It is important to revisit what the principles of ‘Free Education’ are. Then to look at the reality and suggest practical means to achieve the objectives set in the midst of a serious resource shortage in the Public Sector.
Education and Health are at the cornerstones of a civilized society, which wishes to improve the quality of life of its constituents. In Sri Lanka we are privileged to have both Universal Free Education and Health Care enshrined, if not in the constitution, as a right that is protected fiercely by the people. With severe constraints on the public purse both due to the inadequacy of the government to include a large number of wealthy into the tax net, and the need for public investment in infrastructure.
The resources allocated to Education and Healthcare has thus been cut in real terms. The safety valve has been the permission granted for the private sector to fill the void and take some of the slack, allowing the government to provide the needed services for those who choose the public sector or for those where the private sector is unaffordable. The left, namely the JVP in principle is opposed to the permission of a private sector, as they believe the public sector will be eroded and the human resource in the public sector will move to better remuneration in the private sector, with the public sector suffering.
Both ideologies have their merits. I will ignore the quality of private education as that is a choice of the buyer in the market place under conditions of free market supply and demand. We have to get real, and look at the present situation where I will concentrate only on Primary and Secondary Education. The public sector education is broken. There are 230,000 teachers who are paid by the state, both from Central Government and Provincial Councils for 4Million students. The ratio by international standards is not bad. The qualifications of the teachers, their pay scales and their motivation for their work are at rock bottom. This DIRECTLY impacts on the students who receive their teachings! How many parents spend billions on tuition, often paying the same teachers after school to give their kids a chance to get through exams, because the teaching does not take place in school?
So what do we do? This inadequacy has led many parents who can afford it to vote with their wallets, sending their kids to international or private schools, so that they can get a better education. Another set of parents, lie and cheat and pay huge bribes to put their kids into the best schools in the public sector, as they both have a better quota of teacher, better prospects after leaving school, and a much better resource allocation both by the Education Department and by the well healed Old Boys. We should then consider the options available to the majority who remain outside of these decisions. One must also consider the fact that with Royal and Visakha having 8,000 students each, acknowledged as the best schools in the land, have a per pupil cost that is comparably lower due both to the student numbers and also to the fact that huge resources have been given by grateful old boys and girls that perpetuate their prestige.
The government has a 1000 secondary schools program that it hopes 5000 primary schools will provide students, and to which more resources will be allocated. The intention is that these National Schools will reduce the pressure on the 2,500+ student schools, and also improve the quality in the provinces. Another fact mentioned in the Budget speech of the President was that only 700 schools provided science teaching at A levels out of a total of 2,700 Secondary schools.
Having stated the facts above, let us now provide some constructive suggestions to improve this situation. Where 50% of 300,000 students pass O levels and 50% of 200,000 students (include previous failures at O levels) pass A levels, annually.
The Minister of Education has just proposed streamlining students from grade 9 in choosing A level subjects. This in my opinion is far too early, disallowing the flexibility needed for late developers, and concentrates subjects that should at that age be far wider allowing for a breadth of general education as 50% in any case will be O level dropouts, who need a better breadth if knowledge in order to succeed in the technology intensive world of the future.
1 More resources to retrain existing teachers with less than 10 years service and bring in more qualified teachers in subjects where there are severe shortages.
2 At the same time we must address the huge weight of teachers about to leave the service in the next two years when they reach retirement age at 55 in order to join the private sector. This is a huge blow to the public sector.
3 Empowering the School Principals by carrying out intensive leadership workshops to give them a perspective of the real world that many in the public service seem to know very little about. They are the people their charges look up to. The ideas they can impart on the students will determine to a great degree the thought processes they bring to the labor market.
4 The competition between the National and Provincial Schools is creating an unfair elite amongst the National schools, that puts pressure on those schools to take in more students due to parental pressure and undue influence, owing to the belief that only these schools that have been given additional resources can serve their kids better. A thorough debate to direct only academically competent students to National Schools to create those who go into the competitive A level streams from those who go into productive vocational courses.
5 A clear set of guidelines to determine the 8+ or 11+ exams, marks, what a mark qualifies a student to get to, and the number of openings in these schools has to be debated holistically with what the objectives are.
6 A more interactive information flow between the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development and the Ministry of Higher Education to serve the post secondary school training of these same students, must be set up so that students have a real world understanding of what awaits them.
7 The teaching of English and IT to take on more than slogan based intent, and turn into a practical proposition with the assistance of CSR programs from the Private Sector. They are more likely to be goal oriented than the public sector that fails in performance evaluation. There is enough data from surveys like the World Bank project of ‘Transforming School Education in Sri Lanka – from cut stones to polished jewels’ 2011.
