News

Education TU strike action continues: Exams and education in limbo

By Sarah Hannan

Trade union (TU) action taken by teachers and principals is set to continue, as trade union leaders rejected the Government’s latest proposal to address their salary anomaly issues. Owing to that, the Ministry of Education and the Department of Examinations announced that the Grade Five Scholarship and GCE Advanced Level (A/L) exams, scheduled to be held in November, were to be postponed to early 2022.

The decision was announced by State Minister of Education Reforms, Open Universities, and Distance Learning Promotion Susil Premajayantha, who cited that the syllabi were not fully covered due to the closure of schools owing to the pandemic and students being deprived of education due to trade union (TU) action.

“We were made aware that the syllabi for grade five and GCE A/L students were not completed yet; therefore, we decided to postpone the examinations. Once schools reopen for all grades, we will let the students catch up on their missed lessons before they are required to sit for the national exams,” Premajayantha added.

The State Minister noted that a committee would be appointed to assess how much of the syllabi could be covered by the beginning of 2022, and based on that, the examination papers would be prepared and the date for the examination would be announced.

Authorities prepare for reopening

When The Sunday Morning spoke to Commissioner General of Examinations B. Sanath Pujitha on whether the GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) examination would be postponed, he stated: “Only the Grade Five Scholarship examination and the GCE A/L examination dates were postponed. No decision was made to change the dates for the GCE O/L examination for 2021, which is scheduled to take place from 21 February to 3 March.”

Given that students in all provinces except for the Western Province “attended” school for only 65 days out of the 210 schooldays for 2021, and students in the Western Province attended school for five days only, concerned parties made several requests to the Ministry of Education and the Department of Examinations to postpone all national school exams.

The unpredictable nature of the pandemic made it difficult for the Ministry of Education to set dates for examinations. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Ministry of Education Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera noted: “Before we hold these milestone exams, we will ensure that the students are allowed to catch up on the missed lessons and sit for mock examinations. Any decision that we make will always be in the interest of benefiting the students, as they have been at the receiving end of discontinuity of lessons online, school closure, and the strike action the teachers and principals are carrying out.”

The Ministry of Education also said it hoped that all grades in all schools would reopen before the end of November.

“To allow schoolchildren to catch up on their lessons, we might also have to do away with the December school holidays, except for giving a break of a few days during Christmas. So, students may not have their expected long holiday in December this year,” Prof. Perera added.

When asked how the Ministry of Education plans to proceed with reopening schools while the TUs continued to strike and threaten to not return to the classroom until their salary anomalies and other requests were addressed, Prof. Perera stated: “There is a small percentage of teachers and principals who are not taking part in this TU action. We hope that we can depend on these teachers and principals to take the initiative to reopen schools and ensure that lessons are delivered in the classroom, so students can prepare for the upcoming exams.”

TUs not on same page? 

Having concluded a meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last week, Teachers’ and Principals’ Trade Union Alliance member and Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin noted that trade unions rejected the Government’s offer to increase their salaries in three tranches – the first through the 2022 Budget and the second and third tranches through the 2023 Budget.

“The Government’s decision over the salary anomaly matter cannot be accepted. We will only return to work if the Government agrees to give a one-time increment. The cabinet paper presented by the ministerial subcommittee that was appointed to provide recommendations over our salary anomaly issues clearly states that the increments must be done as suggested in the Subodhini Committee report. We will not accept receiving the increment in three stages,” Stalin noted.

Meanwhile, Educational Non-Academic Employees’ Union General Secretary Ajith K. Thilakaratne, speaking to the media last week, noted: “During the pandemic, we have been facing pay cuts and we have raised this issue with the Department of Education and the Provincial Education Office as well. If they fail to respond to our issues, we too will have to decide to launch trade union action when schools reopen on 21 October.”

While many of the education sector trade unions seem to be taking a stand on not returning to work until the salary issue is resolved through a single increment, Ratnapura District Teachers’ and Principals’ Union Collective Convener I.A.R. Illeperuma stated that the members of their collective were ready to return to work and start teaching when schools reopen from 21 October onwards.

“We urge all teachers and principals across the country to also join in with our efforts. The Government has given a moderate response and we should accept their decision. At least for the sake of the schoolchildren, we should return to work and start delivering lessons and continuing with our administrative work,” Illeperuma noted.

Meanwhile, Ratnapura District Teachers’ and Principals’ Union Collective member I.M.B. Roy said: “Although the TU action seems to continue to take place, many teachers and principals in the Ratnapura District reported to work when required during the lockdown period, to complete their duties as teachers and principals. We have to now prepare a suitable environment for the students who are looking forward to returning to schools when they reopen on 21 October.”

Vaccinating teachers and students

With schools scheduled to reopen on 21 October, the Ministry of Education urged teachers, principals, and non-academic staff to get their Covid-19 vaccine before returning to work.

According to State Minister of Education Reforms, Open Universities, and Distance Learning Promotion Susil Premajayantha, 87% of the teachers, principals, and school administrative staff have been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, a pilot project to administer Pfizer vaccines to children aged 18-19 will commence in the Colombo District on 21 October.

Ministry of Education Additional Secretary – School Affairs L.M.D. Dharmasena, addressing the media, noted that students who sat for the 2020 GCE Advanced Level (A/L) examination for the first time and students sitting for the 2021 GCE A/L examination early next year were eligible to receive the vaccine.

“Students are requested to contact their respective school principal to find out the vaccination centre that they will have to go to. They are required to carry their national identity card (NIC) when they are going to the vaccination centre. Special vaccination centres are dedicated to accommodating students from multiple schools with a low number of students. The notice will also be published in the Education Ministry and Health Ministry websites,” Dharmasena noted.