Note for the readers:
I was invited to deliver a talk on education in the Northern Province by the Diaspora Tamils in London, who genuinely believe that education is the engine for social, cultural and economic liberation of the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka ( I believe it is equally applicable to my beloved Sinhalese brothers and sisters also – our problems are not very different from those of the Sinhala and Muslim people with some exceptions)
Challengers facing in educating children in the Northern Province and in Sri Lanka
In this observational study of the current situation I will concentrate mainly on the prevailing scenario in the NP but in essence my comments and observations are generally applicable to all the provinces possibly with some exceptions in the Western Province of Sri Lanka.
Education systems everywhere, including in the UK, are under constant criticisms, reviews and changes. It is not my intention to go into the pros and cons of education systems and school curriculums in Sri Lanka, which are fundamentally sound. It is the failure or the shortcomings in the application and exploitation of the system and the delivery of the curriculum that I want to dwell upon because these need correction urgently for our country to advance.
Within the existing system how can we ensure that our children in the NP receive a wholesome education i.e. an education for life. We owe this to all children.
Sri Lanka is almost unique in the world in that it offers free education from primary school all the way up to University. The only other country in the world,which does this better than Sri Lanka, is Cuba. This was publicly acknowledged even by Barack Obama in his speech in Havana last month. They offer free education all the way up to Ph.D. and beyond.I found out about this world class achievement during my visit to Cuba last month. I listened to Obama’s speech to the Cuban people, televised in Cuban TV. Cuba excels in the field of medical care and education. If Cuba can eradicate one of world’s lowest literacy levels within 12 months in 1963 there is no reason why we cannot resolve the educational issues of Sri Lanka, highlighted below.
Our children spend one year in pre-school, then 12 years in school (grade 1 to grade 12) and approximately 15% of students will spend a further 3 to 5 years at Universities. All this except the pre-school are paid for by the state.
Students leaving school after O –Level spend 11 years of full time education.
Students leaving school after A –Level spend 13 years of full time education.
Students graduating from Universities spend 16 to 18 years of full time education.
The value addition and the quality of the end product in return for the time and money spent in education have to be good or excellent. But in Sri Lanka it is generally mediocre with some exceptions among the children of elite and professional parents. The success rate and educational attainment is very poor and economic and social development is therefore difficult. In a nutshell, this is the fundamental problem facing us today.
What are the shortcomings and issues we are facing?
The following observations are based on my experience as a teacher in the sixties at Mahajana College, as a voluntary teacher at Ramanathan College and Mahajana College during the last few years, as a lecturer at South Bank University in London in the eighties, as a student myself in Sri Lanka as well as in London and more importantly as General Manager of a leading Engineering Construction Company in Jaffna interviewing and recruiting Engineers, Technical Officers, Quantity Surveyors, Accountants, Accounts /Administrative/HR Staff/skilled and unskilled workers and managing them during the last 5 years.
I have come face to face with the outcomes/products of school and University education in Sri Lanka through the candidates I have interviewed for employment. Most of them are not employable, I am sad to say. We had to re-educate them after recruiting them. I am in fact doing classes for them in English, Communication skills, time management etc. to retain them in their jobs. We cannot blame the children for these poor outcomes. Neither can we attribute these deficiencies totally to the 30 years of war. The problem lies elsewhere. The problem is at the delivery end and not at the receiving end. The Northern Provincial Council and its Education Ministry, after having been in power for nearly 3 years, have failed miserably to address these deficiencies, in spite of the fact education, under the 13th Amendment is a fully devolved subject.
Their bankrupt politics and infighting combined with their incompetence, inexperience and a lack financial accountability and honesty has disabled them to the point of not being able to deliver anything tangible so far. So they are constantly in search of scapegoats such as genocide, war crimes, international inquiry, the disappeared or missing persons, army occupation, occupied lands, more Buddhist temples, Mahinda, Chandrasiri, Palikakkara and now Reginald Cooray and the list will keep growing! But none of this have anything to do with providing good education and uplifting the Northern people socially, culturally and economically.
Let us now examine the shortcomings, which need addressing urgently.
1. Lack of analytical skills
2. Lack of clear thinking
3. Insufficient understanding of the subject
4. Relevance and purpose of learning what they learn is not understood – passing exams is the motive. I can give many examples.
5. Serious lack of general knowledge
6. An inquisitive mind is not developed
7. Reading habit is not inculcated in schools and homes
8. Lack of problem solving skills
9. Lack of confidence
10. Poor communication skills
11. Poor social skills and relationships. Empathy and loving relationships among people are not encouraged and rewarded. Self centred developments are encouraged by parents and schools.
12. Poor writing skills
13. No career guidance given in schools and more importantly wrong career guidance is given by parents and sometimes by school.
14. Children grow up with no aspirations and aims in life except a craze to go to a foreign country to prosper doing menial jobs, which they will never consider doing at home.
15. No employment skills
16. Insufficient exposure to the outside world, not even within SL – no school trips provided.
17. No health, sex and moral education even though it is in the curriculum – this is why teen age pregnancy is one of the big problems in Jaffna. Girls’ becoming pregnant due to ignorance because schools fail to teach what is in the school curriculum is negligence on the part of the school. Such girls go through unnecessary trauma and often ruin their lives. Doctors in Jaffna Teaching Hospital confirmed this.
18. Non-participation (90%) in sports and extra-curricular activities – balanced education is lacking totally
19. Very poor or nil English and Sinhala proficiency preventing employment and life opportunities outside of NP – they are missing access to knowledge and experience, cannot even read and understand labels in products!
20. Tuition culture is causing the biggest damage – preventing acquisition of most of the skills listed above because children are preoccupied with tuition outside school hours. In Vembadi and Hindu College, both are national schools with extra ordinary central government funded facilities, hardly any classes are taken by teachers. They simply spend their time in the staff room and do their own things while many students are allowed to go out of the school to attend private tuition classes.
Many students wander around in Jaffna and do their own mischievous things, engaging in criminal activities, drug and alcohol addictions, and other antisocial activities and lately in gangsterism and street murders.
21. A child spends daily more than 12 hours in studies! Can you believe that such an insane thing is happening in Sri Lanka now? Typically a child gets up at 5.30 AM. Goes to tuition from 6.30 to 8.00AM. Then at school from 8.00 AM to 2.30 PM. Again goes to tuition from 4PM to 8.30 PM. Subjects poorly taught at school are repeated in tuition classes and also syllabus not covered at school are taught in tuition classes , conducted in sheds, class sizes up to 200 and therefore taught through microphones. The 200 children sit in wobbly benches and listen (most of them come for social reasons to have fun and forge relationships, some girls end up becoming pregnant through ignorance on how to protect themselves). Children, who are forced to study for more than 12 hours daily are therefore naturally bored to death of education and indulge in unhealthy, irresponsible, uncaring and unloving relationships and are driven to alcohol, drugs, violence and gangsterism. Politicians, completely out of touch with the youth,characterize this phenomenon as cultural degradation without attempting to understand the root causes. They have not even begun to understand the underlying issues. They resort to crime prevention techniques. They make scathing remarks about the youth and alienate them even more. This is a serious issue and if we do not tackle this carefully and sensitively we are in for big trouble.
22. There is a serious lack of entertainment facilities such as sports facilities, socialisation centres and community engagements.
23. Breakdown of relationship between parents and children is widespread but not recognized by parents. Parents do not take any responsibility but always put the blame on the youth.
24. Caste and sex discrimination – children are not taught that all children are to be valued and respected equally irrespective of gender and caste. Such discriminations are widespread but I will give just a few examples to illustrate this phenomenon.
Two newly qualified teachers were given appointments in a school. When they reported for duty as per their appointment letter, the school Principal told them that they were not welcome to teach in this school. The reason is because they belonged to a so called “lower caste”. These two teachers were then sent to teach in Sri Murugan School, where all children belong to so called “low caste”.
In a Vadamarachi School, as per the standard practice in all schools, the students elected all the prefects and the prefects in turn elected the most loved and popular prefect as the Head Prefect. The Principal and the School teachers rejected the duly and democratically elected prefect for the simple reason that she belonged to a “lower caste”. Her parents took this inhuman act to the Human Rights Council, which upheld the decision of the students. The Head Prefect was reinstated.
A lady was appointed as GS in Chunnakam in a predominantly Velarla area. When she reported for duty at the GS office, which is located in the land belonging to a Velarla man, she was barred from entering her office to perform her duties. The District Secretary then appointed her to serve in GS Division J198 in Uduvil, which is a “low caste” area.
The above examples show clearly that the administrations in the Northern Province are maintaining the caste based status quo and not willing to uphold what is lawful and fair. The system condones, accepts and perpetuates the caste system instead of taking action to eradicate it.
When representations were made during the consultation process on the “Constitution” the proposals given on behalf of the “low caste Communities” highlighted these persistent human rights violations. They convincingly and powerfully argued that they will never get justice from the velarlar dominated Parliament, NPC, PS, Schools, Temples and Churches and therefore sought constitutional guarantees for fairer representation for them in all these bodies. “Low caste communities” are now the majority among the Tamils but they have nil representation in any of the above institutions.
On the whole the situation is disgraceful to say the least. This is part of the Tamil culture. Do we want this to remain part of the Tamil Culture, about which we boast so much or do we want to get rid of such inhuman practices?
