The issue of overcrowded classrooms has become blatantly obvious in light of the physical distancing regulations that schools must now adjust to. The subject of much controversy over the past few years, many petitions and legal battles have been fought over the 2011 Supreme Court Decision to cap students at a maximum of 35 for [...]


Overcrowded classrooms as schools reopen

Education Ministry, Union Chief and school principals give different versions of what is not happening and what should happen

The issue of overcrowded classrooms has become blatantly obvious in light of the physical distancing regulations that schools must now adjust to.

The subject of much controversy over the past few years, many petitions and legal battles have been fought over the 2011 Supreme Court Decision to cap students at a maximum of 35 for a classroom.

Royal College Past Pupil Kamal Abeysinghe – at the forefront of the petition to ensure that the 2011 SC order was adhered to – said the hearing against the cabinet decision to increase the cap to 40 students was set to be heard on November 30 this year.

Education Ministry Secretary N.H.M. Chithrananda said Sri Lanka had more than the necessary number of square meters in classrooms as a whole, to accommodate the student population of about 4.3 million.

Royal College Colombo: Ready to open with sinks in place in accordance with health guidelines. Pic by Indika Handuwala

However the uneven distribution of students has resulted in varying levels of students in classrooms.

The Cabinet decision to increase the 35 limit to 40 would come into place with a parallel move to hire assistant teachers, the Education Ministry Secretary said.

“This recruitment of assistant teachers will come into place for the primary sector where it is more difficult for one teacher to handle too many small children,” he said.

When questioned about the limit of 35 students for a classroom from Grade Six onwards, Mr Chithrananda said it was impractical.

He asked whether a student, or the parents of the student, would agree to a transfer from one of the over-crowded popular schools to a less well-known school.

The stereotype that some state schools were better than others was the main challenge to overcoming overcrowding, according to the Education Ministry Secretary.

“Various professionals come to us with requests to enter children and we give letters of approval, but overall only about seventy schools from the national total of about ten thousand schools have the issue of overcrowding,” he said.

The Secretary claimed the rationale behind the stereotype was unfounded.

“Teachers follow the same syllabus, while methodologies might change there is no significant difference in their standards,” he said.

However, there were teachers who did not like getting transferred to less centrally located schools and there were teachers in lesser known schools who were waiting for transfers to better schools. This could affect performance Education Ministry Secretary said.

Facilities were the most material factor behind the informal classifications of these schools. From students to parents to teachers, things like the existence of a swimming pool would also factor into the decision. When questioned about the viability of improving standards of these facilities at all schools, Mr Chithrananda said that prioritisation was subject to change quite often when it came to treasury allocations. The Education Secretary also said the Health Ministry had said temperature checks at the gates and masks inside the school premises were unnecessary as long as social distancing rules were adhered to.

Classes will resume at different stages with 50% of the student population at a time according given by the Education Ministry. Classes have been arranged to facilitate half the number of regular students and principals have been instructed to roster staff accordingly. Despite claims by education professionals that no instruction had been given to them by the authorities, Mr Chithrananda claimed he and his team have visited all provinces and issued these instructions. He said they had given school principals the authority to make decisions autonomously on appropriate timetables and roster plans. However, communication problems seem to have occurred as teachers claimed they have been asked to come to school on all days regardless of the attendance of students.

Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin said no open discussions had been held with professionals of the state school sector. He said Sri Lanka had about thirty two thousand classrooms and and there was not enough space for the students. Referring to the controvery of the cabinet decision to change the limit from 35 to 40 students in a classroom earlier this year, Mr Stalin said it would, in plain terms, be illegal to violate a Supreme Court decision in this manner. Mr Stalin also said on the reopening of schools, the decisions were being regularly changed and he was shocked by the Health Ministry’s decision to not make it mandatory for students to wear face masks in schools.

“It is quite ironic how people are getting arrested for not wearing masks but children won’t have to wear them inside schools,” he said.

Sri Lanka National Principals Association President Mohan Weerasinghe said the country had the capital and human resources it needed to implement a 1:25 teacher to student ratio. What it lacked was the system.

“The examination system that exists in Sri Lanka limits a child’s capacity to a grade on a test. The toxic tuition class culture feeds off of it,” he said, noting that overcrowding classrooms had led to an increase in students’ dependence on tuition.

Referring to free education, Mr Weerasinghe said the whole purpose would be lost if students had to depend on tuition classes for which they paid exorbitant fees. In certain schools the overcrowding issue arose because of the popularity of those schools that was a direct result of high examination scores. With large numbers of students, schools prefered to bask in the glory of high achieving students. However a large number of students were being left behind because of the lack of adequate attention from teachers.

When questioned about the viability of education policies such as Langama pasala, hondama pasala or the nearest school was the best school, Mr Weerasinghe said he regretted that every new Government that comes into place set up a new policy that was to be funded with World Bank money.

“Little or nothing gets done. The prevalent copy-and-paste system of education is further exacerbated by the overcrowding of classrooms, because large classroom sizes result in the child having to go to the teacher when it should actually be the other way around,” he said.

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