I recently had the opportunity of interviewing a cross section of undergraduates in Colombo. I asked how they felt about the school education that they had gone through. Their overwhelming response was that the way the schools imparted knowledge on various subjects was highly ineffective and counterproductive. Most of them felt that there was little or no attempt by the teachers to relate what they teach from text books to the real world outside the school.
These are students who are not exposed to expert debates about curriculum development and pedagogy so it is their genuine feelings that they express based on their actual experience over many years within the school system. What is so significant about the views expressed by the above undergraduates is that they are disillusioned about school education in spite of the fact they had reached the top of the education ladder. So, one can imagine what young people with a lower level of educational achievement may feel about it.
" Poor quality of the products of the education system in general is a major obstacle to improving the productivity and efficiency of the youthful labour force in the country "
The fact that school education in general is disconnected from the real world has several implications. Firstly, students simply write down and memorize what the teachers often dictate and simply use what is memorized to pass the competitive examinations. And, we glorify the highest results, achieved by a handful of students even in rural schools by taking them to see the President of the country and publicly state how proud we are about their achievements. Secondly, students do not see the connection between conceptual and factual knowledge they acquire on one hand and the real life phenomena on the other, be it plant growth, animal behaviour, cloud formation, or inter-community relations. Thirdly, in the absence of the above practical orientation, students do not see the practical value of what they learn in school. And, finally, students are not afforded any opportunity to imagine how they could use the conceptual and factual knowledge to explore new possibilities for its practical applications in the relevant fields, be it agriculture, waste management, energy production or modern communications.
The almost exclusive preoccupation of the school education system with many competitive memory testing examinations has other negative implications as well. Since students and their parents are mostly concerned about examination results, they also tend to depend on supplementary private tuition and this leaves very little room for any other useful activities such as recreation, reading, sports, environmental exploration, community engagements and domestic social and economic activities, besides the often unbearable expenditure the families have to incur for private tuition. It is perhaps not accidental that some of the leading former private tuition masters have been elevated to the highest level within the education sector today. Secondly, examination-oriented school education prevents students from acquiring many useful life skills and other competencies. Moral and personality development, second and third language acquisition, development of interpersonal and organizational skills, hands on training in one’s own area of interest, participation in community activities, etc.,are so important that they should receive equal attention within the education system. All these are critically important for young children and youths in their transition from school to the world of work and community life.
The serious defects in the education system outlined above have given rise to many economic and social issues in the country. The poor quality of the products of the education system in general is a major obstacle to improving the productivity and efficiency of the youthful labour force in the country. The quality of many of our institutions remains very poor and they do not function effectively due to the poor quality of the people who move into them. Many young men have already realized that formal education is not very useful and they increasingly vote with their feet. Of about 142,000 youth qualified for university admissions, nearly two-thirds are women, indicating an unprecedented loss of faith in education among young men in the country. Many young men leave school and find employment as three-wheeler drivers, pavement hawkers and unskilled migrant workers outside Sri Lanka. Some others go behind politicians hoping for some favour. Many teenagers, both within and outside the education system, face serious difficulties with interpersonal relationships, particularly across genders, resulting in sexual abuse, under-age pregnancies, suicide, etc. Inter-personal violence, substance abuse, etc., are also widespread among young children and youth. In the absence of a professionally-based counseling system, schools do not play much of a role in arresting the above trends.
It is against the above background that the revamping of the general education system has become an urgent need. Yet, the privileged minority of affluent parents, powerful politicians, and well-connected public servants can make use of the existing education system, to attain their personal goals. These groups admit their children to well-resourced schools, provide them with additional private tuition, and come on top in terms of examination results. Then many of them would send their children overseas for higher education. Most of the undergraduates whom I talked to feel that the authorities do not feel the need to revamp the education system to make it more holistic, and oriented to the real world, largely because it is the country and the vast majority of less privileged people who suffer as a result. They feel that these are not the concerns of the privileged and the powerful. On the other hand, revamping the education system on the lines outlined above requires more resources than what is allocated today. The prevailing gross inequities within the system cannot be stamped out without such additional resources. Purchase of equipment and material, organizing learning activities outside the class room and the school, training of teachers, inviting experts to contribute to educational activities, etc., also cost money. On the other hand, the 1.5% of the GDP currently allocated for education is barely adequate to maintain the highly defective, counter-productive and grossly inequitable system of education, with all its attendant negative consequences. There is no need to talk about the almost total neglect of research and development in the country. The ridiculously low level of public investment in this sector does not help create opportunities for the most creative and innovative youth coming out of the education system.
" The serious defects in the education system outlined above have given rise to many economic and social issues in the country. The poor quality of the products of the education system in general is a major obstacle to improving the productivity "
Finally, a word on the larger context of education. Education is not a panacea for all the ills that prevail in society. So, the wider context of education is as important. Educational planning cannot take place in isolation of economic and social planning in the country. While educationl reforms on the lines outlined above have become the need of the hour, such reforms can succeed only when they are done as part of an overall national planning for development and public welfare. Yet, even in the present context where national planning comes last in the list of priorities of the political establishment, the education system at least needs reform from within; the younger generation in the country can hardly afford to live with the present education system which has become increasingly irrelevant to their lives.
The Minister of Education in the Eastern Provincial Council has realized this and has launched a programme to overhaul the education system in that province. It is hoped that the other Provincial Councils will also join in, without waiting for Colombo to lead the way.