8 The English Teachers into the rural schools is the problem, both about the lack of their quality and quantity, where as some Urban areas have a surplus. Using existing data to make recommendations is what is needed. The tri lingual teaching intent as well as the new bi-lingual teaching programs all well and good as long as there are qualified teachers.
9 The school books provided by the government to students are quite inadequate in quality of content and relevance to learning, geared primarily to pass exams with little effort to teach knowledge and the search for knowledge from outside means. The world of IT broadens the knowledge sphere and with increasing IT use in schools throughout the land, the books must be geared to distance learning courses that must go hand in hand with even Sinhala based internet access to knowledge.
10 There is a serious deficit in morality and discipline and respect for elders in schools created partly by the elders themselves who have personal agendas that differ from those of the kids who look to them for guidance. This aspect of lack of respect for those who are seen as merely coming to school to mark time but teach after hours is very detrimental to the student’s work ethic and outlook. Improvements in perception is needed.
11 ‘The Program for School Improvement’ as suggested in the World Bank report No 35 ‘An impact evaluation of Sri Lanka’s Policies to Promote Academic Performance of Primary School Students through School Improvement and Report Card Programs’ did extensive surveys on implementation and has come out with useful conclusions that must be adopted Islandwide. They are not controversial, but mere common sense in trying to get parental involvement in their local schools, so that the ownership of the community schools by those around can fill some of the funding voids in capital expenditure, by volunteerism and self help. Do not forget the commitment the parents took to give of their time to provide security around all the schools during the terrorist threats to students. This kind of example can be extended to assist the schools at the local levels with the shortages to teaching materials that all schools face.
12 That follows on to the two hugely costly expenses for parents of students in public schools, namely tuition and transport costs. Both need to be looked into and as there is no peer review of the one area where most students learn, namely in Tuition class, it makes a mockery of the whole public education system, as it seems to fail them, UNLESS the kids also go for tuition.
13 Health and Nutrition of students must be at minimum standards for students to be able to study. If a student comes to school on an empty stomach, he or she is unlikely to be able to learn. Often it is because the alcoholic parent has consumed the family food money in drink. So there has to be community involvement. A government program to provide food and milk is too bureaucratic. These activities must be left to the schools to carry out in the most reasonable basis they think fit bearing in mind the specific local conditions. This should be extended to the agricultural plots to encourage the ethic of home gardening and learning about healthy eating habits all of which must be explained to students from a very young age.
14 Sri Lanka’s literacy levels have dropped over the years when compared with others who have raced ahead. That means that in relative terms it has not improved, and in that regard can be concluded that the country has NOT been able to improve their educational standards through time. This simply means that educational standards have deteriorated in relative terms. For a ‘knowledge hub’ this must improve!! Education is central to Economic Development. No steps have been taken to arrest the decline.
15 The skills required for Economic Development are undergoing a worldwide transformation. What is needed are a different set of skills that include “high levels of soft skills” and education should try and do so.
The above list is just the tip of the areas that must be considered in formulating an educational policy. The 2012 budget has allocated exceedingly obscene amounts of money to the management of the Education Sector. If these people given the task of refining or redesigning the Education Policy are not able to use the vast amount of data created by studies such as those referred to in the report, and come up with a master plan, then we cannot hope to achieve the ambitious goals set out in regards to Education.
Without the hap-hazard approach, of putting a sticking plaster on a wound, hoping it will heal, such as the intent of changing the O level syllabuses yet again from 2014, based on inconclusive evidence, so that students would be better prepared for A levels, we should concentrate for example on why students attend tuition classes.
A complete shift is needed in attracting good people into education, then paying them well, and training them to a high standard that can be constantly monitored. The use of new technology both in teaching and training teachers can increase learning rapidly.
The identification of the skills required in the modern workplace be it in Sri Lanka or overseas, where many of our nationals have to compete with, we must direct all the new higher paid teaching to this area, without compromising the current pay scales that are neither based on merit nor on unique skills. A more need based level of teaching will in the end provide the manpower of the modern workplace.
The quality of general education determines the productivity of employees and workers. This plays a central role in determining the productivity of the labor force and thus the performance of the economy. The global production processes especially even in agriculture has become knowledge intensive. Educational attainment is therefore positively related to Economic Prosperity of Households and Individuals.
More educated individuals work in better quality jobs, with higher earnings streams. In addition, educated individuals are generally better at making rational consumption and investment decisions. Fluency in an international language automatically gives a person a huge advantage.