THE EASTERN AIRLINES FLIGHT 401 ACCIDENT
The Lockheed TriStar L 1011 aircraft was well ahead of its time. It is said that the manufacturers, Lockheed built two automatic pilots first and then built an aircraft around them. It was a ‘wide body’ aircraft with two isles and a nose like a Dolphin. The Flight Deck was very spacious when compared to other airliners. It also had a lower galley (service area) which could be accessed by two lifts. It could carry out automatic landings far superior to any other airliners of that era. The airline pilots of the day would describe the automatic functions of the TriStar in three letters ‘P F M’ (Pure Magic). Some said that the only thing the computers couldn’t do was to play ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (the American National Anthem)
Some of the technology was far superior to even the fly by wire Airbus aircraft that arrived 10 to fifteen years later! It was a good match between man and machine. That was because Lockheed being a builder of Military aircraft benefited from the spinoff from space technology which in turn trickled down to Civil Aviation. Unfortunately, the Rolls Royce (RR) RB 211 Trent Engines that were chosen to power it had some teething problems which delayed the L 1011 project and almost made RR go ‘belly up’. As a result, the McDonald Douglas DC10, another three-engine aircraft, stole a march over them, commercially.
One of the launch customers for the L 1011 TriStar was Eastern Airlines of USA. On the night of 29 December 1972 a Lockheed 1011 TriStar, registration N310EA (See Picture) just four months old, took off from the John F Kennedy Airport, New York to Miami International Airport, Florida, under the Command of Capt. Robert Loft. The First Officer was flying this sector. From some of our ex Eastern Airlines colleagues who flew TriStars with us later in Air Lanka, we gathered that Capt Loft was a bit high-strung even at normal times. The rest of the crew that night were First Officer Alfred Stockstill and Flight Engineer Don Repo. There was also a ground engineer Angelo Danadio occupying the fourth seat in the Flight Deck.
The following is the reconstruction of the crash using the information from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), which is recorded on a common timeline; it was done by the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) USA. The flight was uneventful until the landing approach at Miami. The crew, after they selected the undercarriage (wheels) down, observed that the nose gear down and locked indicator green light was not lit up. In the Flight Deck there were three green lights (one for each wheel unit) to indicate that all wheels were down and locked. Since there were only two green lights instead of three, the Captain decided to recycle the landing gear up and then down again hoping that the problem will sort itself out. There was no change in the number of green lights.
The next thing they did was to test the light system by pressing a button in the overhead panel to illuminate all the lights in the forward and overhead panel, just in case there was a bulb failure. The TriStar crews called the test system, the ‘Christmas Tree Lights’ as all the caution, advisory and warning lights that were supposed to flash intermittently did so like a Christmas tree.
The nose gear down and locked indication light didn’t come on during the light test.
See figures 2 ,3 ,4
It confirmed that both bulbs in the Nose
Light assembly were unserviceable. (In each Landing Gear light assembly there were two small light bulbs). Then again, how if there was a triple failure of the Nose wheel Lock and Bulbs? The crew had to know for sure, before they attempted to land. They had already lined up for the landing. So, to buy some time, the Captain Loft informed the Air Traffic Control Tower that they had a problem. The Control Tower instructed them to discontinue the landing, go around and climb to 2000ft and turn left towards the swamps called the Miami Everglades. It was a dark, moonless night.
After reaching 2000 feet the Captain instructed First Officer Stockstill to engage one of the two automatic pilots which was capable of holding the altitude.
See figure 5
In the TriStar L 1011 the only time, both autopilots (Autopilot A and B) are simultaneously engaged is when the Automatic Landing System is engaged. Each of the two autopilot switches have three positions Off, CWS and CMD. When the Autopilot is switched on, the First Officer Stockstill would have switched on the one allocated to him (Autopilot B) upwards from ‘OFF’ to ‘CMD’ through a ‘CWS’ position known as ‘Control Wheel Steering’ position. CWS is an intermediate position where the autopilot will be directly controlled through the Control Wheel and not through programming any switches in the automatic pilot control panel. In the CMD position Autopilot B would have maintained 2000ft as instructed, provided 2000ft is set on the altitude window and the ALT Hold button is on. If however some pressure was exerted on the control wheel (15 to 20 lbs.) the CMD selection switch would drop back to the intermediate position of CWS and the ALT Hold button would deselect with the ALT light will go off without any audio warning to the pilots. This was how the system was designed to work at the start.
