Photo courtesy of Centre for Poverty Analysis

Education is often seen as a way out of poverty, increasing opportunities to earn, contribute to society and improve one’s status. Sri Lanka’s education sector, whether it be primary or tertiary, has been credited for achievements in high human development; and the country has done well to provide access on a wide scale to primary and secondary education both in terms of geographic spread and across genders. However, the learning outcomes show considerable variation when looking at skills in subjects like mathematics and English and access to adequate skilled teachers and infrastructure.

Based on data from the Ministry of Education, out of 10,194 public schools (national and provincial) in Sri Lanka, only 2,847 schools offer Advanced Level classes (1AB and C type schools), while only 1,029 schools offer science streams (1AB). Due to the skewed geographical distribution, there exists a fierce competition to attend these ‘bigger and better’ national schools characterised by a wider opportunity. Under these circumstances it not surprising then that student’s aptitude and desire to learn science subjects are low and it carries on through to the tertiary level where there is a far greater number of students that qualify and are enrolled in the Arts faculties.

Inequalities in quality educational services can be seen across the districts (favouring the districts in the southern and western provinces) and within districts, between urban and rural areas. Findings from the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (2016) denote that enrolment rate in grades 6-9 and 10-11 are 95% and 87%, respectively, while the Advanced Level enrolment rate drops to 70% overall. Clear disparities in Advanced Level education can also be seen with 70% of the richest decile enrolled as opposed to only 30% of the poorest decile. The data also reveals that there are more boys from poor families dropping out due to lack of interest or the need to generate income.

A recent discussion with sector professionals and a nationwide e-survey administered by CEPA (in May-June 2021) showed that one of the main barriers to a better education system is the exam-oriented learning culture, coupled with an outdated syllabus. The sector professionals said that the present learning modality relies on regurgitating information rather than on retaining knowledge or embedding transferable skills, leaving no room for creativity and innovation for teachers or for students. Therefore, despite being entitled to 13+ years of schooling, the system is failing to provide the type of learning and skills required for modern work and life needs.

Into this scenario, entered COVID-19. Physical education was no longer possible and the entire sector, which had only envisioned digital learning, was caught off guard. The Department of Census and Statistics data (DCS, 2019) reveals that 44.3% of Sri Lankans, or two out of five persons (aged 5-69) are digitally literate; that only 22.2% of households owned a desktop or laptop, while the use of a smartphone was at 70.9%. Until COVID-19 the phone and internet in a household was used primarily for entertainment/social activities. This meant that so many teachers and children and young people had to adjust to how they teach and how they learn; but learning was also dependent on access and affordability to SMART devices and the quality of internet connectivity.

The inequalities of quality learning through digital mediums go beyond internet connectivity and mobile devices. It depended on the type of information used and technical and creative proficiency of the teaching staff. It also made parents – especially mothers – take on a teaching or supervisory role. The ability to supervise children was also dependent on parents’ jobs, ability, space in the house and other care responsibilities. Thus, the extended period of digital learning is likely to have widened disparities in learning. It is likely that poorer households where dropout rates were comparatively higher even before the disruption of COVID-19 may see further declines even before the Ordinary Level examination.

The modality of exam-based learning and testing in a virtual learning space also posed challenges. A school principal who was consulted, felt that even when there was person to person engagement, education outcomes on average were only around 30%-40%. In the absence of this, he opined it has declined further. While the Ordinary Level curriculum that is difficult to complete under normal circumstances was not completed due to disruptions to schooling under the COVID-19 conditions and students faced the examination unprepared. In this context, the conversation also raised the fit of the curriculum, mode of teaching and testing, and the workload under a digital learning scenario.

On a wider scale, the suitability of exam-oriented nature of learning and testing, the need to include socio-emotional skills and process learning with more autonomy to research and empower children to be productive were raised as necessary both in the context of digital learning and building capacities and skills for today’s needs. The need for better infrastructure and use of user-friendly platforms and interactive tools to engage with students efficiently were also seen as essential to bridge the gaps in education caused by the digital divide.

While there were considerable challenges, educators also saw this brush with digital and distance learning as having opened-up new avenues for education service delivery. They acknowledged that schools and teachers had to learn to adapt and embrace new methods – a trial by fire so to speak. They saw the potential in these tools to prevent excessive competition to enter the national schools and malpractice that comes along with it. Digital and distance learning offers the possibilities to expand on subjects covered, access better/newer information, and provide market-oriented skills on a wider scale. However, it was acknowledged that this will only be possible if the digital divide, the inequalities of access, along with the urgent need to update the teaching methods, teaching skills and curriculum were also addressed.

This article is the second of five published on the CEPA Blog as part of a series to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on poverty and inequality.