Education International
Education International

A school isn’t just another building

published 4 September 2006 updated 4 September 2006

All over the world, public education is under threat and facing competition from private education systems. In countries that have faced natural disasters like tsunamis, the reconstruction of public schools takes on a particular dimension. The following is a picture of the situation in Sri Lanka.

For everyone living in Sri Lanka, an island in the shape of a raindrop and situated to the south of India in the Indian Ocean, 26 December 2004 will remain etched in their memories for ever. On that day, a tsunami triggered a series of waves that caused the deaths of 46,000 people, injured 16,665. It also destroyed 182,267 houses, demolished 59 schools and damaged 123 more. Azima Fasmi remembered that sunny Sunday well. Although it was holiday time, she went to school to prepare lessons. She was alone in the common room when she suddenly heard children calling out. Three hundred pupils were having a religious knowledge lesson. They all ran off. “Fortunately, nobody was killed, but the whole school was destroyed: the library, books, equipment – everything. My husband went to look at the damage in the afternoon, but I couldn’t face it. It took me a month before I could go back… I was too scared.” I met this English teacher last July at her school at Beruwela in the south of Sri Lanka. She is now fighting to get her school rebuilt on the same spot, even though it was only 35 metres from the sea. The whole community is involved – teachers, the school management, parents and neighbours – and they have all called for an exemption to the post-tsunami regulation that bans the construction of any building under 100 metres from the sea. Al-Haj Hanaffi, the President of the Beruwela Aid Committee explained: “Our town has a long history. It was founded 1000 years ago by Moslems who arrived by sea. It was the first Moslem community in Sri Lanka. This school was established in 1924, and was the island’s first school for Moslem girls. It’s a first class school: several doctors, lawyers, political leaders and teachers have been educated here, and they work in our community, which is mainly made up of poor fisherfolk. These people could never move far from the sea.” The school lies at the heart of the community, and in order to rebuild it, the teachers secured the support of their trade union. Sri Lankan education trade unions have been able to receive funding from Education International (EI), an international trade union organisation representing 29 million members. In the aftermath of the tsunami, EI collected money from affiliated trade unions represented in over 160 countries; the funding earmarked for Sri Lanka is managed by five Sri Lankan education trade unions affiliated to EI. Trade union representatives looked long and hard for other land on which to rebuild the school, but it was either too expensive or too far away. In the end, they came up with a solution; a four-story building constructed on piles exactly where the school had stood originally. “It has been a long drawn-out business,” said architect Priyam Hettipathinama. “We met all the teachers and the parents’ committee, and with them drew up plans for a school that will be welcoming for pupils and teachers alike. It will be a top-class school with a computer suite, a library, large, airy classrooms, and a play area. We are also very proud of our choice of colours: there will be different colours for the different age groups, and they will create an environment that will promote study.” Reconstruction work got under way in 2006. Solidarity between men and women teachers“We’re not just putting up another building,” explained Angela Wijesinghe, President of the All Ceylon Union of Teachers (ACUT). Mrs Wihesinghe got in touch with EI General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen on 30 December 2004, just four days after the disaster. A committee consisting of five EI-affiliated Sri Lankan trade unions was set up, and immediately began to offer assistance to teachers and pupils who had suffered as a result of the tsunami, and a few weeks later, the money began to reach Sri Lanka. Two senior EI representatives visited several regions affected by the disaster, and one of their first actions was to provide post-traumatic therapy sessions. In February 2005, EI announced that it was interested in rebuilding schools, and reached an agreement with the Ministry of Education in selecting 11 schools located in all the regions of the country ravaged by the tsunami and attended by the various cultural communities (Sinhalese, Tamils and Moslems). A total of EUR 4 million was allocated to rebuild these schools. On 10 October 2005, the plans were approved by EI, and on 22 October, an official ceremony took place in another school at Shariputra in Ahangana to the east of Beruwela. I, too, went to this school just 100 metres from the sea. The school comprises eight buildings, and is attended by 1200 pupils from nursery up to pre-university level. When the tsunami struck, two of the buildings were demolished, and the other six were badly damaged. What is more, all of the school’s equipment had been destroyed. “I couldn’t even find a chair that wasn’t broken,” recalled the headteacher, Padmi Sapukotana. “We found five bodies under the rubble.” The demolition work has been completed, and the reconstruction work commenced in April 2006, but lessons resumed only a few months after the tsunami in temporary accommodation erected by UNICEF. “But it was exhausting, and the children were traumatised. I went to the camps with other teachers to meet the parents and persuade the children to return to school,” explained Jagath Rajipakse, Secretary of the Sri Lankan Independent Teachers’ Union (SLITU). “It was a really serious matter: these children could not spend any longer without education – particularly the thousands of orphans.” “Today, though, we are eager to move into the new school because teaching under an awning is hard work,” he added. “There are no partitions. And when it rains, we teach under an umbrella. It is very difficult to motivate pupils in such conditions.” Fortunately, the reconstruction work is making good progress, and the school will be rebuilt in a few months. Luc Allaire July 2006 Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ)