The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Education: Playing with the lives of children


COMMENT - The recent judgment of the Supreme Court on the Z-score controversy reflects – in many ways – the crisis facing education in Sri Lanka. Previous editorials too have dealt with the issues confronting education and the need for a complete overhaul but drawn little response from government authorities except for triggering the blame game – opposition blaming ministers and calling for their resignation and ministers defending themselves.

Resigning in Sri Lanka? That’s would be like fantasy land unlike in neighbouring India where corrupt and inefficient ministers resign due to enormous pressure from the public and the media.It is still unclear how the authorities will proceed with the Supreme Court judgment particularly since the batch of 20,000 students eligible to enter universities have already been selected. Will these students still be on the chosen list or removed under the new grading system of calculating the Z-score separately with the old and new syllabus?

Or will they retain their positions while those eligible under the new grading system are also accommodated? The latter solution seems to be more consistent and just, otherwise there would be frustration, anger and what not if earlier-eligible students are removed from the new list.

In the education discourse, politicians and the authorities are in a tug-of-war, rather than sitting together and discussing it as a national problem without a political bias. We need statesmanship, not one-upmanship.What has happened to the once-widely, publicized White Paper on Education which appeared to have gone through a rigorous public discussion and comment? Is it stuck in some government agency someplace?

Without a doubt, education – apart from being the most important – is the worse-governed sector today. Here is a just a sample of the crisis: Schools don’t have sufficiently, qualified teachers; Syllabuses are not completed by schools forcing students to seek private tuition for this reason and also because the level of teaching is not good enough; The curriculum is too wide and tackles too many things rather than focus on the basics.

In today’s world, most school-going children when they enter the world of adulthood and employment have access to a computer and the worldwide web. At the press of a button, you can find for example when King Dathusena was killed and how, the history of the Roman empire or when the Dutch invaded Ceylon. There is absolutely no necessity to overload children with information that is in the public domain with access to anyone with an Internet-connected computer, when they grow up.

What children need is guidance on how to access information coupled with a basic knowledge of the tools and skills that are needed for a role in society – in  the public and private sectors.In a previous editorial dated February 27, 2011 and headlined ‘Achcharu’ system of education’, it was stated that today’s complicated education system creates misfits in society.

“Children are taught from text books but are also advised that the better guide is the teachers’ manual since question papers are generally set from this manual.”“Achcharu” is the best description of Sri Lanka’s secondary education where children in urban areas wake up at 4 am, go to school at 5 or 6 am by public transport, school van or car; at the end of school at 1.30 pm have a quick lunch or snack, go to a tuition class and end up home by 8-9 pm. Little wonder then that nowadays secondary students are suffering from nutritional problems, headaches and stress-related illnesses.”

According to a neurologist, quoted in that editorial: “Over-loading information on children will effect a brain’s fundamental ability or cognitive functions, like attention, or memory, or emotional self-regulation and as a result such children will not be able to interact with the society and events to tackle day-to-day problems. The flow of data, information and knowledge is growing exponentially, stretching the capacity of our children’s not-so-evolved brains.”

He was quoted as saying there is an urgent need to rewrite all text books used by children with the aim of relieving them from this unnecessary load of information.  Despite these concerns raised in editorials and other articles over the years, there has been no effort even by parliament to debate the crisis facing education taking a wider perspective, rather than event-based issues. Every year the authorities ‘paper the cracks’ in the education system rather than look at the bigger picture.

Politicians from all sides of the fence must share the blame for not getting together on a national calamity. The most amount of time and money spent by any family in Sri Lanka, big or small/rich or poor, is on education. Education needs is the largest component in the household budget in terms of money and time. Some parents even forgo meals to ensure their children have a decent meal or are able to pay for tuition fees, books or photocopies of past papers, etc.

Why then can’t parliament and ‘voice of the people (parliamentarians)” reflect the same attention, care and concern to education?
Rather than screaming and shouting at the two ministers in charge – Bandula Gunawardene and S.B. Dissanayake- to resign (a fool’s suggestion because it won’t happen unless they are sacked), politicians should end the blame game and together with civil society discuss a new, less-demanding but attuned today’s-world,education model. After all it’s the lives of the children and the new generations that are at stake and being tampered with, with this rampant on-off-decision-making.

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