- We have a plan to make up for lost time. When it comes to covering the syllabus, we’ll consider extending the number of time periods or extending the school hours or days.
- Together with the Ministry of Health, we’ve already developed a viable strategy to be implemented in nationwide schools.
- Increasing the number of national schools to 1000 from 273 what we have at present. I’ve already obtained the cabinet approval for that
- If the student body is around 1000, then we’ll provide two sick beds. Thermometers will also be provided to the schools in the same manner. Plus, we’ll conduct an awareness programme for students and teachers
- I personally believe we should increase merit system to
- 50%. But there’s a huge disparity in districts merit
- Post-independence governments
- have taken turns in doing good and bad equally to our motherland and to education system different
In a situation where the country’s national education is at a standstill for more than two months, as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the Dailymirror spoke to Education, Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Dullas Alahapperuma.
Q We understand that you are extremely worried about our national education which is in a slumber mode since mid-March. What are the plans you have in store to open schools, hold government exams and cover syllabi?
We, the education ministry was the first to take action in order to protect our school children from harm due to this pandemic situation. Schools were the first to shut down before the country went into lockdown and I can assure you that schools will also be the last to open when the country begins its process of re-opening. In a nutshell, the first to close, but the last to open. The schools were closed on March 13 and by May 30, if you leave the school holidays out, students have lost 276 hours of school education. We have a plan to make up for that. When it comes to covering the syllabi, we’ll consider extending the school hours or days. On the exams, we have three options and one of them, which I can assure you, we’ll never take, which is holding the exam at regular time, covering the complete syllabus. That insensible and inhuman step which we’ll never consider. Second option would be to postpone the exam, which has always been the popular choice for years in the past. Third will be holding the exam covering reduced syllabi. I can assure you that we’ll only consider one of the latter two.
Q If and when the schools are re-opened, what are the strategies which you expect to put in place to protect the schoolchildren and teachers?
Together with the Ministry of Health, we’ve already developed a viable strategy to be implemented in nationwide schools. If I go into some of the specific details, the schools will be re-opened in four phases. First the PHIs will sanitize every school and then we wait for four days for the chemicals to neutralize. The second phase is, we’ll let Principals, teachers and non-academic staff to come to the school. Then we would only let the advanced level and ordinary level students to the school as the third phase. Fourth phase is when we let all the other younger students to come to school. Some classrooms have nearly 50 students. So, if social distancing is required, the principal, teachers and non-academic staff will revise the timetables to teach classrooms with 1/3 or 50 % of the students at a time. We’ll conduct schools seven days-a-week, but that doesn’t mean the teachers and students have to come to school for all seven days. They could attend the school for 3 to 4 days-a-week, according to their revised timetable. We’ll provide hand washing sinks, that can be operated using the feet. No parent has to bear the cost of this, as we bear it as a government’s responsibility. For example, we’ll provide one of those sinks for schools with a student body of 100 or less. If the student body is around 300, then we’ll provide two of those. Likewise we’ll increase the supply according to the school’s student population. We’ll also provide a sick bed. For example, if the student body is around 1000, then we’ll provide two sick beds. Thermometers will also be provided to the schools in the same manner. Plus, we’ll conduct an awareness programme for students and teachers to enlighten them thoroughly.
Q Could you name the steps which you intend to implement for the advancement of Sri Lankan education, with immediate effect?
That’s an excellent and a very apt question I would be very delighted to answer. One, increasing the number of national schools to 1000 from 273 which what we have at present. I’ve already obtained the cabinet approval for that.
Two, is about the “Z score”. We’ll revise it. Current ‘Z’ score criteria is 40% from the national merit, 55% from the district merit and 5% from the difficult district category. I have no issue with the national merit. I personally believe we should increase it to 50%. But there’s a huge disparity in districts merit. For example, Colombo district contains schools such as Ananda, Royal, Devi, Visaka and underprivileged schools near Avissawella, or in Padukka. The students from those underprivileged schools will also have to get the same ‘Z’ score as same as those elite school students. I’ve already got the cabinet approval for that also and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Department of Examinations and Universities Grants Commission, together have appointed a commission to revise this ‘Z’ Score issue. Not entirely, but to make if fairer.
Now we have 13 different types among 240,000 teachers teaching our children. This is an unfortunate situation. Thirdly, we would make all school teachers as trained graduates. We need to make them professionals. There are 20 faculties, in which, prospective teachers have to follow a two-year programme and follow it up with a one year practical teaching at the school. We’ve made a policy decision and I’ve got the cabinet approval to transform these programmes into degree programmes. We are going to extend the academic programme for three years instead of two. They’ll receive a Bachelor of Education degree, equivalent to the one offered by the University of Colombo and the present teachers who do not possess degrees, would have an opportunity to obtain one by participating in the same degree programme online. If we succeed, by the year 2027, we could proudly announce to the world that all the teachers of our country are graduates. Because that’s a common standard for teachers in all the developed countries. That would be our priority No. 3.
Q There has always been a massive disparity in quality of education in this country for years and it continues even now. What are your plans to arrest this unfortunate situation and make quality education an equal opportunity to students of all demographics nationwide?
