Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has remarked during a recent visit to a public school in Colombo, that his government would soon introduce a 21st century education system. What that education system entails is not yet clear, and, many past reforms coated in such blissful slogans had delivered very little. Education reforms which are conducted in secrecy and became a prerogative of a few could do more damage than good. Not least because in principle, reforms in such a key sector need multi-sector participation, but also because, if Sri Lanka’s current school and university curricula suggest anything, our educationists are not an impressive lot. Leave it unto them; they will spout out another half- baked solution. Their problem is they suffer from a disjuncture with the wider economic and technological imperatives of the labour force. They have done little to fill that void, by bringing in the insights of the right people in the corporate sector, who after all hire school leavers and university graduates.
Our school and university education operate in isolation from the needs of the labour market. Even in some fields where there is a convergence, it does not impart that extra-premium on the public school student that could help him outsmart his privately-educated peers. That is especially callous since a majority of Sri Lanka’s intellectually-gifted kids study in the public school system.
The problem is twofold. First, our education is overly-focused on rote learning at the expense of critical thinking. That deficiency spreads out from primary education to the Advanced Level Arts and Commerce streams, though mathematics and science may be performing much better. Then, much of that rote learning is done in vernacular languages, further undermining the quality of education. Outside the walls of academia, the corporate sector conducts business in English. An aspiring youth who had a purely vernacular education finds his or her chances for career advancement seriously compromised. We have seen this happening to many generations of youth with devastating societal implications, which contributed to two youth insurgencies.
Mr. Wickremesinghe has said: “English medium education was introduced in Sri Lanka before many other countries. It was a great opportunity over other countries. However, Sri Lanka could not sustain it. Other countries which introduced English medium education after Sri Lanka had managed to benefit more than Sri Lanka.”
This is not some novel discovery of astute Mr. Wickremesinghe. Almost all Sri Lankans of several generations, who are not frogs in a well, have observed that. But, they did not have the power to fix the problem. They were not politicians. The only politician who genuinely tried to do something was President Chandrika Kumaratunga who introduced the English medium education to public schools. (Her successor unfortunately overlooked her initiative and let it die a natural death in most schools which initially opened English medium classes).
Mr. Wickremesinghe has power and he claims his government now has money too, to fix the problem. Then why not do something concrete and long-lasting? Disappointing fact though is that his government has already wasted two years and its education minister does not sound like someone with a perspective to handle an intricate affair such as education. There is another problem that even the most competent officials in the field could not avoid without being bogged down. The gradual decay in the quality of education, especially that of English medium, is so overwhelming that it is not easy to reverse. The government could allocate any amount of budgetary spending, but teachers who can teach in English are few and far between. It will take another generation to rebuild that human capital which we had in abundance when misplaced populist policies tore the system down.
Our school and university education operate in isolation from the needs of the labour market. Even in some fields where there is a convergence, it does not impart that extra-premium on the public school student that could help him outsmart his privately-educated peers
For the moment, Sri Lanka can take lessons from the experience of Christian missionaries of the 19th century, who with shoe-string budgets built a world class education system within half a century. Of course, their Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim counterparts and colonial government later chipped in, but they laid the foundation for that healthy competitive dynamic. They succeeded, because knowledge imparted tends to multiply and take its own growth cycle. So does mediocracy, as we witnessed during the latter decades of independence.
The government should start from scratch and get at least the well-to-do schools and Maha Vidyalayas to open English medium classes from Grade one to Advanced Level. Few years from now, students who pass out from those schools can become better teachers than their teachers and add quality to education. The government can also tap into a large pool of students who have studied in international schools, who can be recruited as teachers. The government should also place an additional premium on English medium education, teachers and students. The corporate sector already does so. One of the unfortunate fallacies of previous tampering with education was equating vernacular education with English education. That removed the incentive for teachers to learn English, and later let them to monopolise the system, which over time contributed to the current status of an insular system.
That would mean a big part of education reforms would entail training teachers already in the service. Interactive online modules which are already used to teach globally, including far more complex languages such as Chinese, would come handy and be cost-effective in promoting English language education.
The other problem of curriculum should be less contentious. Countries learn from successful practices of lead states, and emulate and improvise those already tested policies and strategies. Sri Lanka does not need to reinvent the wheel, (that only serves the ego of a few), instead it should adopt and improvise syllabuses and best practices of other states. For instance, to teach science and mathematics, it can learn from high-performing Southeast Asian states such as Singapore, or Shanghai, China, of which students outperform their Western peers in global comparative tests such as PISA. And for God’s sake, it should also cut down on too much rubbish taught in the name of religion, culture and history. Such teaching, though may sound patriotic, comes at the expense of critical learning of students and leads to doom. Instead, kids should be given an outward-looking education that would help them thrive in the outside world, and not be trapped in the past.
Mr. Wickremesinghe can give a try at many of those reforms. Sri Lankan parents have now come a full-circle from the disastrous populist reforms they themselves cheered six decades ago. Only glitch though is whether the Prime Minister has political will to invest political capital on this, which unfortunately for Sri Lanka, is not necessarily a vote winner in the next election. That should also be proof of how an insular education imparted for generations distorted national priorities.
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