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The people of Uchchimunai: Hoping for education beyond primary grades

3 months ago

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Sarah Hannan, reporting from Uchchimunai  Last week, The Sunday Morning turned a spotlight on the people living in the fishing village of Uchchimunai. The village is still marked as a prime location for investors who are looking to develop leisure projects to boost the country’s tourism.  However, what would inclusive development to achieve economic sustainability look like if youngsters in the area were able to continue their general education with sufficient teacher allocations and facility improvements? Despite setbacks, the pride and joy of Uchchimunai circle around its primary grade school, which educates 36 boys and 29 girls from Grades 1-8. In 2012, a popular English weekly newspaper reported on the presence of an educational institution in this fishing village. At the time, it fulfilled the educational needs of 30 children. Today that number has increased to 65, as the school, with the assistance of the parish, ensures that all children of school-going age enrol in school as soon as they complete their preschool education.  “When I took my appointment and arrived at Uchchimunai in 2012, the school operated from a temporary shelter which stood where the preschool is today. The children learnt how to draw shapes and colour inside the shapes and were then taught to write, read, and count. There was no grade differentiation at the beginning and we had to place them in grades based on their levels of literacy. This meant that we had children aged nine studying under Grade 1 standards of education,” Uchchimunai Roman Catholic Tamil School Acting Principal S.H.M. Nifraz explained to The Sunday Morning. Bridging the knowledge gap Seeing this learning gap prompted Nifraz to bring in an Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) specialist affiliated with the Department of Education. It took six years for Nifraz and some volunteer teachers to bring the students’ education levels to the standards of the relevant grade of education. Meanwhile, the ECCD specialist had recommended setting up a preschool allowing children to learn the required basic skills before they commenced primary school education.  “When I assumed my role as the Acting Principal of the school in 2016, we decided that a preschool should also operate in the village to help with education and assist in improving the childhood development of the children of Uchchimunai. However, we faced a setback as there was no qualified teacher from the city willing to travel daily by boat or on a tractor to Uchchimunai to teach a handful of preschoolers,” Nifraz shared.  Overcoming the hurdle of training someone living in Uchchimunai was the next challenge, as there were only two girls who had studied up to Grade 8. Nifraz recounted: “The two girls took a special preschool teacher training course and obtained a diploma to qualify to teach the children. Seeing that one of the preschool teachers was very skilful, the Divisional Education Office decided to transfer her to a preschool in the city. For the whole of Kalpitiya, only the preschool in Uchchimunai has preschool teachers appointed by the Government and paid a salary from the local education office.” Making space for the preschool to operate, in 2018 the primary school moved to its present location to accommodate grade-standard classes. The staff, comprising three more Government-appointed teachers, one volunteer female sailor appointed by the Sri Lanka Navy, and two priests appointed by the Kalpitiya parish, along with Nifraz, who is also doubling as a teacher, set up classrooms within the present structure based on space availability. Facilities paid for in kind Our Lady of Good Voyage Roman Catholic Church, Kalpitiya Parish Priest Rev. Fr. Arosh Priyanga Appuhamy said: “The well-being or the access to education of the children living in the village does not meet even the standards set by the Central Government, which pushes families to live in destitute conditions. The school, however, has helped change that, yet there is a lack of teaching resources as well as teacher allocation.” Over the last decade, the operations of the school and transport facilities available for the teachers and students have been supported with donations granted by local and international charitable organisations.  “We are grateful for these donations, but would greatly appreciate it if Government authorities also took an interest in improving the quality of life for these youngsters,” Fr. Arosh added.  Nifraz concurred with Fr. Arosh’s sentiments, explaining that the Government only allocated a budget for the salaries of the Government-appointed teachers in the primary school and preschool, meaning the two preschool teachers and the four staff members at the primary school, including himself.  “The boat service we use daily is paid for by an international charitable organisation and it is greatly appreciated, especially given the rising costs of kerosene oil and the short supply. Prior to that, we had to hitch a ride with those who set out to sea and to get into their boats, we had to take off our shoes and find space to stand amid the fishing gear and the seafarers,” Nifraz revealed.  He noted that owing to a superstitious belief, seafarers did not allow women teachers to board their boats. However, with a boat specifically allocated for their transport, the teachers and students no longer face the hassle of removing their footwear and the women teachers too can travel without any inconvenience. Guidance for extra-curricular activities There is a visible lack of interest in getting the children to follow extra-curricular activities. It is difficult for the existing staff to find extra time to coach the children in sports or encourage them to do other activities that will help develop social skills.  