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21st March 1999
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Tuition:a race for results

The date: August 1999. The target: 180 marks (or as stipulated by the University Grants Commission). The exam: the dreaded G.C.E. A/L's. This is the mission. To accomplish this many thousands of students prepare, some in earnest and some in jest. The training ground for many will beTution maste: Upul Shantha Sannasgalahuge halls packed with eager students. We in Sri Lanka call them mass tuition classes. 

When you make it through the long queue past the helper who marks your card (known as the "Tikka") and into the hall, you enter an almost different culture. With their own colloquial language, here you find an atmosphere much more liberal than that of any classroom. The bunks are mostly very uninviting, the space very limited, and in the afternoon the heat is unbearable. Add to this a tummy crying out for its midday meal and you will wonder why they come at all.

The tuition master, fondly referred to by his first name ( Thilak sir ,Lal sir etc...), is at the front of the class on a huge stage. Beside him is an equally large blackboard with calculations scribbled on it, that only he and the students can decipher. You are given a hand-out, precise and to-the-point. The teacher himself addresses the students through the metallic voice of a microphone. After a while when he feels that the students are beginning to digress, he follows suit. Everything from politics to airplanes is discussed with daring frankness. Rib-tickling jokes are cracked. But only for a while. In a moment the tutor shrewdly changes course, and the class is back on track.

Questions, if you have any, will be answered via chits. Because these chits travel using the very unpredictable hand-to-hand method, if you happen to be at the back of the class your message by the time it reaches the tutor may be hopelessly distorted (and terribly funny!).But you will find that the class is handled in such a way that asking questions is not a necessity.

Tuition, everyone will agree, has become big business in this country. There's cut-throat competition among the tutors themselves, each of them trying to do better than the others and win more and more students for his or her classes. The poster war is equally unnerving. Why this mad rush?

Gamini Udaya, an A/L Economics and Commerce teacher who has been in the trade for the past 25 years, attributes this to the gradual breakdown in the school education system. "Most of the teachers in government schools are not dedicated to their profession. What they teach at school is definitely not in keeping with the students' needs. Otherwise children wouldn't come to us. What's more, the cut-off marks for university entrance go up every year. As a result, the A/L has become highly competitive."

Acording to Upul Shantha Sannasgala, a leading A/L Sinhala tutor, when the students are set a target and asked to try and get it, they will do whatever it takes to achieve it. The number of students at mass classes is proof of the ability of the tutors to guide them towards that goal. It is also a great leveler, he said. The rich and the poor both have to sit side by side and attend the class if they wanted to get the best.

The discipline in the class is very much up to the tutor. It is he who sets the tone. In some classes the girls are at the front and the boys at the back. In some others they sit side by side. The "backbenchers" are generally the more adventurous. Paper rockets are suddenly launched towards female territory, if the tutor is not observant. The embarrassing "shhhhhhh" is given to many (especially girls) who arrive late or leave early.

"Without tuition we are finished," agreed Pushpakumara Wijesuriya of Eheliyagoda MMV, Niroshan Mahesh of Asoka MV and Ranthita Vanaguru of D.S. Senanayeka College who were attending a mass tutory. They said that the competitive atmosphere drove them to work harder and the precise and to-the-point teaching method was exactly what they needed to pass the exam. They were in a group which included people from all parts of the island. After coming here and going through the same experiences they had become firm friends.

Meanwhile the student who got top marks in the district rankings for mathematics in the Kandy district believes that students should work according to their particular needs rather than being swept away with the crowd. He personally hadn't attended any mass classes since asking questions about study material isn't that simple at these classes.

Even priests can be found at these tuition classes. They say that the teaching methods here are much better than the old methods used in pirivena education. The young monks and lay students interact without any hesitation. According to these monks, as long as they themselves are disiplined there is nothing wrong in attending these classes.

On the other side of the coin the teachers at school had their own story to tell. 

"You see, children today are like robots. They go to school, sit and listen to the teacher and then straight after school go for tuition classes, again sit and listen to the same thing they learnt in the morning. By the time they go home, they're dead tired. There's no time to go through the notes or study properly what they learnt at either place. Come next morning, again the same routine. No time even to breathe, let alone engage in sports or other extracurricular activities! Is this what is expected from education?" questions Nalini Edussuriya, Principal of Visakha Vidyalaya.

True enough. What we see today is a teacher-centred system where the student becomes a silent listener rather than an active participant of the learning process. Worse still, parents push their children too hard to get through examinations from a very young age. It all starts with the year 5 Scholarship exam. It's the dream of every parent to put the child into a so-called popular school because it certainly gives him/her an edge over the others when seeking employment.

From then onwards it's one big rat race till the child gains university admission. The Advanced Level examination is, by far, the most competitive in the Sri Lankan education system. Just a handful of universities and the limited amount of facilities available in them means that only the cream of the students from among the hundreds and thousands who sit for the A/Ls are admitted. As a result there's intense competition among the students. They become solely exam-oriented. For some it's a life-and-death matter as one single mark could decide whether the student becomes a doctor, a dentist, a vet, a graduate in bio science or just one of those who end up not gaining admission at all.

Both the students and the schools are judged by the number of 8 D's or 4 A's produced. "We need to educate the parents and the students alike that this is not the ultimate aim of education. It's rather to produce well-rounded individuals who can think for themselves and take sensible decisions in a crisis situation, people who are creative and have leadership qualities," says Mrs. Edussuriya. "Tuition should be there to help weak students to get some extra help, and not to be followed like a fad."

But there's more. A shortage of teachers for certain subjects and those who are available being not up to the mark can lead students to seek private tuition because their ultimate goal is to get through the exam. If this is the situation in a school, we can hardly blame the parents for sending their children for tuition.

Rukmani Raddalgoda, a teacher at Visakha Vidyalaya who has a career spanning almost three decades, says that when it comes to the dedication of teachers in government schools, what she sees today is a fraction of what was there in the '60s and ' 70s. The strong values and attitudes inculcated in them during their training period in that era made them dedicated professionals. Most of the teachers today forget that their first duty is by the students and are more concerned about petty personal gains.

Will the education reforms help dissuade students from seeking private tuition or for that matter, prevent parents from sending them for classes? Mrs. Raddalgoda has her doubts. "I'm sure these tuition masters will come up with some jugglery or another to hold on to their job. Tuition has become a way of life now. Some students go to three or four classes for just one subject. Now where do they find the time to study? It's not at all healthy, both physically and mentally." 

"On the contrary, students who carefully pay attention to what they learn at school and take the time to read and understand the notes once they go home are able to answer questions in a better, more intelligent way at the exams without repeating parrot-like what's in their notes," says Mrs. Edussuriya.

Meanwhile the Trinity College principal in his prize day report suggests having up to 6 subjects at the A/L's including English and Computer literacy and reducing the bulk of the study materials as a way of ensuring that the education system caters to a larger number of students not entering university. 

So for the young student of today what does tuition mean? Are tuition masters smart teachers with the ability to provide succinct interpretations of vast syllabuses? Or is this propensity towards tuition classes a fad, a trend inexplicably set in motion? The results of the August exams seem to point to the former. 

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