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Tuesday, 16 August 2011






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Government Gazette

Innovations to reduce teacher shortages

Sri Lanka has long prided itself on its education system, and certainly there is much to be proud of with regard to our provision of basic education. Literacy rates have been excellent since well before independence, we provide access to education to virtually all our children, and we educate our women as well as our men.

But, though we do well at the lower levels, we have long ceased to be at the cutting edge of education as far as Asia is concerned. Our achievements in subjects that are essential if we are to develop rapidly are abysmal.

Pass rates in Maths and Science are low, and we now do very badly in English too, though once we provided better English education than almost any other country in Asia.

Rural schools

One obvious reason for our failure in these areas is the shortage of teachers. This affects rural schools worst of all. Since, too, these are all subjects in which a good grounding is essential to proceed further, when products of rural schools go to other schools where there are more teachers, they find it very difficult to catch up.

The shortage of teachers is a problem that we have failed to solve for over half a century. Most Ministers of Education, when they take office, assume that the failure to solve the problem was because of inadequacies in the system, which they believe they are competent enough to overcome. Successive Ministers of Education then vacate office with the problem no nearer a solution.

Their successors continue however to dream that they will do what no one else was able to. It never occurs to them that, if the problem has not been solved for decades, perhaps the reason is that a state monopoly on the production of teachers naturally leads to shortages, as is the case with most state monopolies.

Where the solution lies

When I mention this possibility however and suggest that the solution lies in allowing the private sector also to train teachers, there are invariably howls of rage. Recently, in an area which suffered acutely from such shortages, I was told that the private sector was profit oriented and would not care about producing good teachers.

An extension of this argument is often trotted out by educational administrators in the system, who say that the products of a private system would not have the skills required to work in the state system.

This begs the question as to whether the products of state training are actually skilled, something that has been in doubt at intervals over the years, though I am prepared to grant that perhaps things are now better, with the replacement of the last dogma about teacher training by the current one. But since, even if we grant that the products of the state system are marvellous, there are simply not enough of them, surely it would make sense to allow private initiatives, but insist that the state should be the final arbiter.

Thus there could be state evaluation of all trained teachers, and only those who qualify would be eligible for appointments to the state sector.

Incidentally this would solve one problem the state sector faces, as explained to me graphically by a senior figure in English education, in responding to my query as to why they permitted youngsters who knew very little English to pass out as trained English teachers. Her answer was that, after the state had spent on their training, and board and lodging for the duration, it did not want to fail any candidates, since that would entail a great waste of money.

Clearly the state need have no diffidence about failing candidates who had paid for themselves.

The cookie cutter system

But my confident prediction is that such candidates would in fact be better. In the first place, their curriculum could be focused on real needs, rather than include the various general subjects that all teacher trainees have to absorb in the state system, on the cookie cutter system by which syllabuses are formulated. Second, any organization that wanted to sell its training programme would try to ensure that its products could be employed anywhere in the world. In short, we could dream of a day when Sri Lankan teachers would once again be in demand throughout the continent.

I should add that, while I see no reason why teacher training should not be undertaken as a business, I believe that the majority of providers of teacher education would share in the altruism that marked the profession in the past.

The religious bodies that did so much for teacher education in Sri Lanka in the great flourishing of education in the decades just before independence could once again set up professionally competent systems.

Co-operative structures

It would also be good if past student associations of the big schools that developed through the Theosophist Society or its Hindu equivalent could develop cooperative structures that might help them to maintain their old schools at the levels they themselves enjoyed.

Indeed such organizations should also be encouraged to set up institutions that would concentrate on particular subjects with a view to providing qualifications geared to employment. We are desperately short of translators as well as teachers.


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