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The Care of Children 16 - The systemic changes needed to solve problems of teacher shortages

Jan 01, 2013

In a week of much depressing news, perhaps the most depressing was that presented under what seemed intended to be a triumphant headline. The headline read ‘President resolves Uswewa Junior School teacher shortage’, and the story was about how the President took steps to fill teacher vacancies in a Junior School in the Hambantota District. 
Children from that school had been at Temple Trees, and one enterprising student had complained that there were no teachers for English or Science subjects. The President had directed the student to complain to the Southern Province Minister of Education and then issued orders to the Minister to take immediate steps to fill teacher vacancies in the school. 
Assuming that teachers have now gone to the school, and will stay there, we should rejoice at the news. Any step to improve the education provided to children anywhere is a positive measure. But it is clearly completely unacceptable that there should be teacher shortages that can be resolved only if a child happens to be at Temple Trees and complains to the President.
Shortages of English and Science and also Maths teachers are endemic in the country at large. I have noted week after week that this is a constant complaint of the people who come to Reconciliation meetings at Divisional Secretariats in the North and East. Principals – like the Principal of the Uswewa School – have complained to Education Directors, but nothing has happened. There have been schemes to recruit volunteers – and I should note that both Governors have understood the problem and tried to solve it – but these have run into snags. 
In despair I have suggested to the parents that they should send petitions to the President drawing his attention to the situation. I did this some time back, and mentioned it again in Morawewa when a dedicated principal raised the problem of a Maths teacher. It is clear that officials do not listen to principals, and it is only the President who can ensure action.



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 58 - Moving from patronage to equity in social services

Dec 31, 2012

At one of the discussions on the promotion of Human Rights that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies has been arranging together with the Reconciliation Office, it was decided to set up a more structured consultation, to look into conceptual questions as well as make practical recommendations. Given that clarity of conceptualization is largely lacking in the world of politics – or even recognition of the need for conceptualization – I was deeply impressed by the presentation at that discussion of the Consultant on Children to the Attorney General’s Department. What he presented seemed a good basis for further analysis so as to promote more helpful state interventions.   
His argument, if I understood it correct, was that social policy in Sri Lanka continues to be based on the colonial legacy of Poor Law with emphasis on Criminal Law, on institutionalization of social rejects, and on very generalized administrative approaches without a positive social agenda. I am not sure that I agree with this completely, but he certainly presented a convincing contrast between our administrative framework for social services and that which we have in education and health. The latter promotes equity and inclusivity, whereas the former entrenches the dichotomizing view of society that Victorian England seemed to embody – but which was fought against and changed by advanced social thinkers and, perhaps most prominently, by Charles Dickens, who had suffered himself from the prevailing patronizing philosophy.



The Care of Children 15 - Educational deprivation and continuing neglect

Dec 30, 2012

At the meeting last week of the Mutur Divisional Reconciliation Committee meeting, the Chairman of the Mediation Board reminded me of a suggestion made by the school principals I met during my last visit to Mutur. This was in 2008, while the conflict in the North still raged, but the East was limping back to normality.
The principals were from a Muslim school, a small Tamil school and a very small Sinhala school, all of which suffered from teacher shortages. They asked with one voice why they could not have a single English medium school. Not only would that bring the children of a very fractured area together, it would give them all chances of a better future. 
I pointed this out in a letter to the Ministry. I went further and indicated how it would help government by reducing costs, since far fewer teachers would be needed for one school than for three, each with few students. The teacher shortages endemic in a distant place like Mutur could also thus be reduced, with less headache for education officials who would have to fill up fewer cadres.
The Ministry did not deign to reply. In discussion I have been told, when urging that English medium be made available more widely, given the tremendous demand there is for it all over the country, that there are not enough teachers. No efforts have been made however to increase the supply of English medium teachers, or to think of new ways of producing them.
A group that was set up by the Reconciliation Office, to promote Reconciliation, Education And Peace, wrote to the President offering to help. The group consists of individuals concerned with education in schools founded by religious organizations. Obviously many ideas are provided by the Catholic Church, which has done so much for education in Sri Lanka, but we also have representatives of Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim schools, as well as the Warden of S. Thomas’. 
The group was hosted by Thilak Karunaratne, who had provided many ideas to the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Education, on behalf of the Old Boys of Ananda College. He is part of a network that encompasses other Olcott schools, which were the main instrument of the development of a national system of education that aimed at high standards of a universal nature. 
Javid Yusuf contributed to the deliberations and the letter to the President on behalf of Muslim educationists. He has been Principal of Zahira, in addition to all his other contributions to national and social wellbeing, which led to his recently receiving a Sahabdeen Award for sustained achievements. Hindu denominational education was represented by Mrs Duraiswamy, who also arranged a well attended meeting at Hindu Ladies College to promote twinning with less fortunate schools in the North. 