Just 15 minutes before the school ended for the day, a few boys from Grades 7-8 walked into the staff room/Principal’s office to ask for the mini football that sat on a bookshelf.  “As you can see, even if the kids are talented or eager to take part in sports, there is no way for us to help hone those skills due to the lack of human resources. However, we have been able to provide guidance for kids to draw and make handicrafts using the waste that washes up on our shores,” Nifraz said while flipping through the pages of what seemed like a collection of drawings from an art class.  Sachin Anthony, a Grade 6 student who had drawn the images, walked into the staff room with a few other children and with the Principal’s prompting, started to explain the drawings. Although there is no art teacher present in the school, one of the teachers skilled in art has guided Sachin to create impressive drawings.  Like many other children in this fishing village, Sachin is raised by his father’s sister as his mother has to work and he is unaware of the whereabouts of his father. “I have two sisters but they are now at the convent. My mother works as a cook at a fishing shack that harvests fish using fishing nets. I stay with my aunt because my cousin comes to this school and it is easier for me to do my homework and studies,” Sachin noted.  As we concluded our chat with Sachin, he calmly gathered all his drawings, placed them inside a cardboard file, and took them to his classroom.  The boys were in the middle of their football game. This did not involve two sides playing an actual game, but rather a game of whoever gets possession of the ball getting to play with it along with his friends. The girls seated on a concrete block observed the game, while a few other boys, probably from Grades 4-5, were complaining to a teacher and asking for the football as the seniors were hogging the field as well as the ball.  Although the school bell rang signalling that school was over, no child was in a hurry to go home. They were more focused on playing to their heart’s content and only started to fetch their school bags when the staff prepared to leave to catch the boat to return to their homes in Kalpitiya and beyond. Hope for a better future Once the schoolchildren complete their studies in Grades 6-8, the parents/guardians often lack the means to send them to the middle or senior school in Kalpitiya due to the heavy costs of transportation and school supplies.  Yet we met a family that was eager to allow their child to continue his school education to completion.  Twenty-eight-year-old Mahendran Sudarshan and 29-year-old Nirmala Fernando are parents to three children. When The Sunday Morning walked into their home, Mahendran had just returned from sea and Nirmala was assisting him with washing the sand off his fishing gear.  Their youngest, at two-and-a-half years, was peering out from the corner of their temporary shelter, of which the walls, doors, and roof were made of aluminium sheets.  “Our eldest son is now in Grade 4 and in five years’ time, we will have to think about sending him to a school in the city, ideally in Kalpitiya. We want our son to experience a better life than we do right now,” Mahendran stated.  When asked whether the entire family would be moving to Kalpitiya, Mahendran explained that this would not be feasible, especially given the rising cost of living. “Even the earnings from fishing are turning out to be insufficient and with the kerosene prices increasing, it is difficult to sustain ourselves. I have no intention of putting my son into a trade that is filled with uncertainty and risks.”  Mahendran and Nirmala are considering the possibility of boarding their son in Kalpitiya with one of Nirmala’s relatives and sending him to a better school. Best option closest to home One might question why the children cannot go to a school that has Grades 1-13 in Kalpitiya and travel daily. This option is impractical, to say the least. If the children are to travel by boat, it would mean they have to be at sea for almost an hour and then walk to the nearest school, which would take approximately another hour’s boat ride and another 20-30 minute walk to the school. The distance from the sand dune is approximately 22 km and since there are no paved roads, the parents will have to get a tractor to transport the children. Both methods of transport can be very dangerous, especially when there are storms at sea, and also very expensive, given the fuel crisis.  “A boat service can transport up to six adults and if we are taking children, they will have to be accompanied by at least two adults. The cost to travel back and forth per day per boat is around Rs. 16,500, which is the charge for the fuel and the boat operator. Therefore, taking the boat becomes quite impractical in a general sense,” Christopher Kurera, a seafarer, told The Sunday Morning With the presence of the primary school and preschool in Uchchimunai, the families do not have to bear such a burden regarding transport. During The Sunday Morning’s recent visit to the village, we observed that all the children walked to school in groups, so there was no need for an adult to take them to school or pick them up when school ended.  “The earnest request we have for the Ministry of Education and the Divisional and Zonal Education Offices is to look into allocating teachers to conduct subject-specific classes for children in Grades 6-8 in this school. For those grades alone, there need to be at least 10 teachers who specialise in teaching their selected area of expertise,” Uchchimunai Roman Catholic Tamil School Acting Principal S.H.M. Nifraz concluded. Photos Lalith Perera