Lakshmi de Zoysa has achieved much in her 26 years of her career in England. She has taught English to foreign children and trained teachers in colleges, brought up a daughter to be a medical doctor and nurtured many friendships. No one knows how she did it. She is quite unassuming to look at, always maintains her cultural identity by wearing a saree and greets everyone always with a charming smile. She has a re-assuring presence and I am certain that it may be that her inner security has now come closer to matching the outer confidence she always presented
The Head of Brent Languages Service, Mrs. Lakshmi Chandrani de Zoyza, will crown her glittering career when she receives the MBE award from the Queen for her tireless work in teaching English as an additional language in the Borough of Brent. Although English has been taught in England from 1960s, this is probably the first time this area has been recognised to be included in the Queen's New Year honours list. Lakshmi de Zoysa becomes the second Sri Lankan lady to receive the MBE. Mrs. Rene Goonasena, who was Lakshmi's contemporary in the University at Peradeniya and close friend, was awarded MBE earlier for her long services as a librarian attached to the Ministry of Defence in the UK.
Lakshmi, the wife of Ariya de Zoysa , retired solicitor, and mother of Dr. Himali de Zoysa and the late Gayan de Zoysa, was born born to Late Mr. H.A.D.Abrew and Mrs. D Abrew of Kalutara. She is the eldest of a family of seven - all of who hold positions of responsibility in their own fields. She was very much influenced by her lawyer father who wanted to promote Buddhist education during the British rule. He opened the first Buddhist school in Kalutara North, with nine children and two teachers, calling it Tissa Vidyalaya. Lakshmi's interest in education was nurtured from this time.
Lakshmi continued her education at Vishaka Vidyala, subsequently graduating from the University of Ceylon Peradeniya. She embarked on a teaching career at Moratuwa Viyalaya and later joined the staff of Tissa Madya Maha Vidyalaya. There was no end to her drive to widen her knowledge, which prompted her to enter University yet again to complete a Diploma in Teaching English as a second language. A Fulbright scholarship helped her to do a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics at Indiana University under the United States Education Foundation Scheme. Returning back to Sri Lanka she joined the Maharagama Specialist Teacher Training College as a lecturer in Linguistics and English and served there until 1973.
Lakshmi and her husband had no plans at all to enter Britain as immigrants or settle down here, however circumstances forced them otherwise. She needed a job to start a new life in the UK and to her surprise received several job offers on the phone itself, that being a period when immigration to the UK was on the ascend and there was a scarcity of trained teachers to teach English to immigrant children. Finally she chose Brent as it was near her home. Lakshmi de Zoysa remembers how immigrant children used to be brought to Language Centres those days in buses to learn English.
Lakshmi's first experience in teaching in an UK school was daunting and foreign. To grasp how the system worked she accompanied another teacher at first which gave her an insight to teaching infants, juniors and secondary age children, which in turn helped her from a point of career development.
With the passage of time and absorbing different roles of responsibility Lakshmi de Zoysa was on the ascending ladder in her chosen career in Brent. The breaking point in her career, if that is the right phrase to use, came when she was sent to Harrow College of Further Education on a year's assignment to run an ' In-Service Course for Teachers'. On her return to Brent, she suggested to Brent Authorities that they ran the same course in Brent! That sparked off the training programme for main stream teachers in Brent to teach English as an additional language.
A year later she was selected by the Inner London Education Authority ILEA) for the prestigious position of Director of the Centre for Urban Education Studies. When the Tory government closed down ILEA she joined the Brent Borough as the Head of Language Service in 1988.
Brent has an influx of people from other countries and the trend continues. The 1988 October statistics have revealed that in Brent 130 foreign languages are spoken and children had come from 55 countries; 62% of the children in the Borough today still use English as an additional language. In a complex situation such as this, the gap is immeasurable and children do not have access to the national curriculum. Lakshmi de Zoysa's job is to ensure that these children develop English competence in order to be able to operate and compete in the modern world.
What special methods did she adopt to achieve her goals? It was by using English for the curriculum and activating it with very concrete materials. For example, English was used in science classes enabling both cognitive development and language development going hand in hand. The importance of home languages is emphasised throughout. However, this has not always been possible when children spoke 29 languages in a class at times, and in this respect Brent has been fortunate to have teaching staff who are multi-lingual covering Gujarati, Hindi and few other African languages.
Lakshmi de Zoysa's strict guide lines to the teaching staff have been 'not just to look at a coloured face and assume that children are either Gujarati or Swahili speakers, but to have a closer look at their background as to where they come from, what they bring with them, their educational background and to compare it with that of in English. The language used to communicate between children and their parents at home has also been very essential to establish children's background and linguistic repertoire in existence. In Lakshmi's training programme one point she managed to drive positively enabling the teachers to understand was that no two children are alike and each one comes from a different educational and linguistic background.
How did the MBE come about, I ventured to ask Lakshmi. Bursting into laughter she acknowledged that she never knew about it until a letter from the Prime Minister's office reached her in October 98, seeking her agreement to forward her name to the Queen to be considered in the New Year's honours list. " We were in the middle of an important inspection at the time and I did not pay much importance to this letter except returning it saying that I had no objection", she answered. In the letter, however, it had been mentioned that no further communication would be forthcoming and if the nomination went through the News Media would contact her. On 30 December 98, Harrow Times broke the happy news to Lakshmi de Zoysa. She believes that it might be the Brent Education Authority or the Department of Education and Employment who had nominated her name for the award.
Lakshimi de Zoysa in her present job bids for funds from the Home Office and she has been successful in securing substantial grants for her projects in Brent. With such budget allocations she has had to look after the needs of several schools covering recruitment and training of teachers etc, ensuring such allocated funds are utilised only for the purpose of teaching English as an additional language.
On the subject of the MBE award she emphasises: " The award is one honour not only to myself but also to my team of teachers who work really hard in all schools. I would like to share this honour with them". Within her ten and a half year's career in Brent she has had nine line managers who, she says, have brought in a wider spectrum of experience to enrich the service. She acknowledges with special emphasis the dedication, commitment and the co-operation she always had from the present Director of Education, Mr. John Simpson, the Chief Inspector and the Senior Inspectors.
Lakshmi de Zoysa's project will come to an end on 31.03.1999. By April 1999
a new grant will come into force under Ethnic Minority Achievement Fund when
the money allocations will be moved from the Home Office to the Department
of Education and Employment. By that time Lakshmi de Zoysa will be retired
having contributed to the continuing development of the Brent Education