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 57 - Guidelines and Independence for the Judiciary

Dec 29, 2012

There have been some rumblings recently about the conduct of the Supreme Court with regard to the judgment it delivered on the proposed Divineguma Bill. Fortunately I have heard little criticism of the substance of the judgment, and this is as it should be. While I believe that blatantly unjust decisions of the Courts should be challenged, and in particular by academics, using reason (not by politicians resorting to prejudice), this does not seem to me to be such an instance. Where the Courts are allowed discretion, that should be exercised independently and, provided good reasons are given for the judgment, the matter should be allowed to rest. 
Of course there is a case for allowing appeals from the judgments of the Courts, but these should be only to superior Courts. Given too that even the Supreme Court could reach erroneous conclusions, occasionally blatantly unjust ones, more often ones that arise from carelessness, perhaps because lawyers failed to make relevant points, there should be provision for review by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court. 
In the present instance criticism seems to be on a procedural issue. I am not sure that the issue seems to me particularly significant, but I am glad the question has been raised of how to ensure that the Courts follow the procedures laid down by the legislature, even while ensuring that their independence of judgment is preserved. I have drawn attention to this previously, but of course no one takes such matters seriously until they are personally affected, and perhaps I too would not have thought of the distinction had I not been entrusted with convening the Task Force on expediting implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan.



The Care of Children 14 - Formulating Policy, Ensuring Practice

Dec 28, 2012

The more one studies the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the more one realizes how completely potty it is. I am not sure though whether this lunacy is entirely the fault of J R Jayewardene, even though I have little doubt that his is the primary responsibility for the failure to consider principles at all in formulating legislation, and indeed policies in general. Highlighting process rather than principle however has been a feature of most constitutions based on the British model, perhaps because the British never had a Constitution, and have muddled along on the basis of practicality.
The particular genius of the British is that they did very well on that basis. Others came a cropper however when they tried to emulate them, which is why countries like ours should have rather studied the American Constitution. That was based on the most enlightened political principles, albeit at a time when social equity was not as well developed a concept as it became after industrialization.
The guiding principle of the American Constitution was that power should be limited to the purposes for which power is legitimately exercised. By legitimately is meant the promotion of the interests of the people, since it was at that period that the idea first developed, after Greek and Roman Republic times, that the state belonged to the people, rather than to a monarch. Thus the American Constitution sits well with the principle of subsidiarity, which is that power should be exercised in any particular respect by the smallest group affected by that power, to the extent that its exercising such power should not adversely affect others. 



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 56 - Inclusivity and Participatory Budgeting

Dec 27, 2012

Inextricably bound up with the Right to Development is the right to participation, and to knowledge. Sadly, though consultation has been a pillar of the President’s approach to politics, and has found expression in the manifesto, this has not been institutionalized as intended. Local advisory committees are not in place, and though occasionally the views of local communities are sought, as they have mentioned to me in Divisional level Reconciliation meetings, their ideas more often than not do not find realization in development plans.