While the aircraft was flying with the Autopilot ‘B’ engaged at 2000ft, the crew proceeded to trouble shoot. F/O Stockstill had managed to remove the light assembly with great difficulty and tried to replace the two small peanut size light bulbs. This too was extremely difficult. Spare light bulbs of all types and sizes were carried at the Flight engineer’s station.
On Lofts’ remark, “To hell with it”
Stockstill gave up replacing the bulbs and when trying to reinstall the Nose wheel light assembly, it got stuck. And now he was struggling to put it back. Everyone in the flight deck were involved. It is believed that F/O Stockstill tried to replace it by erroneously turning it 90 degrees sideways into the recess (holder) and jammed the assembly. The lens did say ‘Nose’, when inserted in the correct way up but it could be seen only when it lit up and that did not happen as the bulbs were not replaced.
Capt Loft told F/O Sockstill, “Just leave it there”
Now that it was confirmed that the indicator bulbs had fused and the only sure way of positively checking whether wheel was down and locked was go down to the electronics bay below the Flight Deck.
Capt Loft tells F/E Repo impatiently “To hell with it …. Go down and see whether it is lined up on the red line …. That’s all we care.”
Then he laughed at himself and said “Screwing around with a 20 cent piece of light equipment … in this plane”
There through a ‘peep hole’ (facing backwards) one could see Red coloured marks that should be mechanically aligned. So accordingly, Flight Engineer Repo went down to the electronics bay (Popularly known at Eastern Airlines as the ‘Hell Hole’) to check. On his first visit Repo couldn’t see the alignment marks as the wheel well light wasn’t on. So he had to come up and ask Capt Loft to switch it on. When Repo asked for the wheel well light, which was on the overhead panel to be switched on, the positioning Ground Engineer Dinadio was still seated behind the captain and eager to help. Turning around, Capt Loft requested him to go and help F/E Repo to locate the mechanical indicators for the nose landing gear.
The NTSB investigators believed that when turning around in his seat, to speak to Ground Engineer Dinadio, Capt Loft may have accidently applied some forward pressure on the Control Wheel which made the Autopilot switch drop from CMD to CWS deactivating the ALT hold button and thereby initiating a gentle, unperceived, descent. Usually when there is a deviation of 250 feet from the selected altitude, in the autopilot altitude window, a ‘C cord’ chime is activated for a duration of half a second. This unfortunately was missed by the operating crew who were deeply engrossed in solving the nose landing gear indication problem. The chime occurs at the Flight Engineer’s Station and Don Repo was down in the ‘Hell Hole’
When the aircraft was at about 900ft above ground the Air Traffic Controller noticed it and casually asked,
“Eastern, ah, four oh one how are things comin’ along out there?”
However, he did not instruct Eastern 401 to get back to the assigned altitude of 2000 feet!
The L 1011 also had a radio altimeter which bounced radio signals off the ground and went off close to the ground. By the time Capt Loft and F/O Stockstill realised that they were very close to the ground, it was too late.
The aircraft impacted with the ground killing 5 of 13 crew and 96 of the 103 passengers. While Capt Loft and F/E Repo were badly injured, F/O Stockstill died on the spot. The Captain succumbed to his injuries before he was rescued while F/E Repo died in hospital. Ground Engineer Angelo Denadio’s injuries were less serious and he survived. The subsequent postmortem of Capt. Loft revealed that he had a brain tumour which may have affected his peripheral vision which also plays a part in night flying ability. It was later disregarded as past reports of other crew members didn’t indicate any obvious deficiencies in his ability.
There was a guy named Bob Marquis in an Air Boat hunting for Sulphur belly frogs in the swamp. He saw the aircraft flying low overhead and hit the ground and rushed to the spot. The first rescue helicopter pilot to arrive couldn’t initially find the wreck, till he saw the flickering light of Marquis, the frog catcher’s battery powered light on his headband. He then switched on his powerful ‘Night Sun’ helicopter spot light. Because of the debris being picked up by the rotor, the pilot couldn’t land close to the wreck, but had to land about 200 yards away and depend on Marquis’ Air Boat to ferry the survivors. Other helicopters arrived later. The rescue operations went on till morning. The helicopter pilots could see all three wheel marks on the ground before the L-1011 disintegrated on impact.
