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President supports preschool improvement

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by Douglas King

Ph.D Early Childhood Education

At a public meeting recently in Matara President Rajapaksa stated that the preschool system should be improved and he will place the improvements under the purview of a ministry. In addition to the priority to improving the preschool system a monthly allowance will be given to preschool teachers. This is very welcome news as many of the estimated 20,000 preschools show very poor standards of buildings, education and qualified teachers. However, almost one year ago at the National Preschool Teachers Professional Conference held at SLECC in Colombo he said similar words that massive investment must be allocated for the development of preschools. “A programme is needed to help parents understand the importance of preschool education and the establishment of a scholarship scheme for children of low income families.” “Your preschool teacher’s service will be properly appreciated under a government of ours”. Since that speech, made with the best of intentions, a pitiful sum of Rs: 250 was meant to be paid to teachers monthly, though few actually received it.

When the President’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, Shiranti Rajapaksa, his wife, a highly qualified teacher, was the Managing Director of 10 Private Carlton preschools, however the subject of preschool education hardly surfaced. Only a few years ago the World Bank gave a $50 million loan to the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs specified for Early Childhood Education. No doubt this huge loan has now been spent though it is difficult to ascertain what improvements to preschools have been made. Few specific details are available on the Ministry website and the World Bank can only refer enquiries to the Ministry as they are not in a position to publish copyright information. Some preschools have been improved and some schools have received books and educational toys. If the $50 million was shared among the estimated 20,000 preschools, each school would receive $2500 towards improvements. Surely, this huge loan was the opportunity to bring substantial development to preschools throughout the country.

During the previous 20 years there have been many substantial reports on preschool education including a well documented “Guidelines for Preschools”. Most preschools would have to close if these guidelines became mandatory, and many would find it difficult to even follow 50% of the guidelines. A major problem affecting preschools (now referred to as Early Childhood Education Centres by the Ministry), is that over 80% are private and the majority of these are commercial businesses. There is little incentive to improve when parents seem satisfied their children are receiving basic numbers, letters, shapes and colours recognition and some words in English. Many are more impressed by the “Bollywood” style annual spectacular concert. Numerous such concerts appear on Youtube with 95% from Sri Lanka. Preschools are rapidly becoming the new grade one with parents anxious that their children are, however inappropriately, academically prepared for Grade 1. Parents can also admire the creative talents of their children at the annual display of art and craft, and ignore the fact that much of the display was not only initiated by teachers but also supplemented by their own skills. An Olympic style Sportsmeet, complete with appropriate medals for 1st., 2nd. 3rd. places is also an attraction for parents. Nothing in the numerous literatures on theory and practice in early childhood education, recognizes or supports any of these popular preschool activities.

There are 38 recognised and approved courses for qualification in Early Childhood Education. Most are limited by attendance at weekends from as little as three months to one year. Courses conducted by larger preschools require student trainees to work as unpaid teachers and parents remain unaware of this. By far the most popular certificate and diploma courses are conducted “distant learning” by the OUSL at several of its regional centres. Occasional non- compulsory day seminars are held and a monthly assignment is required. Apart from its own photocopied style coursework books, no multi-media learning materials are provided. If these courses were delivering high quality preschool teachers the overall quality of Early Childhood Education would reflect this. The universities have mainly disregarded preschool education as little more than happy play groups and not worthy of serious academic study.

The initial five years of a child’s life develops 80% of its brain and these early years can have an impact on the future education, physical, mental and social development of the child and as the President pointed out, the successful development of the country. More Reports, more meetings and more money will not necessarily bring the improvements to preschool education stated by the President. Most of the approaches to early childhood education in Sri Lanka are “home grown” and do not reflect the best of the international scene. Very few of those in the higher echelons of government have qualifications in Early Childhood Education, and even fewer have graduate and post graduate degrees. This does not imply their lack of sincerity towards improving preschools, but may limit an understanding of the wider picture. Consultants and advisors have been appointed to suggest changes but all too often their contributions have had little impact. The adage “we do what we know and know what we do” pervades so much in education and the ability to think “out of the box” may not be a requirement for Ministry employment.