More galling perhaps, for no one expects all their ideas to be taken on board, there is no system to explain the reasons for the decisions that are made. So those who have taken the trouble to express themselves feel doubly left out. While obviously they do not have a right to have their ideas implemented, they do have a right to know what is happening, and how the problems they have identified are being addressed. It is up to the elected government and the administration it has put in place to make decisions, but it must remain accountable, and explaining how concerns are being addressed should be an essential component of governance.

While in Islamabad I was delighted to discover that, through a Civil Society initiative, some elements of accountability have been introduced. The project was warmly supported by my old friend Cashian Herath, a quiet but extremely effective public servant as I found when he swiftly implemented the idea of the Secretary of Defence to recruit youngsters of all communities as English Teacher Cadet Officers (when the Ministry of Education was being recalcitrant). As Secretary to the Ministry of Provincial Councils, Cashian had supported an initiative called Participatory Budgeting, whereby communities were involved in the budgeting process at local government level, and could hold their elected representatives accountable.



The Care of Children 13 - Transport for Children

Dec 26, 2012

At the debate on the FUTA demands arranged a couple of weeks back by Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most telling complaint made by the FUTA head was about children in a distant village clustering in droves before dawn to get the bus to a school far away. That anecdote seemed to have nothing to do with the FUTA strike, though it should have been if the demand for 6% of GDP being spent on education was about results, rather than simply sloganeering. The failure to respond at all coherently to Eran’s simple question, what should be done with the 6%, made it clear that policy changes which would lead to a better education system for all was not part of the agenda. 
This was sad, because I am sure that some at least of those leading the strike are idealists, not concerned with the massive pay hikes that are being demanded on top of already large salaries. But the failure to analyse the root causes in the decline of our education system that they have highlighted, and to suggest radical reforms that ensure greater accountability, simply plays into the hands of those in the government sector who are satisfied with the status quo. I assume therefore that the strike will soon be settled, with yet another salary hike on top of all those the current government has granted so readily over the last few years, with no effort to deal with the problems of children forced to travel endlessly, to distant schools and to tuition classes, to make up for the failure of government to provide decent schools even in small towns, let alone in villages. 
One of the reasons for this failure is the absence of coordination between the providers of the various services essential to a society committed to equal opportunities. Sadly it has not yet registered with our decision makers that good transport facilities are an essential component of a just society. It is useless providing schools and hospitals unless access to them is easy.
In the North it seems to me, from complaints at the various Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings I have attended over the last few months, that the biggest problem is with regard to transport. Of course there are complaints with regarding to housing and electricity and roads and irrigation, but in all these cases there is general agreement that the situation is much better than it was a couple of years ago, and also that it is steadily improving. While there is a case for ensuring more responsive planning, and better systems of information so that the people know when they can expect relief, I have also found that people appreciate what is being done, and that everything cannot be provided at once for everyone.



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 55 - The Right to Development

Dec 24, 2012

I was privileged last week to attend the 5th South Asia Economic Summit that was held in Islamabad, with active participation by South Asian academics, politicians, government officials and think tanks. The theme was ‘Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia’, and almost all participants stressed the need for equity in the developmental process. The one exception, according to the Chairman of the Bangladesh Centre for Policy Dialogue, one of the cooperating partners for the event, was my old friend Nadeem Ul Haque, former IMF Representative in Sri Lanka, now Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.
Nadeem’s point, made in his usual combative but convincing fashion, was that we had to ensure growth first, before thinking of inclusivity. However I think Rehman Sobhan was wrong to suggest that Nadeem was practically neo-liberal in his approach, believing that the trickle down effect of growth would suffice to fulfil the social aspirations of countries wedded, at least now, to the democratic process. Nadeem had after all shown himself deeply committed while in Sri Lanka to reform of the education system, so as to enhance opportunities, which is after all one of the best ways of promoting equity.
That had been the theme of my inaugural speech. I had been somewhat diffident when I was first asked to address the gathering at its opening session, given my relative ignorance of economics (the dismal science as the Victorians termed it, to my mind based on the same epistemic principles as astrology, as opposed to the accessible certainties of the hard sciences). However it turned out that the points I made recurred in several of the presentations that followed, and the Pakistan papers highlighted some of the general points I made, including the  need for attitudinal change as well as better technical skills.
The general feeling was that Asia was poised to dominate the world economy over the next decades, but South Asia might let slip the opportunities available if we did not upgrade our work force, and ensure more coherent planning. Listening to the input of thinkers as well as decision makers from some of the other SAARC countries, I realized how deficient we were in the planning and administration of public policy, and I hope we will be able to develop systems that can ensure more inclusive formulation of plans and more effective implementation – and also better monitoring. 



