A friend from England who was visiting recently was surprised when someone of the same age, with a son doing O/Levels, just as her daughter is, was not deeply concerned about what the youngster would do next. I thought her concern excessive, until it struck me that Sri Lankans living in Colombo are as concerned as she is about the educational prospects of their children. It is the rural folk who think less about the matter.

Obviously this is not because they are less concerned about what their children will do. Rather, it is because there is no point in thinking. In the vast majority of rural areas, there are simply no alternatives for the children. They have to go through the school system for what it is worth, many of them without opportunity to do well in Maths or Science, so that they would have options as to careers.

So they strive desperately to do well in their O/Levels, with the sole aim of going through to the next step on the ladder, which is A/Levels. Here life is even more competitive, and they strive even harder, with hours spent travelling to and from tuition classes where such are available (and sometimes whole days over the weekend spent in those classes) to qualify for university.
At university they can relax, since whether they work hard or not, whether they think about their subject or not, they will get a degree. A few strive to get into Special Degree courses, and a few of these develop their thinking powers and go into academia (and some do this without developing their thinking powers to any appreciable extent). The vast majority do what is termed a General Degree, which is not really General, since they do not necessarily develop soft skills, but rather learn less than a third of what their Special Degree counterparts do in each of three subjects. Often the combination includes something called Civilization, and a Language, and subjects such as Sociology or Mass Communication, which should require greater specialization if they are to be useful, rather than less than a third of a full course.

So they emerge, after usually more than three years, given that students or staff or non-academic staff are on strike for substantial periods, at different times just to ensure rest without responsibility for each other, with a degree that does not equip them for employment. Government then provides employment for them, without suitable training, so that many do not really contribute to the departments they are thrust into. Even at this stage government does not provide career guidance or training, but leaves individual administrators to help them to swim or allow them to sink. So many just spend their time dreaming about permanence, and higher salaries, as I found in many meetings at the Divisional Secretariats to which they have been allocated. Instead of hearing of the problems of the area, I had many questions about permanence, none about training programmes or skills development. Hardly any it seemed were Science Graduates, as I found when wondering whether they might help to fill the gaps in teaching of these subjects.

There was no point in being annoyed with them for their keenness to get permanent employment without anything they could do effectively. The system had created them, and the system would have to absorb them, with no effort to ensure fulfillment of whatever potential they had, or useful contributions to the society which had engendered them.

The situation my friend from England knows is very different, as indeed is the situation in the big towns, where students are helped to focus on particular careers and given additional skills that will enable them to do well in different spheres. I have written already about the importance of extra-curricular activities, to develop inter-personal and organizations skills, as well as discipline and coordination and also the ability to cope with success and failure and adjust one’s responses accordingly. But in rural areas there are hardly any extra-curricular activities, and no incentives for principals or teachers to arrange them.

Even more upsetting is the guidance that teachers should provide. We have what are termed Teacher Counsellors, and they get a modicum of training, but except in the case of a few committed souls, they do very little. There is also no concerted effort to provide the different types of guidance that are needed, with regard to careers as well as psycho-social needs.

This is understandable though, because there is nothing to guide children towards. There are no respectable alternatives to university. I use the word ‘respectable’ ironically but accurately, for teachers would not dream of directing their charges towards careers in construction or motor mechanics or farming or fishing or even as care givers.

Perhaps this is because there are no careers in such fields, only basic employment. The type of training institute we should have at least in every Division is lacking all over the country. Vocational Training Centres do not provide soft skills for those who could then move on to higher positions in the field in which they have technical skills. We do not provide those with such skills with Diplomas and even Degrees that would make clear the advanced status of their capabilities, while increasing their general capacities so that they could be employed as more than just artisans.

In short, we do not encourage youngsters to develop whatever capacities they have while adding to their general capacity to find employment. Nor do we study the different areas that are opening up for employment all over the world, and adjust accordingly the provision that is made. And so we leave children to the sausage machine which our present education system resembles, and wonder that its products are not content with the fate they have undergone.

The Island 16 Sept 2012 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=61682