Certain facts cannot be disputed. In Sri Lanka there is not a single regular publication in the three national languages for preschool teachers. The majority of the estimated 20,000 teachers are not members of any Preschool Association. The salaries are far too often as low as Rs: 5000 a month and many earn Rs: 15,000 or little more. Their status is low and not viewed as essential in the educational field. No attempt has been made to establish an independent “Institute For Early Childhood Education” which would give an impetus to developing a range of multimedia materials for teachers as well as local and regional meeting where teachers can express their concerns and views and benefit from improving their knowledge, attitudes and skills. President Rajapaksa has been vocal on several occasions past and present about his desire for quality preschool education. We now hope that he will follow through with these positive intentions.

(Dr. Douglas King has over 40 years practical and academic international experience in early Childhood Education and has authored many articles and published children’s poem books for learning English. In past years he has conducted in Sri Lanka many workshops and seminars for Early Childhood Education and English language teaching in the early years. )

 

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Features

Development after the elections

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By Jehan Perera

Many years ago, former Government Agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained the northern sentiment when elections were taking place.  He said there was apprehension about the possible turn of events over which they had no control.  The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country.  I was reminded of these words of Dr Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.

The main theme, at the present elections in the south, and most of the country, has been the need to elect a strong government and to give it a 2/3 majority to change the constitution, accordingly.  The response in Vavuniya and Jaffna, by the members of civil society, was that a strong government would not heed the wishes of the people. Like people in other parts of the country, they felt let down by the political leaders and said they did not know for whom to vote.  The issues that they highlighted as being their concerns were economic ones, such as the lack of jobs for youth and the harm to families caused by an unregulated micro credit scheme that made them vulnerable to the predatory actions of money lenders.

The civil society members, in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna, did not take up the issue of the 19th Amendment and the possible threat to civil society space that the speakers from the south put before them. This indicated a longer term need to have educational programmes on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence, in particular, to ensure justice and non-discrimination.  But they also did not comment or discuss the manifesto put out by the main Tamil political party, the TNA, which addressed longstanding issues of the Tamil polity, including self-determination, federalism, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces or the newer post-war issues of missing persons and accountability for war crimes.

EXISTENTIAL ISSUES

The absence of public debate, at the civil society meetings in the north on the political dimension at the forthcoming elections, may reflect a wariness about speaking publicly on politically controversial matters. Civil society groups throughout the country have been reporting there is more police surveillance of their work. The fear of falling into trouble and being seen as anti-government may have restrained the participants at the civil society meeting in the north from expressing their true feelings. On the other hand, there is also the reality that existential issues of jobs, loans and incomes are of immediate concern especially in the context of the Covid-induced economic downturn. The short term concerns of people are invariably with economic issues.

One of the salient features of the present elections has been the general unwillingness of even the main political parties to address any of the issues posed by the TNA.  This would be due to their apprehension of the adverse fallout from the electorate. It could also be due to their lack of ideas regarding the way forward. Apart from the 19th Amendment, another impediment to a strong government, that is identified by its proponents is the 13th Amendment. In the run up to the elections, there have been calls for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which created the devolved system of provincial councils, along with the 19th Amendment that directly reduced the power of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions. The provincial councils have been emasculated by denying them of both resources and decision making power and are condemned for being white elephants.

It has been noted, by the political commentator D B S Jeyaraj, that the TNA’s choice of focusing on issues of transitional justice, in dealing with war time violations of human rights, led to the TNA aligning itself with Western powers. This did not yield the anticipated benefits as the previous government failed to implement many of its commitments in regard to transitional justice. It would have been better to have focused instead on getting the provincial councils in the north and east to engage in more development-oriented work which would have met the existential needs of the people.

PROVINCIAL COUNCILS

Jeyaraj has also surmised that if the TNA had chosen the path of utilising the provincial council system for development work, it could have obtained support from India, which had been the co-architects of the provincial council system, in 1987, along with the then Sri Lankan government. India has a moral obligation to contribute to developing the north and east of the country where the war raged in full fury and led to immense destruction. India’s role in destabilising Sri Lanka and enhancing the military capacity of the Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, is a bitter and abiding memory which the journalist Shamindra Ferdinando has written extensively about.

