Sri Lanka has every reason to be proud of its record on education, in comparison with those of other countries in the region. But we should also remember that we had a similar leading position many years ago, and others are catching up. Indeed other countries in Asia have forged ahead, so we really need to stop making comparisons with those who started off far behind us, and should indeed concentrate on making things better for all our children.
For the fact is, educational disparities are still excessive. Another problem is that our children are not getting the type of education needed in the modern world. And we have done little about ensuring acquisition of the soft skills essential for productive – and lucrative – employment.
Unfortunately those who make decisions on education now do not take these problems seriously. The manner in which education reform has been delayed indicates that those in charge of the system have no interest in change. This has been the case for most of the last three quarters of a century, following the seminal changes made by CWW Kannangara when he was Minister of Education, and make equity and quality and variety his watchwords. Though there have been some exceptions, notably when Premadasa Udagama and EL Wijemanne and Tara de Mel were Secretaries to the Ministry, given the self-satisfaction of most of those in authority, even their contributions were limited.
I saw ample evidence of the lethargy in the system when I was finally sent statistics with regard to teacher availability in the poorer Districts of the Northern Province. At first glance the situation seemed acceptable, but this was because statistics are collated on the basis of Educational Zones. These often combine urban and rural areas, so that it looks like there are sufficient teachers in place. In reality however teachers are concentrated in urban areas, and it is only when one checks on teacher availability in individual schools, or in Educational Divisions, as I do during Reconciliation Meetings at Divisional Secretariats that one realizes how deprived the poorer areas are.
It has been recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, which has now been discussing reforms for over four years, that Zones be abolished, and Divisions treated as the unit of significance, but nothing has been done about this.
Another problem is the appalling paucity of teachers at Primary level. The teaching of English suffers worst perhaps in this regard, and this means that the victims of this have no hope at all of learning English. Given the manner in which syllabuses are constructed and implemented, the poorer children, who generally have no foundation, have no hope of getting one, let alone building on it. Though we tried when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education to introduce remedial activity into the curriculum, this initiative was stopped in its tracks by the so-called professional educationists who took over after my term was cut short for political reasons.
But in any case that is not the solution, and we should be doing more to strengthen the training and deployment of primary teachers. But given that the Ministry has failed to solve this problem for decades, it is not likely that it has any hope of improving things on its own. However the idea of developing partnerships with private institutions, or even with Provincial Ministries, to increase supply is anathema to those who have enjoyed their debilitating monopoly for so long.
The same goes with regard to another eminently sensible initiative the Ministry has recently started. I refer to the establishment of a Technical Stream in schools, in recognition of the need to train students for the world of work that many of them could satisfactorily enter. Unfortunately this initiative is confined to a very few schools, and even in some of these there are not enough teachers. Unfortunately it has not struck the Ministry that it should also simultaneously instituted mechanisms to develop teacher supply.
This lack of foresight vitiated another initiative the Ministry embarked upon some years ago, in what seemed an unusually intelligent effort to remedy the problems caused by a correspondingly foolish move several decades back. That was initiated by JR Jayewardene, who almost as soon as he entered the State Council proposed that education should be compulsorily in the Sinhala medium in all schools.
Though this was amended to include Tamil, and though initially this compulsion was only at primary level, naturally other levels had to be added as children who had been straitjacketed in their mother tongue rose higher in the system. The undeniable principle that education in the mother tongue was a right that all children should enjoy was twisted into a compulsion, without mandatory provision for a second language. Thus the efforts made by Kannangara to promote equity by establishing English medium Central Schools to which bright rural children had access were countermanded by denying them the advantages of the bilingualism that the elite continued to enjoy.
To make matters worse, children from different language backgrounds were not given the tools that would enable them to communicate with each other. The impact of this on social harmony was recognized however a couple of decades back, and in theory Sinhala for Tamil medium students and Tamil for Sinhala medium students was made compulsory. However, there was no serious effort to improve teacher supply, so that the requirement was generally observed in the breach. Besides, it was now made compulsory to pass in the other language, so the subject was not taken seriously.
This absurdity went hand in hand with the impracticality of efforts made over the last few decades to improved teaching of English. Successive governments have claimed that this is a priority, successive governments have failed to improve the situation. The simple expedient of making English compulsory at Ordinary Level is considered impractical because of the existing shortage of teachers – though this has not stopped Mathematics being compulsory. Educationists have not realized that the reason this provision is generally not a barrier to progress is that students who do well in other subjects but fail in Mathematics are then motivated to pass in Maths the next time round.
This factor could be replicated, with special classes offered at Divisional level for those who might otherwise be prevented from moving on to higher education because they have failed in English. Indeed such special classes could also provide higher skills to those able to proceed academically, given the increasing need for advanced competencies in an international language for this purpose.
Such skills would also benefit those who received advanced technical and vocational training, since soft skills will clearly enhance their employability. One reason for instance that Sri Lankans earn less than Filipinos, despite our assumption that our education system is better than theirs, is their greater competence in English.
A simple way to increase motivation whilst also entrenching the need for language skills in the system is to require a satisfactory performance in either one of the other two National Languages at Ordinary Level. This would also encourage the Ministry to ensure either enough English teachers or enough teachers of Sinhala or Tamil as a subsidiary language. Both would be ideal, but just one other language would ensure that all Sri Lankans could communicate with each other. Sadly, thinking out of the box in this fashion is not it seems possible for decision makers in Education, or even for others responsible for social policy.
In such a situation UNICEF has an important role to play in the next few years. Whilst its work in other areas has been admirable, it is time now to move on to greater assistance with conceptualization. We are now a Middle Income country, and we no longer have to prioritize the humanitarian support that the conflict years made necessary. Support for planning in terms of social needs and the promotion of equity and harmony must be the priority in the next decade. Workshops that encourage better planning would be useful, with concentration on better coordination of service delivery. And the guiding principle should be empowerment of those in need rather than relief for them.