Provinces are asserting authority in education, finally

Wednesday, 24 February 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


To date the Central Government has either maintained or expanded its bureaucratic arm in regard to the devolved subjects, with education being a prime example



As we begin discussions on constitutional reforms, it is important to note that provisions in the existing constitution, the 13th Amendment in particular, are yet to be fully implemented. The 13th Amendment devolves several key subjects to Provincial Councils.

During the Rajapaksa regime from 2005-2015, the Centre exercised a tight control over the Provinces. Northern Province was vociferous on thorny issues such as powers over land and police, but neglected to assert themselves on what I call low-hanging fruits, like education, social services, water supply, solid waste management and other subjects which could have begun an inevitable process of decentralisation.u

Better late than never. The first shot was fired by the Peshala Jayarathna, the Chief Minister of the North Central Province on 18 January when he threatened to seek the opinion of Supreme Court regarding the regular summoning of principals of schools coming under Provincial Councils to Colombo by Education Ministry Higher officials.

Jayarathna is now supported by his peers through a resolution adopted at meeting of the Chief Ministers of the nine Provinces in Kandy on 19 February this year to not send any officials to meetings organised by the Central Ministry, among other things.

The 13th Amendment lists 37 items as subjects devolved to the Provinces in what is named as the Provincial Councils List. Seen as foremost among these are police and public order, education and educational services and land because each of these subjects is further described in an Appendix devoted to each. Agriculture and agrarian services, health, irrigation and social services and rehabilitation are the other significant subjects delegated to the Provinces.

The National Government is still responsible for the formulation of national policy and monitoring and evaluation of such devolved subjects. Further, the National Government is responsible for administration in the case where inter-Provincial waterways and other inter-Provincial matters that concern the devolved subjects. 

However, to date the Central Government has either maintained or expanded its bureaucratic arm in regard to the devolved subjects, with education being a prime example. Water supply and drainage is an example of a highly local issue having its own Ministry at Centre with the National Water Supply and Drainage Services Board as the only agency under the Ministry’s jurisdiction. 

Meanwhile each of the nine Provinces have departments dedicated to the devolved subjects. For example, the Northern Province maintains Provincial Departments for Agriculture, Animal Production and Health, Land Administration, Irrigation, Education, Sports, Health Services, Indigenous Medicine, Local Government, Cooperative Development, Industries, Rural Development, Road Development, Social Services, Buildings, Probation and Childcare under five Ministries the number of which is restricted to five by Statute. 

Provincial Councils have too long been ignored as white elephants that exist to give the appearance of devolution. A closer look suggests that Centre is partly to blame through their behaviour of continuing to maintain its pre-devolution bureaucracy, micro-management through circulars and interference through Centre-controlled special projects.  


Line Ministry and its Circulars 

The Ministry of Education at the national level (MOE) has 56 divisions organised under the five categories – Administration, Audit, Education Services, Education Quality, Finance, Procurement and Construction, Planning and Performance and Schools. 

Administration at the Provincial level is divided into 90 zonal offices with about two to three divisions per each zone and each with its own administrative structure. The total number employed by this administrative structure, National and Provincial, is something that should be publicly available, but, is not. The total number of schools which are administered by the Provinces numbers 9,000 or more. 

During the last five years from 2010-2014, according to records available on the website, the MOE sent 67 circulars to the Provinces. The addressee list of all circulars sent by the Secretary of the MOE goes as: “To all Provincial secretaries of education, all Provincial directors of education, all zonal directors of education, all divisional directors of education and all principals.” Of these circulars sent, 30 were on Inter-Provincial Competitions, 11 on school time table, eight on syllabi and examination issues, 7 on admission of students, 6 on ICT in schools, 5 on special programs like Vesak celebrations or donor funded initiative like the ‘child-friendly schools’. The Vesak celebration circular is symptomatic of the problem. It outlines in detail activities for each of the five days of the Vesak week, leaving little room for new ideas from individual schools, divisions, zones or Provinces.

This micro-management-by-circular method of the MOE has to be viewed in the context of power they wield and complexity they add to a school system already working under restrictions. The long arm of MOE takes away any inclination for initiative at the Provincial level, turning the Provincial officials into paper-pushers, who wait for the Centre tell them what to do. 


Yahapalana applies to Centre-Province relationships too

Yahapalana promises apply beyond the Central Government and its dealings with the citizens to how the Centre deals with Provinces and how the Provinces deal with local Government and how local Government deals with the people. In an ideal world, an ordinary citizen should be able to resolve most issues through his or her Local Council and should have no need to contact the Member of Parliament unless a relative is stranded in a foreign country or other international or inter-Provincial issue.

In regard to political balance of power, eight of the nine Provincial councils were won by the UPFA in 2012 in the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces; in 2013 in the Central, North Western and in 2014 in Western, Southern and Uva Provinces with the exception of Northern PC which was won by ITAK in 2013. Most of the current Chief Ministers are handpicked by the present President who heads the SLFP which is for all practical purposes is the UPFA. However, the present Government is a National one with the UNP as the dominant party. This balance of power and the Yahapalana environment in the country makes it an opportune time to assert Provincial authority over devolved subjects.


Cross the river by feeling the stones

Devolution of 37 subjects to the Provinces was the law of this country since the 13th amendment was enacted in 1987, but the Provinces have not pursued its full realisation as a group. What we have heard on February from the collective of Chief Ministers could be first step in what Deng Xiaoping’s prescription of ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’ for reforms, with education spending being the first stone.

Two overarching principles should be kept in mind as we cross the tricky waters of devolution.


Principal of subsidiarity

According to the principle of subsidiarity, only those activities that cannot be performed by individual schools should be relegated to the Divisional or Provincial authorities and only what cannot be performed by Provincial authorities should be relegated to the National authorities. As Provinces take on more responsibilities they should be challenged to do the minimum regulatory functions. For example in education administration most of the decision making should be devolved down to the schools with the Provincial and zonal departments playing an oversight role.


Incentives for performance

Another useful principle is the concept of challenge funds where increasing amounts of funds are transferred to Provinces as funds distributed on the basis of performance. Provinces are essentially challenged to perform according to benchmarks set by the Centre. This concept is used by donor agencies to disburse funds utilising market-based or incentive driven solutions. 

If benchmarks for performance, for example, benchmarks in regard to age appropriate level of literacy and numeracy, access to science, technology, math and English education and services for disabled students can be developed, challenge funds can be disbursed across the nine Provinces according to their achievements.

Provinces are better equipped to innovate if the incentives are sufficiently attractive. The recommended policy tool of giving incentives to teachers too is something that the Provinces should be encouraged to innovate upon so they can discover incentives that work. The Centre keep out of the business of determining the modalities of implementation for nine different Provinces from the comfort of Ministry Head Office in Colombo.


Centre is on the right track

The recent initiative by the Central Ministry of Education to introduce a voucher system to enable families of students to purchase materials for uniforms is a good sign. Downsizing and repurposing a command-and control bureaucracy at the Centre to policy formulation and evaluation-oriented regulatory body is a much more difficult task. It is the responsibility of Provinces to nudge the Ministry along, if they don’t take the initiative.

Recent columns