A creative suggestion made during the civil society discussion in Jaffna was for the provincial councils to implement what governments have promised to implement but have failed to do. An example given was that of reparations to war victims. The previous government pledged to set up a system of reparations in terms of the UNHRC resolution in 2015. But, although an Office for Reparations was established, very little was done. The question was whether the provincial councils in the north and east could not have utilised their resources for the purposes of instituting schemes of reparations as it would be clearly within the policy framework of the government.

While the issues in the TNA’s manifesto will remain perennial ones to the Tamil polity, the people are looking for political leaders who will deliver them the economic benefits in the same way as in the rest of the country. The civil society meetings in the north suggests that the northern people are not showing priority interest in political issues as they believe these are non-deliverable at the present time. Instead of using its majority status in parliament and seeking to abolish the 13th Amendment, and the provincial council system, and creating a crisis with the Tamil polity and India, the new government would do better to work through them to meet the material needs of the people. They need to also realize limits of the constitution, and focus on social, economic and political pluralism and promote values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise, and consent of the governed.

 

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Features

A blazing story!

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The local showbiz scene is ablaze with a story about the members of a particular band, who indicated that they are undergoing a tough time, abroad, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a video, showing the members pouring forth their difficulties, and earnestly requesting the authorities concerned to bring them back home, that got others to move into action…and the truth has come out.

After having looked into their situation, extensively, knowledgeable sources say that the video contained a load of lies and, according to reports coming our way, the band has now been blacklisted by the authorities for lying about their situation.

These guys have, apparently, gone on Holiday Visas and have, thereby, contravened the Visa conditions.

The story going around is that they have had problems, within the band, as well.

The authorities, in Sri Lanka, are aware of the situation, in that part of the world, but there are many others who are waiting to get back home and, they say, musicians can’t get into the priority list.

So, it’s likely to be a long wait for these guys before they can check out their hometown again!

 

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Features

Top local stars to light up ARISE SRI LANKA

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Richard de Zoysa’s brainchild, ARISE SRI LANKA, is going to create an awesome atmosphere, not only locally, but abroad, as well.

This telethon event will feature the cream of Sri Lankan talent, said Richard, who is the Chairman of Elite Promotions & Entertainment (Pvt) Ltd.

Put together as a fund-raiser for those, in the frontline, tackling the coronavirus pandemic, in Sri Lanka, ARISE SRI LANKA will bring into the spotlight a galaxy of local stars, including Noeline Honter, Damian, Mahindakumar, Rukshan, Melantha, Jacky, Ranil Amirthiah, Mariazelle, Trishelle, Corinne, Sohan, Samista, Shean, Rajitha, Umara, April, Shafie, Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe, Kevin, Ishini, and Donald.

Mirage is scheduled to open this live streaming fun-raiser, and they will back the artistes, assigned to do the first half of the show.

Sohan & The X-Periments will make their appearance, after the intermission, and they, too, will be backing a set of artistes, scheduled to do the second half.

The new look Aquarius group, led by bassist Benjy Ranabahu, will also be featured, and they will perform a very special song, originally done by The Eagles, titled ‘There’s A Whole In The World.’

The lyrics are very meaningful, especially in today’s context where the coronavirus pandemic has literally created holes, in every way, and in every part of the world.

Aquarius will be seen in a new setting, doing this particular song – no stage gimmicks, etc.

The finale, I’m told, will be a song composed by Noeline, with Melantha doing the musical arrangements, and titled ‘Arise Sri Lanka.’

The programme will include songs in Sinhala, and Tamil, as well, and will be streamed to many parts of the world, via TV and social media.

Richard says that this show, scheduled for August 29th, is in appreciation of the work done by the frontliners, to keep the pandemic, under control, in Sri Lanka.

“We, in Sri Lanka, can be proud of the fact that we were able to tackle the Covid-19 situation, to a great extent,” said Richard, adding that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged the fact that we have handled the coronavirus pandemic, in an exceptional way.

The team, helping Richard put together ARISE SRI LANKA, include Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Donald Pieries, from the group Mirage, Benjy Ranabahu, and the guy from The Island ‘Star Track.’

 

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