Elections campaigns take two forms, broadly. In order to posit themselves as the best deal for the voter candidates get dragged into shouting matched where the focus is on relative demerits of opponents, their histories and political associations. Secondly, they talk of policies. However, these are typically kept snug in manifestos or, when they do get articulated, are drowned by rhetoric and invective.
The past is referred to a lot. The present is either celebrated or decried, depending on whether the candidate is from the ruling party or not. The future it is that gets most play. Promises, promises and more promises. Delivery and deliverability notwithstanding.
And yet, we need to talk of the future and when we do, the most important element is clearly education. Education is about preparing for the future. It is about matching training to ensure a human resource complement that matches needs. It is of course tied to economic and social vision for the future.
Naturally, it all begins with a critique of the current state of the entire education system, an assessment of what’s worked and what is clearly not working. This is a necessary precondition for reform of any kind. We need to know what has to be fixed and if overhauling is necessary then we need to know how to do so without wrecking systems and also aspiration, which in turn could cause costly anxieties and ruptures.
The basic principle of course is captured in the phrase ‘no one will be left behind.’ It’s ‘education for all’. Non-negotiable. This has been one of the foundational principles of the doctrine of free education or rather non-fee levying education, for there’s not ‘free’ in this world — someone (the people) pays and if the return on investment does not accrue to the people in some form then it is a problem. Rhetoric and ideology can be stumbling blocks, but then again nothing comes easy — candidates and hopefully the victor will have the courage to do what is necessary and the wisdom to do it in ways that do not cause social unrest.
The world has changed. Sri Lanka has changed. Aspirations change all the time. Things get outdated fast due to technology. It is no easy task to keep pace when skill-needs can change fast and indeed faster than the time necessary for skills to be acquired. That’s a challenge in and of itself.
That said, an education system that straightjackets students into specific streams will little or no knowledge of disciplines outside of it, cannot be wholesome nor conducive to meeting changing challenges.
There’s an entrenched learning culture in this country that is turning children into fact-guzzling but uncritical adults who find it hard to analyze and even harder to take multiple factors into consideration when resolving problems. This is a culture whose seeds are unfortunately sown at a very early age and sadly nurtured through secondary and tertiary education. Assessment has been strictly limited to the examination method which in turn has created an exam-mania. While assignments and group work are encouraged, school-based evaluation is not factored into final grades which are the basis for university admission.
What is required perhaps is a system that produces a student empowered with a wholesome and well-rounded education, equipped with the ability to work with others, a healthy curiosity, good communication skills in at least two languages and a mind that is curious and innovative.
That’s basic. It has to be complemented by a structured system where training leads to useful employment. Sri Lanka still lacks a comprehensive occupational classification. If such a classification is developed it would indicate present skill requirements, and therefore make for a more informed and intelligent training regime where overlap as well as resource-waste are mitigated.
It is easy to paint a beautiful picture of bright-eyed graduates sliding easily into plush positions in the public or corporate sector. It is hard to figure out a way to get them there with the requisite skills. It is even harder to make sure no one is left behind.
Manifestos and within them notes on education need to be read carefully, for this is where the blueprint of the future is scripted. Or not, as the case may be.