A recent joint UNESCO/UNICEF report on secondary education, i.e. school-going children, has rightfully caught the attention of the media. Having done a survey, the report states that 98 per cent of Sri Lanka’s children do attend school. That indeed is a proud achievement, if a rare one, for the country. Sri Lanka’s ‘Free Education’ policy [...]


Education: Time to right the wrongs


A recent joint UNESCO/UNICEF report on secondary education, i.e. school-going children, has rightfully caught the attention of the media. Having done a survey, the report states that 98 per cent of Sri Lanka’s children do attend school. That indeed is a proud achievement, if a rare one, for the country.

Sri Lanka’s ‘Free Education’ policy introduced by a visionary Education Minister C.W.W. Kannangara way back in 1945 has stood the nation in good stead and is, in many ways, the envy of several other countries. It was only last year that neighbouring India launched a ‘Right to Education’ campaign in a bid to make schools accessible to her teeming millions of children. Yet, it is not that Sri Lanka’s free education policy is without flaws. The desired results have not been the outcome of that policy either.

The ‘Brain Drain’ over the years has had some hemorrhaging effect on the nation with the cream of educated Sri Lankans going in search of greener pastures elsewhere. They have been wooed by economically developed countries that have otherwise placed strict restrictions on ordinary Sri Lankans travelling to their shores.

Take the latest example of Britain. It has identified Sri Lanka as one of the six nations for a ‘pilot’ project whereby selected visa applicants will have to make an additional deposit to the visa fee before one is issued to them. Sometime ago, Britain launched a similar ‘pilot’ project asking Sri Lankans to be fingerprinted. This was also said to be a ‘pilot’ project for six months– several years ago.
Britain’s Home Secretary announcing this latest ‘pilot’ project this week said, “This is the next step in making sure any immigration system is more selective…… while still welcoming the brightest and the best to Britain”.

However statistically satisfying this UNESCO/UNICEF report on ‘Out-of-school children’ is,onthe subject of the availability of schools for children, there are several deficiencies mentioned that need to be looked at. While the Government has done the right thing by increasing the compulsory age limit for students to stay in school to 16 years (the main objective being to ensure that if students drop out from schools they would have at least completed their GCE O/L), and the country’s literacy rate is an impressive 92.3 per cent, the Government has meanwhile cut the education vote from a mere 2.7 per cent of GDP in 2006 to a paltry 1.9 per cent in 2010. Expenditure on education as a share of all Government expenditure has fallen from 11 per cent in 2006 to 8.1 per cent in 2010. These are telling statistics.

Poverty and child labour are among the reasons children do not go to school. Many may be enrolled or registered in school, but ‘cut’ school more often than not purely because they have to bring home the bread by working somewhere. The UN report says their study has identified profiles of children most likely to be out of primary or lower secondary school, or at risk of dropping out.

These are matters the Government will need to immediately address if it is to reach the commendable objective of making the number of school going kids reach the magic 100 per cent target.

The report has a damning comment about what it calls the “trend of politicisation” of appointments, promotions and transfers of educational personnel and officials and, the allocation of financial and physical resources. It also makes a critical comment about schools coming under the provisions of the 13th Amendment, and consequently, the Provincial Council system saying that the subject of education coming under all three categories, viz., Centre/Provincial/ and Concurrent has caused “gaps, creating overlap and confusion at the local level”. This is something that critics of the Provincial Council system, including ourselves, have frequently pointed out as a major setback to secondary education, especially in the rural areas of this country.

It is surprising that the 98 per cent of school going statistics that the UNESCO/UNICEF report refers to is despite the fact that between 1998 and 2010, as many as 948 schools across Sri Lanka were closed down due to varying factors.

While there is appreciation in the report for the continuing political level interest in education, there is adverse comment on the vulnerable families that are subject to poverty and those in the recent conflict areas who are exposed to economic and even sexual exploitation.

There are negative findings vis-à-visthe commitment of”a proportion of state officers” who have to translate state policy with proactive implementation and the apathy in implementing direct social protection programmes such as anti-child abuse measures.

Last year, the Presidential Secretary made a keynote speech at his alma mater,RoyalCollege,and referred to the “tinkering of education at the behest of individuals rather than a team of cohesive and rational thinkers”. That is an indictment on the politicians of this country, and he was clearly speaking on behalf of the education service that has had to face the brunt of this ‘tinkering’.

He cited the example of India where the government has set up a National Knowledge Commission which maps out a blueprint to meet the challenges of young persons who are out of school. But even in India, a study released this week shows that more than 50 per cent of Indian graduates are not ‘employable’, and mostly due to their lack of the English language.

Sri Lanka, despite its early lead in sending children to school has lost its way in developing on that advantage to produce a better equipped and skilled nation – and even more so, to provide facilities and opportunities for these school-leavers to find gainful employment in this country, and to continue to serve this country.

The UNESCO/UNICEF report may not have covered all the grounds but its recommendations are worthy of study by both, the Government in general and the education sector in particular. One of the key recommendations is to increase the Government’s financial contribution to the education sector to 20 per cent of its annual budget, and steadily to six per cent of GDP. The spending priorities seem elsewhere though.

When anyone can see the sheer absurdity of the wastage of public funds in this country today, due mainly to corruption and mismanagement, all going unchecked, that recommendation by the UN does not seem to be an unreasonable one. It can only be a worthy investment for the future.

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