The Government’s decision to move the Supreme Court seeking to increase the number of students admitted to a Grade 1 class is set to face a host of legal challenges, with education sector unions and parents vowing to challenge it. Those opposed to the decision argue that the move will only exacerbate the existing problems [...]


Legal battle looms over Govt.’s bid to crowd Grade 1 classes

Ministry to seek revision of Supreme Court order; unions vow to challenge the move

The Government’s decision to move the Supreme Court seeking to increase the number of students admitted to a Grade 1 class is set to face a host of legal challenges, with education sector unions and parents vowing to challenge it.

Having a smaller number of students per class is better as it gives a teacher more space to focus attention on all of the students, says educationist and social activist Jezima Ismail

Those opposed to the decision argue that the move will only exacerbate the existing problems in the country’s education system.

The Education Ministry announced last week that Cabinet had approved a proposal to increase the number of students in Grade 1 from 35 to 40. In July 2011, however, the Supreme Court determined that the maximum number of students in a class should be 35. From 2016 onwards, the Education Ministry had been reducing the number of students admitted to Grade 1 classes by one each year, with a maximum 36 admitted this year and the number set to reach 35 by 2021.

The new Government, though, has now decided to go back on this undertaking and again increase Grade 1 admissions to 40. This requires going before the SC again.

The Government’s argument is that any difficulties will be mitigated by the recruitment of 50,000 teaching assistants to help teachers in class.

Education Ministry Secretary N.H.M. Chitrananda told the Sunday Times the Ministry had written to the Attorney General’s Department expressing its intentions to go before the SC to increase the Grade 1 student admission to 40 students per classroom.

Insisting that increasing the number would only worsen the present crisis in the education system, Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin said they would go to court.

Mr Stalin said the decision would hit both the so-called “popular schools” and smaller schools in different ways.

“If you look at classrooms in most public schools, the average student-teacher ratio is 20:1. In some provinces, it is as low as 18:1. It is only in about 918 public schools where classrooms are overcrowded. In these schools, the ratio is about 40:1. Among these schools, about 36 schools are considered the most popular and best public schools in the country. In these schools, we have seen the number of students exceeding 50 from Grade 2 onwards,” he explained.

Herein lies another major issue. While the Education Ministry has been reducing the number of students admitted to a Grade 1 classroom from 2016, this does not apply for grades that follow, although the SC order applied to all grades. Accordingly, though 36 students are admitted to Grade 1 this year in a school, the number could well rise to 41 when those students move to Grade 2 next year if five more students are admitted. Mr Stalin claimed there were primary classes in certain popular schools which now have as many as 50 students.

The impact on the smaller, less popular schools is also significant. As more students get admitted to popular schools, the smaller schools, with scant resources and an ever dwindling student and teacher population, face the prospect of being shut down.

He also dismissed the move to recruit 50,000 teacher assistants as a gimmick. “The teacher assistants aren’t teachers, yet that is what they will end up doing in the end. They will be recruited at lower wages and then fast-tracked into being appointed as teachers. In the end, we will have unqualified people teaching students. The Government is doing this to deceive the unemployed graduates. It is unfair to both the recruits and the students.”

The CTU General Secretary also questioned why the Government needed to recruit 50,000 teacher assistants when there were currently only about 32,000 classrooms in public schools.  

Moreover, the ministry’s own guidelines, as stipulated in the Education Sector Development Framework Programme (2012-2016) states that in terms of classroom spaces, primary cycle classrooms (Grades 1-5) should have 1.6 square metres per pupil (17.2 square feet) while secondary cycle/collegiate classrooms (Grades 6-11 and 12 and 13) should have 0.93 square metres (10 square feet) per pupil.

Given that the typical Sri Lankan school classroom is only 37.16 square metres (400 square feet) and if one were to assume that 40 students are admitted to a Grade 1 class, it stands to reason that these guidelines will not be met when 40 students, a teacher and a teacher’s assistant are all crammed into a classroom.

The issue of admitting students in an ad hoc manner and in violation of the SC’s 35 students-per-classroom order is currently before court as well. In September last year, two petitioners, Kamal Abeysinghe and Mithila Mendis, who are past pupils of Royal College, Colombo and actively involved in the Royal College Union (RCU), petitioned the Court of Appeal claiming that the Education Ministry Secretary, one of the six respondents, continued to violate the undertaking given to the SC in 2016 to maintain the student-teacher ratio at 35:1 by issuing directives to admit students through ad hoc processes.

The petitioners had noted that there were several individual classrooms at Royal College containing 48, 49, 50, and 51 students, which meant the student-to-teacher ratio in such classrooms were at most instances 48:1, 49:1, 50:1, and 51:1.