Although the situation is not so degradingly disgraceful in relation to discrimination against women, the current situation is totally unacceptable. Our leaders are paying only lip service to gender equality.Women are grossly underrepresented in any political decision making. So they always play a subservient role to men.
Caste and gender discriminations are matters which need to be in the top of our agendas. We haveto aim and work towards creating a fairer and more democratic representation in proportion to men/ women population and velalar/ non-velalar population.
Proposals to rectify the above shortcomings
Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka education is a fully devolved subject and therefore the management and delivery of education to our children is entirely in the hands of the NPC with the exception of the National Schools.
1. Teaching methods needs improvement –fundamental change in approach is needed
A creative and imaginative approach is required to inspire children to learn.
Teachers must make the subject interesting, relevant to life and purposeful.
A caring, loving and respectful relationship must be cultivated between the teachers and the students.
Teachers must prepare the subject in advance with interesting examples before coming to the class rooms. They must ensure that they have clear and thorough grasp of the subject.
Teachers must be devoted, must ensure that all children understand the basic concepts in mathematics, science, history etc. and must make the children understand and appreciate why learning these subjects are relevant to life.Education must be made an enjoyable experience – not a painful and boring experience. Otherwise education becomes meaningless to them. All our lives revolve around science. Therefore it should be easy to create an interest in science and mathematics. This is not happening in our schools.
Teachers must teach the full syllabus and must not leave half of the syllabus to be taught by private tuition masters.
Teachers lacking teaching techniques must be sent on refresher courses.
Teachers must be made to answer poor performance of students and submit proposals for rectification.
Absenteeism of teachers and students must be avoided.
Schools must not waste teaching time. They must cut down the enormous school time wasted in rituals, functions and ceremonies.
Sports meet, price days, founder’s days and other functions must be organized without too many boring speeches – they turn enjoyable and important functions painfully boring. This is not the way to inspire children. Too many sermons are counterproductive.
Private tuition must be phased out gradually but definitely within a reasonable time frame – I suggest 2 to 3 years.
This must be done so that children do not miss out on education by providing all the necessary learning experience in the school premises only. When students achieve good results w/o private tuition parents will happily abandon tuition.
If necessary, extra classes must be arranged within the school itself.
Extend school hours till 4.30 PM daily, during which sports and extra-curricular activities must also be included to make education wholesome. This way all students can be made to take part in sports and extra-curricular activities. This will enhance their versatility and personality and also ensure “a healthy mind in a healthy body”
Parents can pay what they now pay for private tuition to the school to improve educational facilities in the school.
It is counterproductive to make Students learn 12 hours daily. This will drive children away from education. Learning must be made an enjoyable experience and not a chore.
3. Career Guidance
This must be provided by career guidance specialists to every student between the ages of 14 and 16. NPC must create a Career Guidance Centre to provide this service to all the schools in the Province.
4. Teaching of English and Sinhala
Special classes must be arranged to systematically enhance English and Sinhala proficiency. English speaking clubs and events must be organized regularly. English teachers must be sent on special courses organized by the British Council now functioning in Jaffna opposite Bosco Primary School.
Reading books – school must provide books and a reading programme to all the children, at least one book each week. Reading must be monitored by the parents and the class teacher. This will ensure that children will at least read 52 books annually. Vocabulary, comprehension and proficiency in English will rapidly improve. This must be made compulsory.
5. Sex and caste discrimination
Sex and caste discrimination must be abolished in all schools. School policy on this must be displayed in public and its relevance and importance must be emphasised in school assemblies. Education Minister must send a circular to all principals and school teachers that such discriminations are strictly forbidden and offenders will be punished by law and by other means including terminations if necessary.
All children must be valued and respected equally. No discrimination shall be tolerated in selection of prefects, head prefects, selection of students in sport teams and in all walks of life. No teacher shall be discriminated on the grounds of gender or caste. Such discriminations are a violation of human rights under Sri Lankan as well as International Law.
6. School trips and work experience
Schools must arrange at least 2 school trips for students during their school life so that they get exposure to the outside world and learn about the outside world.
After doing the GCE- O Level examination and before starting the GCE A – Level all children must be given work experience at least for one week in the state or private sector establishments so that they become familiar with the world of work. It is a way of preparing them to face real life outside of school.
7. Health, Sex and Moral Education
Teaching of Health, Sex and Moral Education by specially qualified/trained teachers must be made compulsory to all children. No choice must be offered on this matter to children or parents. They cannot determine the national curriculum.
8. Management of Hindu College and Vembadi College
Both these schools being National Schools, the Central Ministry of Education must hold an inquiry into the management and administration of these schools and discuss their findings with the school community to decide on the corrective actions required.
All the proposals suggested are simple and straight forward and can be implemented with existing resources. What is needed is commitment, dedication and a will to turn things round from the Education Authorities, Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents.