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Learning About Education on Tea Estates at Fundraising Tea Party

The realities of life and education on tea estates in

Sri Lanka were explored at LIDC during a tea party to mark Christian Aid’s Tea Time.  LIDC member Professor Angela Little, of the Institute of Education(IoE), spoke about the history of the plantations, their schools, their workforce and the role of aid during the fundraising event on 19 September. Her talk was based on her book Labouring to Learn: Towards a Political Economy of Plantations, People and Education in Sri Lanka(1999).

The audience of LIDC members heard how plantations began in Sri Lanka under British colonial rule (coffee plantations in the 1830s, followed by tea in the 1880s) and were booming by the end of the 19th century, when Britain was importing more tea from Ceylon and Indian than from China. LIDC members also drank Sri Lankan tea at the annual Christian Aid event raising money for the charity’s partner organisations working with tea pickers in Sri Lanka.

Progress at plantation schools

Little, Chair of the Department of Education and International Development (EID) at IoE, explained how plantation schools were created because of missionary activity. She showed how the education provided by plantation schools has always lagged behind other sectors, but also how it has progressed remarkably, especially in the last 30 years. In 1911, for example, 12 per cent of the population in the tea estates were literate compared to 31 per cent for Sri Lanka as a whole; by 2003-4, 81 per cent were literate in the tea estates compared to 93 per cent nationally.  Little explained how the improvement in plantation schools and their increased enrolment were driven by a complex interaction of factors, including the state takeover of schools, the emergence of a labour surplus, the role of education officials of plantation origin, and new political opportunities which emerged during the civil war in the 1980s. She explored the role of international aid, saying it was an important contributing factor, but not a sufficient explanation on its own for the progress within the tea estates.

Gender divide

Little also highlighted the unequal distribution of wages within the tea plantations. She said women are known for having ‘nimbler fingers’, so they are assigned to pluck tea leaves. They do this for two shifts a day, whereas the men involved in heavier manual work (uprooting and planting tea bushes) get paid the same as the women for only working one shift a day. Little said: “This has always struck me as highly inequitable.” In her discussion of educational progress she drew attention to improving gender equity. Girls’ enrolments in primary and secondary education have grown very rapidly over the past twenty years.

International tea events

Last year Christian Aid’s Tea Time event was staged for the first time and it raised £195,000 at more than 2,000 tea parties from Sheffield to Sri Lanka.

International Tea Day is held on 15 December every year in tea-producing countries to show the impact of the tea trade on workers, small growers and consumers. The theme of this year’s event is the empowerment of women workers in the tea industry.
Further Reading
Little, Angela (2008) Christian Aid Tea Time and International Tea Day (background notes for presentation delivered at LIDC, 19 September)
Little, Angela (2008) Christian Aid: 19 September is Tea Time (PowerPoint presentation part 1, PowerPoint presentation part 2, both delivered at LIDC, 19 September)
Little, Angela (1999) Labouring to Learn: Towards a Political Economy of Plantations, People and Education in Sri Lanka, International Political Economy Series, MacMillan Press: Basingstoke