In October, a Court of Appeal bench, comprising the court’s President Yasantha Kodagoda, and Arjuna Obeysekere, granted interim relief, noting that if the State was compelled to deviate from the earlier SC order, permission should be obtained by moving the SC in a fitting manner. “The Court is also concerned that the admission procedure to Grades 2-11 that is stipulated in the forthcoming circular should provide for a transparent lawful and fair mechanism, and that all those interested in applying to schools admissions to Grades 2-11 of Public schools will have an equal opportunity to become aware of vacancies and also make applications and attempt to gain admission,” the CA noted.

Trade unions such as the CTU, though, lament that there is still no proper, transparent mechanism on admitting students to public schools.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2018 annual report on education titled “Education at a Glance 2018,” the average primary school class in the 36 OECD member countries in 2016 was 21 students in public institutions and 20 students in private institutions. Among public institutions, Chile had the highest student to teacher ratio of 30:1, Israel, Japan and the UK had a ratio of 27:1. The average ratio in the 22 European Union countries that are part of OECD was 20:1.

Closer to home, India’s Right to Education Act mandates an optimal student-teacher ratio of 30:1 for all schools.

Having a smaller number of students per class is better as it gives a teacher more space to focus attention on all of the students, educationist and social activist Jezima Ismail told the Sunday Times. “It’s so much easier when you have a number you can cope with,” she said, while cautioning that having large numbers of students crammed into a classroom would inevitably result in standards and quality being affected.

Ruhuna University’s Psychiatry Professor Chandanie Hewage too pointed out that it was much better for teaching to be conducted in small groups. Prof. Hewage, who has specialised training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, pointed out there was more scope for interactions and understanding each other better when in small groups.

On the other hand, the decision to increase the number of students admitted to Grade 1 meant that more parents had an opportunity to admit their children to a popular school that has better resources and facilities. This is understandably the wish of all parents, especially when the schools nearby do not offer the same level of facilities. “This, however, also has drawbacks. Rural schools will not develop if more students go to popular schools. Children too, will be affected. They might, for instance, have to travel long distances to get to their popular school.”

Meanwhile, a psychologist who specialises in child and adolescent mental health said she supported the idea of having teacher assistants in classrooms as given proper training, they would be able to concentrate on the weaker students in class who need the extra attention. “We need to understand however, that it is in these first few years that a child forms relationships and connections that will be the foundation of the self-image that he/she builds. These children have been used to playing all the time. They now have to suddenly start studying. A primary teacher’s role here is extremely important. When the class is larger, the teacher will have difficulty in building relationships with the students,” pointed out the psychologist, who declined to be named.

Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma was unavailable to comment as he was overseas.

Teachers give reasons why they are opposed to more students in a class

Primary School teachers the Sunday Times spoke to were united in their opposition to the move to increase the number of admissions to Grade 1, stating that it was highly unfair to both the students and their teachers.

A 55-year-old Kalutara teacher, who teaches Grade 3 students, said there were 40 students in her class. “I remember I once handled a class of 50 students. Teaching is not the issue. Any teacher can teach. But, these are little children who need much care and attention. That becomes increasingly difficult when the classes get larger.”

She also scoffed at the idea that teaching assistants would help lessen the burden on teachers. “I have heard officials say that we can give the assistant the books of the students to mark, but then, how can a teacher know which student is weak and needs more attention? How will we know about the progress the student is making if it’s someone else who marks their books?” she queried.

Another teacher from a leading school in Matugama lamented that all this was happening because the country did not have a proper education policy. “As such, each Government makes its own changes without thinking things through. It is the students and teachers who suffer as a result.”

The teacher, who teaches a Grade 4 class, said if Grade 1 admissions become 40 per classroom, the number of students will inevitably increase to between 45 and 50 once the class reaches Grade 4 in popular schools such as hers. “If you assume that your primary class had 40 students, that means you will have to look at 40 books. Let’s say there are five different lessons in a day. That’s 200 books you need to look and correct that day,” she noted.

She also pointed out that there were children with special needs who needed extra attention. “I had a special needs student in my class once. I had to give special attention to her as otherwise, she could hurt herself. But there were 38 other students in class at the time. It was extremely difficult to manage.”

A teacher who taught for years at a leading school in Galle before going on transfer to Baddegama said Governments did not take into account the disparity in resources when taking such decisions.

“When I was teaching at the school in Galle, the Grade 5 students I taught had good desks and chairs. In the school I’m teaching now, the Grade 5 students are using desks and chairs meant for Grade 1 students. The bigger made students have difficulty in sitting on them so we have managed to find a few medium sized chairs and desk and put them on the back row in class.

“We are a national school, but have had no English teacher for our primary section for the past two years. The school nearby has 16 English teachers but the ministry won’t send a teacher to us because it claims its records don’t indicate a teacher shortage for us. Yet, we are still a school that has 40 plus students in many primary classes. Imagine how it will be when those numbers are increased for Grade 1,” she remarked.



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