ill again working for people quite incapable of appreciation or even acknowledgment.

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