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Today in the International Day of Education

Achieving a 92 per cent literacy rate, universal primary education, gender parity and free education including at the tertiary level, Sri Lanka should have literate, numerate and confident young people ready to take on the world.

But despite these impressive statistics, the fact remains that 15 per cent of the over 300,000 students who enter school each year drop out before they sit for their O’Levels and only 60 per cent of the original 300,000 plus pass their O’Levels and go on to do A’Levels, according to statistics presented in the 2020 Report of the Presidential Taskforce on Educational Affairs. Only 19 per cent of those eligible to enter university actually got in.

There is a huge disparity between popular schools, which are mostly in the cities, and other schools: On paper, all schools get essentially the same facilities. All children get free textbooks. On average, there is one teacher for every 16.4 students and 48 per cent of the teachers are trained. Yet, student to teacher ratios in less popular, smaller schools are as low 4.5 percent, according to the Education Ministry’s School Census of 2019. Popular schools benefit from well-to-do parents and old girls or old boys who bring additional resources and more oversight.

The 30-year war dealt a severe blow to education by destroying infrastructure, displacing pupils and teachers and diverting much needed funds for weapons and fighting. Today, 11 years after the war has ended, the budget allocation for the Defence sector far exceeds that of education.

“The present education system faces several major challenges related to poor quality, mismatch of curriculum with existing labour market demands, lack of training for school teachers and inefficient administration,” wrote I. M. Kamala Liyanage in a study on the strengths and weaknesses of the education system of Sri Lanka.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a further blow by disrupting classroom teaching, demoralising pupils, putting exams on hold and creating a general air of anxiety and uncertainty. Affluent students in city schools were able to get on their devices and access online lessons while out in the villages pupils had to climb hills or walk many kilometres to catch a signal.

Education in Sri Lanka has a long history that has been recorded since the time of Vijaya who, according to the Mahavansa, came to the island with scholars who began teaching the local inhabitants in the Brahmanical tradition. Later King Asoka sent monks to spread Buddhism, establishing the first schools in monasteries, where education began when a child was five years old.

By the time the British came to colonise the country, literacy was widespread. In 1845 William Knighton wrote, “It is rare to see a Ceylonese, even of the poorest class, who cannot read and write his own language.”

Christian missionaries became involved in education but in 1836, a standard system of colonial schools was set up based on the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission. This is regarded as the beginning of the government’s school system.

In 1938 the education system was made formally free following the granting of universal franchise in 1931. After independence, the number of schools and the literacy rate increased by 50 percent in 40 years and the number of students by 300 per cent. By 1964, Sri Lanka had achieved universal primary education.

While the Constitution does not provide free education as a fundamental right, it says “The complete eradication of illiteracy and the assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”.

Provincial schools make up a majority of the 10,165 government schools and are funded and controlled by local governments. They are in need of financial support and more teachers.

“One of the biggest issues remains the need for education to be decentralized. A minister sitting in Colombo does not know how provincial schools function. The provincial schools should be able to make their own decisions,” said Dr. Sujata Gamage, Senior Research Fellow, LIRNEasia and Co-Coordinator, Education Forum Sri Lanka, adding that the central government should stick to making policy and monitoring the overall process.

She pointed out that the line ministry has issued a fixed set of criteria for Grade One admission for all schools but entrance requirements would differ for schools with less than 500 pupils to schools with over 3,000 pupils. In the time of the pandemic, smaller schools could function by adhering to safety precautions such as social distancing and regular hand washing.

She believed that the majority of students left school without learning the basics of maths, language, science and digital literacy. “School education should be improved”, she said but added that education funding was skewed to higher education, which meant that there was less spent at the primary and secondary level.

The whole education system was stuck in a time warp. While many countries have moved on to progressive teaching methods that enable students to think and make independent decisions, children here still learn by rote and regurgitate at exams.

Dr. Gamage felt that only core subjects should be tested and the rest assessed through assignment work so that memorizing facts would not be the sole method of judging a student’s ability. “School education should include social emotional learning and personality development. If children learn to manage their inner selves, they will become reasonable people in their own communities,” she pointed out.

In many public schools, learning during the pandemic occurred online with teachers sending large volumes of material as PDF documents to students on WhatsApp and Viber. However, a survey by LIRNEAsia indicated that in 2018, only 48 per cent of households with school-aged children owned a smartphone or computer and only 34 per cent had an internet connection, primarily via mobile phones. This meant that less than half of all households could benefit from e-learning.

There has also been limited use of other distance education channels, such as television and radio, to which students in rural areas have relatively more access.

In order to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, Dr. Gamage advocated a system of blended learning where even rural students without personal smart phones or computers could access teaching materials and teachers through offline content and the use of TVs and cellphones. Blended learning is a when teacher supplements direct student-teacher interactions with digital learning materials which students follow on their own.

“Lessons can be downloaded on flash drives and watched when the student wants to. Teachers can record lessons on videos that can be played on TV and later, through a WhatsApp call, teachers can discuss the content with students. Dialog has introduced a service where a teacher can have a discussion with a group of students even if students don’t have smartphones,” she explained.