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
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.
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
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
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.
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.