The aircraft automatic systems assumed that it was doing a normal landing with the leading edge and trailing edge devices of the wings out and wheels down. That is why the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS), another safety device on board did not trigger off. The GPWS has a series of voice warning call outs such as “Terrain, Terrain”, “Too Low Gear”, “Too Low Flaps” , “Sink Rate” and “Woop woop pull up” when not in the ‘Landing Configuration.’ In this instance Eastern 401 was in the Landing Configuration.
See figure 6
The NTSB Investigators declared that
· The three flight crew members were preoccupied in an attempt to ascertain the position of the nose landing gear.
· The flight crew did not hear the aural altitude alert which sounded as the aircraft descended through 1,750 feet mean sea level
· There were several manual thrust reductions during the final descent.
· The flight crew did not monitor the flight instruments, during the final descent until seconds before impact.
· The captain failed to assure that a pilot was monitoring the progress of the aircraft at all times.
The NTSB determined that “The probable cause of the accident was the failure of the crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 minutes of the flight and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent an impact with the ground. Preoccupation with the malfunction of, the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.”
In short “No one was minding the shop” and as a result they lost ‘Situational Awareness’ or what is going on around them.
The NTSB Investigators had the benefit of using the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) which had been mandated.
As a direct result of this accident and another DC 8 accident in 1978 at Portland, Oregon, USA, airlines realised that pilots need to be taught ‘soft skills’ known as Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) using actual accidents and studies of ‘Human Factors’. A pioneer on these studies was WWII veteran, author and BOAC Capt. David Beaty who was born in Hatton, Ceylon, a son of a Methodist Minister and an old boy of Kingswood College, Kandy.
All airlines have built in ‘Human Factors’ to their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s). For example, now there is a designated ‘Flying Pilot’ and a ‘Monitoring Pilot’. The Flying pilot must ‘mind the shop’ and get the other crew members to carry out necessary tasks at his behest.
The priorities being to Fly, Navigate and Communicate, in that order. Once in two years it is now mandatory that all crew undergo CRM training and now known as Crew Resource Management, because it is not only the Cockpit Crew but all the associated team members inside and outside the Flight Deck, play a part in safe operations. For instance Behavioural Scientists wondered as to why in the Eastern 401 accident the Air Traffic Controller didn’t mention to the pilots that they were supposed to be at 2000 ft. Their studies showed that there was a great pay and conditions gap and hence a status gap between the Air Traffic Controllers and Airline Captains and therefore there was a natural hesitancy to admonish or at least volunteer information which may have saved the day!
There were also a few modifications done to the L-1011 too. Lockheed installed a loud ‘wailer’ to indicate that the autopilot switch had dropped off from the CMD position. The half a second altitude deviation chime was increased to one second duration. The square lens of the green landing lights had the word ‘TOP’ etched on it, so that no mistake could be made when fitting the assembly back. Another wheel well light switch was fitted in parallel in the hat rack close to the trap door to the ‘Hell hole’.
Postscript: Some of the parts like the galleys from the almost new N310EA, Eastern 401 Flight, that survived crash were re-used on other newly delivered Eastern Airline L-1011’s. Subsequently there were documented reports that the ghost of F/E Don Repo was spotted in those aircraft. Eastern tried to supress information of these sightings by replacing the log books with new ones! This was confirmed by of our ex- Eastern Airlines colleagues that worked with us in Air Lanka in the early days. But that’s another story!
SUSTAINING ECONOMIC PROGRESS AND OBTAINING ‘SYSTEM CHANGE’
by Jehan Perera
A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.
The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.
The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.
Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”
The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.
A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.
The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.
Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.
Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.
Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.
Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme
by Ahilan Kadirgamar
Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.
The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.
Welfare and democracy
Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.
This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.
Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.
Austerity, dispossession, and resistance
The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.
The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.
The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.
We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.
The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
The Box of Delights – II
Seeing through testing times and future
Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,
University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.
Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.
But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.
But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.’
As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.’
Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce
‘Red the story …
Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.
So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys
She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.
“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”
“Monkey usually do that’
And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.
Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.
I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.
Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.
Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.
As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.
Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.
But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.
This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.
Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.
To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.
This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.
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