I wrote last week about some of the reforms I initiated as Chairman of the Higher and Vocational Education Commission, to address not only the shortcomings in the training provided in terms of ensuring a productive employment, but also to shortcomings in the education system. The main problems I tried to solve were the inadequacies of teaching in English and the time wasted by students after public exams.
It seemed to me that an obvious remedy was to encourage parents to send their children to vocational training institutes during the period of school closures, especially just after the ordinary level examination. But it was difficult to get the parents to do this as they all dreamed of their children going on to higher education and as the advanced level classes were to start six months later they could not be enrolled as there was no practically no short courses.
This had to be changed and the Sector Skills Councils that Mahinda Samarasinghe set up, as suggested by the AfDB, advocated shorter courses because for many jobs, especially in the construction sector, three months of training would be enough to start a craftsman, the rest come through work experience. What they wanted was to offer those who wanted and could easily benefit from more training to be able to come back, after having started working after a short level 3 course, for a level 4 course, and so on .
But the training institution was resistant to this and much preferred the common practice of only a few students signing up for long courses, which did not require intensive work so that the instructors did not attend them every day. Often in some centers, students were on their own and instructors were otherwise employed or were with their peers in the staff room. Where there were good principles, for example in Kurunagala at the time, this did not happen, but often chaos reigned in places like Kandy or Wirwila – which I duly inspected, being I think the first president of TVEC to verify what was really going on.
Meanwhile, as it took me time to introduce short courses, I started three-month English courses instead. And that certainly made sense, because when I did a search for parents whose children were about to pass the ordinary level, summoned to a meeting at the Narahenpitiya vocational training center next to the ministry, the greatest demand was for English lessons.
This was true across the country, and even more so in areas where English lessons were unavailable or prohibitively expensive. So, in the very first quarter in which we started the BCS course, there were more enrollments for this course than for any other course offered by the system. This has been done in most technical colleges and in many centers belonging to the Vocational Training Authority. To this end, under pressure from Mahinda Samarasinghe, both agencies hired new English instructors, and we organized training sessions for them with the help of my stalwarts from previous initiatives, including of course Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Paru Nagasunderam.
But then the bureaucracy stepped in and refused to hire additional staff so the program could grow further, to meet the growing demand. The excuses put forward were not credible, namely that although there were vacancies for senior staff, these could not be filled but had to be reserved for potential trade instructors, even if there were little demand for these and that the DTET and VTA had several instructors who were underemployed.
If Mahinda Samarasinghe had remained in place, the situation might have changed, but when he left, I received no support from the ministry. A program for which there was immense demand could not be expanded, since it was not what parents wanted or what the country needed that our system was destined to grow, but rather lethargy as well as well-being of persons paid by the state, whether or not the work they perform justifies the wages paid to them.
But while I was in charge, with the support of a smart minister and the commitment of excellent English staff, especially DTET English Manager Nandana Balasooriya, I was able to make things happen rapidly. In addition to developing professional skills and developing professional skills for those who had passed the ordinary level exam, I also started an English course for those who had completed their advanced levels, advancing professional skills, which was the same as the Supplemental English Program for NVQ. Level 5 course. This too has become immensely popular.
Level 5 courses, for diplomas, were only offered at colleges run by the Department of Technical Education and Training, so the Level 4 English course could only be offered at those here, but with Balasooriya’s encouragement and the enthusiastic involvement of many of his colleagues from across the country, we have been able to help hundreds of students who otherwise would have done nothing after their advanced level exams.
But sadly, after I was fired, the traditionalists dismantled all the low-key English classes I had started and didn’t care that enrollment had fallen monumentally. The only courses left for the improvement of English are now long courses without sufficient practical training, so they attract nothing like the registration which the system had obtained in that brief brilliant moment when we were able to reform so much.
Although now education has been brought together under one ministry, and there have been endless declarations about the commitment to more English in the education system, the minister – or rather the ministers because there are had several over the past three years – have no idea how this should be done and how better coordination would help resolve the issue. So their statements about the need for more and better English, and the need to have soft skills training in the system to improve employability, did not lead to a study of what has been done in the past on this. And given the lack of continuity among officials within the system, there seems to be no possibility of them being informed of what has been done in the past, so that they can replicate what has successful.
So they will try to reinvent the wheel, but since there are no more competent wheelwrights in the system, their statements will come to nothing and there will be no ideas on how to improve the system.