Disastrous for whom?


By Vinod Moonesinghe

One may observe a conscious effort among the English-educated elite in this country to speak highly of the days when Sri Lanka was ruled by a cruel and exploitative colonial power, and to derive the achievements it has made since it received Dominion Realm status in 1948.

Goolbai Gunasekera's meanderings ("This and that Ramblings", 17 June) follow the same course. She begins with the usual condemnation of what she calls the "disastrous Sinhala Only policy", which she contends, put education on " a downward spiral, which shows no sign of slowing down."

Disastrous for whom? At the time, English, the official language was spoken by fully 5% of the population. Only 75% spoke Sinhala. Was it unreasonable for three quarters of the population to be able to conduct their communications with the government in their mother tongue? After all, the sole official language of England is English, not Hindi or Mandarin.

There is no doubt that an injustice was done to the 25% who spoke Tamil, but that was soon countered by the "Reasonable use of Tamil" within two years. The Welsh had to wait until 1993 for Welsh to became a co-official language with English, and then only in Wales. There was never any disability for Tamil-speakers to study in their mother tongue after 1960.

Before 1956, Sinhala- and Tami-speakers could study in their own "vernacular" schools, but they received an inferior quality of education. In some areas, children could not physically attend school at all, because of the lack of schools or the lack of roads to access them, or both. Estate children got virtually no education until the estate schools nationalisation in the 1970s.

However, such problems are not a matter of consideration for Gunasekera. She is worried about that proportion of the 5% who could not speak in the vernacular - amounting to probably the 1% of the population, the most affluent portion. She mentions that a good number went overseas, but fails to mention that this did not result from the language policy, but from Sri Lanka gaining Dominion Realm status, many of these individuals not wanting to live under "native" rulers.

These people, Gunasekera refers to as "most worthwhile citizens. What is her measure of "worthwhile"? Were they of greater worth than a farmer or a plantation labourer who worked all day in the hot sun?

Her true attitude, mirroring that of her fellow neo-colonialists, comes to the surface when she says:

"The needs of the village child are not the same as the needs of the town child. Again the needs of the working classes are different to those of the more affluent classes. The difference is not addressed by making ALL children of Sri Lanka follow ONE educational policy and sit for the SAME competitive exam at the end of each ‘section’ (i.e. grade 5, OL and AL). The quota system exacerbates the problem. I cannot understand WHY it is still in operation? The wrong type of student regularly gets into the Universities and equally regularly causes disruption and trouble."(emphasis added)

By "wrong type of student" she obviously means the "great unwashed" who do not belong to her privileged class. Obviously, she would object to the quota system, which operates to give the less affluent a chance to follow higher studies. It is called "affirmative action" and is intended to create a level playing field.

Gunasekera thinks that Tara de Mel did a good job. Her term was distinguished by the re-introduction of the English stream and the closing down of neighbourhood schools attended mainly by poor students.

Amidst her lamentations about "the trauma of education since the 1960s" she does not mention the short-lived, but massively forward-thinking education policies of the 1970s. These were based on the revolutionary post-fascist education policies developed in the Reggio-Emilia area of Emilia-Romagna in Italy; later, adopted by Finland, which boasts the world's finest education system today. These methods depended on the students learning rather than being taught. Unfortunately, these policies did not sit well with the government which came to power in 1977, which reverted to teaching by rote.

Language is not a problem in education. Finland teaches its children in Finnish, spoken by only one third the number who speak Sinhalese. There are fewer than 350,000 Icelandic speakers, but Iceland has no problem with educating its children in that language.

The REAL problem in education, ignored by policy makers and neo-colonialists alike, is the abysmal level of remuneration for school teachers. In the 1960s and 1970s, teachers were well paid and of excellent quality. Nowadays, teachers are paid so poorly that, rather than getting the cream of the crop, students are led by teachers who are, mostly, mediocre. This is especially true of English teachers, who can immediately get higher salaries working in the private sector.

Address that and many of the other solutions will fall into place.

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