Unfortunately, we live in a country where every child’s fundamental right for a quality education is not even protected. Our education system is not built to support and accommodate kids with special needs or kids with disabilities. This clearly shows our failure as a society. I believe a society is only good when it treats it’s most vulnerable. We have put plans in motion to address this grave injustice. For example, visually impaired students have to go through a strenuous process when they sit for a school examinations. Because only a single institution offers the exam papers in braille. Mass majority out of over 2000 students who annually sit for local exams, have no access to braille version of question papers. In northern province and eastern province, there are many children who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other severe mental illnesses. Their education has been completely neglected. I am deeply concerned about their situation. We hope to implement counselling programmes and help them overcome those difficulties they are faced with.
QThe President promises to build a knowledge-based economy. Education plays an instrumental role in achieving that. What are the plans in store to reform our education system?
Thank you for that question. I believe it is the most important question about our long-term plan to increase our GDP per capita to US$12,000 from US$4,000 at present. To succeed in our quest for a knowledge-based economy, we need an educated, knowledgeable, skillful workforce. If you take a look at developed countries in the world, most common factor is their rank in the world education index. It has no barrier that countries with the most successful and highly developed education system, are the most developed countries with high quality of life.
Even if you look at the Asian continent, out of 48 countries, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are ranked in top five in world education index. They are also the only three developed countries in the entire Asian continent which contain more than half the world’s population. There is no coincidence, especially when you consider the fact that both Singapore and South Korea are young nations which were established in 1950s and 1960s, and Japan was completely devastated after the WW II. They have placed their faith in good quality education to lift their countries from destruction and achieve success at global level. That is the model which we should follow.
We’ve taken several key policy decisions to succeed in our quest for building a knowledge-based economy. These policy decisions would not require funding or development of infrastructure with immediate effect, but we can implement them quickly with a clear vision and an honest effort.
One of them is, we will annually increase the number of students studying Biological and Physical Sciences for Advanced Level Examination by 10%. At present, 40,000 students sit for A/Level annually in Bio-science and Mathematics steams. Already we have 922 schools offering Biological sciences for A/Level and 893 schools offering Physical sciences (Math) for A/Level.
Another one is, we will continue to promote STEM subjects, which are Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. As I have said earlier, all the developed countries in the world have extensive and comprehensive education programmes to develop STEM subjects among school children and with the rapid development and advancement of science and technology, those countries reap benefits of increasing their number of students who excel in STEM subjects. So, other than increasing the number of students admitted to Bio and Mathematics streams, we will continue to promote and develop STEM subjects throughout our school system nationwide. Right now, we offer Tech stream for A/Level in 443 schools, but in parallel to our policy decision to increase the number of national schools to 1000, we are planning to build tech labs and offer that subject stream to every national school in the future.
Also, we will focus largely on mathematics and will take measures to counter the number of students failing Maths in O/Level and to increase the number of students successfully pass O/Level. In addition, we will bring the standard of mathematics education to be on par with the developed countries, while offering different variants of subjects to students with different aspirations and goals for their higher education.
Q The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the thinking pattern of people upside down. Do you think the Capitalism, Marxism, neo-liberalism or open market economy have an answer to this biggest ever health threat to the mankind?
If history has taught us that human spirit which has always been able to bounce back and even grow stronger in the face of adversity. The same human spirit has led the humanity to overcome the most brutal wars, pandemics, natural and man-made disasters throughout history. I have faith in humankind. Though it may take different paths like Capitalism, Marxism, Neo-liberalism and Open Market economy, humankind will always prevail. It is certainly going to be challenging than before. Mainly due to the globalization and its impact, which had made the “World Flat”. What I meant by that was that we are all equally vulnerable and equally beneficial of any path taken by any different countries in the form of governments, economic policies or trade. Though this has been a big threat, I personally doubt if this is the biggest threat mankind has experienced. I strongly believe humanity has the capability to rise up to any challenge and eventually they will find a way to overcome this, regardless of economic systems.
Q My final question is, do you believe in a bright prospective for Sri Lankan education and do you have credible reasons to do so?
Post-independence governments of Sri Lanka have taken turns in doing good and bad equally to our motherland and education system is no different. Past is only important, if we can identify and rectify our faults and not repeating them in the future. Dwelling in the past, assigning the blame, passing the buck has never been my characteristics. Like the third US President Thomas Jefferson said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”. I am a dreamer, but not a daydreamer.
A dreamer under a President who has a clear vision about the future of our nation and a genuine necessity to develop our education system to meet the increasing global demand to succeed in our quest to become a developed nation. We have an excellent staff working for our ministry and its departments, motivated and innovative principals, committed and dedicated teachers and most importantly, the leadership to achieve those aspirations. So, my answer is yes; I do believe in a bright prospect for Sri Lankan education and the credible reasons for which I mentioned earlier. One thing I can guarantee that what we won’t do is, making the same mistakes that had been made in the past, no matter what colour, government, leader, or who the minister was. I firmly believe the Time Magazine’s Person of the Century Physicist Albert Einstein’s words who famously said, “Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”