The Care of Children 12 - Stakeholder Consultation on the Development and Protection of Children

Dec 23, 2012

Last week saw an extremely productive consultation on promoting the Rights of Children. Organized by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, as decided at the meetings we have been holding over the last several months to better understand the problems and possible interventions, it was presided over by the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. 
In addition to officials from different branches of his Ministry, we also had excellent input from the Ministry of Health, which is especially important given the gaps in the provision of psycho-social support nationwide that we need to fill. While delivery will have to be through various agencies – school counselors that the Ministry of Education appoints, Probation Officers appointed by the Provinces, Social Service Officers appointed by that Ministry – we obviously need better coordination as well as training, and this can best be provided by the Ministry of Health.
We also had representation from the Ministry of Social Services. The Secretary had not been able to attend, which was in part our fault because it was only after the meeting had been arranged that we realized the importance of her presence too. But she was enormously cooperative when we met her and, though committed to a visit to Japan – which is a model that we should aim at in the care it provides for the vulnerable – she has agreed to pursue cooperation in this field on her return.
In particular we hope that it will be possible for officials of that Ministry too to be part of the Women and Children’s Units that this Ministry will be setting up in Divisional Secretariats with the support of the Ministry of Public Administration. I am astonished at the speed with which this idea, floated only a few weeks back by the Minister and the Secretary, has been adopted, but I know that Public Administration too is seeking to improve efficiency, and this type of consolidation with clear goals for discrete units will certainly help.



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 54 - Systematizing Units for Women and Children at Divisional Secretariats

Dec 21, 2012

In dealing at some length, over several columns, with the meeting on Prisons convened by the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I have neglected an equally important meeting that took place the next day. On August 4th the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment had a meeting to discuss initiative regarding children, to deal with problems raised in the plan.
The meeting on Prisons, which I had convened as requested by the Minister to look into the excellent report the ICRC had prepared on Overcrowding in Prisons, had ranged over a number of other issues too, including former LTTE combatants and those still in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Though we dealt much more swiftly with these problems after the conflict was over than other countries engaged in what they term a war against terrorism – which has with one notable exception never laid low hundreds of their citizens as happened to us, Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils – there are still some issues to be resolved, and better coordination would I think help us to ensure justice as well as security for all our citizens.
In a very different way, this is what we need for children too, and the discussion in the Ministry covered a number of issues. Most important perhaps was a proposal the Secretary had initiated previously, by writing to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, to ask that a Unit for Women and Children be set up in every Divisional Secretariat. The nucleus for such a Unit is present, with Women and Children’s Desks now established in most police stations, and a host of officials appointed to deal at that level with the problems of Women and Children.
Unfortunately there are many vacancies in these positions, and there seems no concerted effort to fill them. Instead of each Division being provided with a Probation Officer and a Child Rights Protection Officer and a Women’s Development Officer and an Early Child Development Officer, I find just one or two of them at most in the Divisional Secretariats – about 30 of them thus far – at which I have had Reconciliation meetings in the North and East. To make matters worse, in some cases the officers have vanished, being swallowed up in the new graduate recruitment scheme. And though imaginative Divisional Secretaries have allocated them work in these areas, this is not the same as having dedicated officials with clear instructions as to their responsibilities and reporting mechanisms. 




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