As the last group matches are played this week to decide the quarter finalists of the ICC Cricket World Cup, the local Big Match revels have kicked off as well. The country’s leading schools face off in the most prestigious encounters in the school cricket calendar, and the next generation of national players walks on to the field in schoolboy whites.
Cricket aside, school is a vital stepping stone in helping children lead full and productive lives. This is why we value a good quality education so highly.
According to UNICEF, a good quality education is one where,
- The learners are healthy.
- Their learning environment is safe and non discriminatory.
- The content is relevant and goes beyond basic skills to skills for life.
- The schools are adequately resourced and well managed, with trained teachers using child-friendly teaching techniques.
So, as a result of this good quality education, children gain the knowledge, skills and attitudes to contribute positively in society.
Sri Lanka has a history of free education affording every child, irrespective of social background, an opportunity to learn. Free education is considered an equaliser in society, one that has allowed many to make a better life for themselves. However, there is growing concern that our education system is not maintaining quality. Geographic disparities are rife in terms of access to education, with more remote schools lacking teachers, equipment, science streams and classes in the higher grades.
Here are some statistics that show these disparities:
- According to the Ministry of Education, 49% of Sri Lankan schools are classified as “difficult” or “very difficult,” in terms of facilities and accessibility.
- The Western Province has the least number of difficult or very difficult schools.
- In Nuwara Eliya, where most of the population is from the estate sector, 237 schools out of 538 (44%) are either difficult or very difficult.
- In the Anuradhapura District, which is primarily rural, 272 out of 540 (50%) schools are difficult or very difficult (NHDR, 2014).
- The Western Province has the highest number of schools, with classes up to GCE A/L in allsubjects – science, commerce and arts.
- In certain districts, especially in the north, there are very few such schools with all subject streams for A/L. In Kilinochchi District, there are only 7 schools, Vavuniya and Mullathivu Districts have 6 each (NHDR, 2014).
- According to the National Youth Survey (2013), 44% of youth in the Western Province have passed the GCE A/L,
- Only 15% have passed in the Uva Province, where poverty is high.
- The Central Province, where a large poplulation comes from the estate sector, has the highest percentage of those who have only completed lower secondary school (NHDR, 2014).
Figure: Highest Educational Achievement by Province
Source: NHDR 2014
Interestingly, we find disparities by gender with girls staying in school longer than boys. In 2012, out of the youth who sat for O/L, 51% were girls. This number rose to 56% at the A/L (NDHR, 2014). However, the educational performance of girls doesn’t get translated in the labour market. This indicates that education doesn’t necessarily empower girls, as they will later face greater restrictions in choice of employment. According to the National Youth Survey (2013), a majority of the boys who dropped out felt that it is more useful to enter the labour market than to finish school.
The statistics also do not reveal some of the qualitative aspects of a good education. It cannot tell us if the teachers are well qualified to teach or if curricula, teaching and testing methods are leading to “life skills” or the ability to understand, rationalise, critique or be creative. The recent issues with the appropriateness of the exams, re-sitting of papers, very low scores on mathematics, etc. also reveal that the education system itself needs to be revamped.
According to the National Youth Survey (2013), 60% of school dropouts said that cost is a barrier to continue education. Despite free education policies, families have to shoulder financial burdens, such as school maintenance cost, expenses for extracurricular activities, and more importantly fees for tuition classes. The rampant culture of tuition classes brings into question the quality of the education system. This not only mocks the concept of free education, with additional financial burden on families, especially poor families, but also increases the pressure on children, who then spend longer hours in classrooms with less time for extracurricular activities or just the free time necessary for a balanced learning experience.
Education is a human right. Quality, accessibility, equality and relevance in education are cornerstones to broader development goals, such as reducing poverty, improving health, strengthening social justice, peace and sustainable development. The current emphasis on examinations and employability needs to move towards a much broader, more enriching educational experience. While Sri Lanka celebrates its free education system, the country also needs to renew its policies in light of the current and emerging challenges.