Fundamental problems in education system

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A question that I am most frequently asked when I meet urban, middle-class groups is about the National People’s Power (NPP) education policies – specifically, our stance on private education.   When I meet rural communities – the problems with education are entirely different: lack of teachers, water and sanitation, books, and facilities are the main issues we discuss. Actually, rural is not quite accurate because I have had discussions about these issues even with urban, low-income communities. All families spend on education – whether for tuition, transport, etc. Whether you spend for one-on-one tuition or group classes depends on your level of income. Many parents (mainly mothers) volunteer in schools – for security, cleaning, teaching assistance, etc. Across the board, there is anxiety about children’s education among families. But clearly, there are sharp divides regarding the experience of education and one of the main divisions is based on income level. 

In my experience, nothing reflects the disparities and inequalities in our society as much as education. This is particularly ironical, given that the whole purpose of free education in Sri Lanka was to reduce inequalities in education. There are complex reasons for this – not least, how certain education philosophies and systems, in fact, reproduce social inequalities, but in Sri Lanka, the fact that for decades, governments have regularly under-spent on education is a significant reason.  Apart from the time when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was President, when there was a surge in government spending on education, consecutive budgets, have allocated far less than most countries on education. The results are obvious. 

According to the 2020 School Census, of 10,155 government schools, only 1,000 schools offer Science subjects for the Advanced Level out of 2,932 schools offering Advanced Level classes. Some 2,962 schools have less than 100 students. Admissions are low because conditions are so poor; on the other hand because of small numbers of students, the schools get very little attention. 30% of schools have less than 10 teachers. 43.2% of students enrol for the Arts stream in the Advanced Level – and that too in a very limited number of subjects – simply because they do not have any other choices. Although the gender gap is almost non-existent at Grade 1 admission or slightly in favour of boys (50.7 are boys and 49.3 are girls) at Advanced Level, 55.4% are girls while there are only 44.6% boys enrolled for Advanced Level classes.  

Policy discussions on higher education in Sri Lanka take place with complete disregard for the serious problems in our school education. Higher education reforms in Sri Lanka focus on employability, encouraging and improving STEM subjects, English, IT and soft skills. This is essentially a dumbing down of higher education – while ignoring that the fundamental problem lies in school education.  And of course, privatisation is offered as the panacea for all problems in the education system both general and higher education. Government spending on education (or rather lack of spending) is taken for granted – we cannot afford to spend more on education is something I am frequently told.  We cannot spend on education, but we can continue to maintain and expand the military even during times of peace. Government budgets have been consistent on two points: reducing spending on education and increasing spending on the defence budget. The fact that government spending is a question of priorities and not just unavailability of funds is not considered. 

At the same time, simply increasing spending is not enough to address the problems in our education system. We need a complete overhaul of education policy – this includes, teacher training, teacher salaries, education management and administration, infrastructure, curricula.  But most importantly, it requires us to ask ourselves – what is the purpose of education?   Current conversations about education focus solely on matching the needs of the labour market.  Yet, even from this narrow perspective, we have no analysis of the type of labour market required for a country to reach development milestones – there is no future planning with regard to the labour market.  Simply about catering to the existing labour market. When Minister Manusha Nanayakkara wants to allow school going children over the age of 16 years to work for 20 hours per week, is he aware of job opportunities for that age group?  Is he aware of the serious problem of boys dropping out of school that we are currently experiencing? Is he aware that even Mahapola scholars in universities send their scholarship money home to maintain families because families are struggling to survive? That finding jobs for pocket money is simply not a critical need in our society? That our struggle is to keep boys and girls IN education? 

But we also need to have a conversation about the broader purpose of education – producing active citizens and securing a humanistic, ethical and empathetic society.   This means an education system that is not simply about imparting knowledge and skills – but experiences that broaden perspectives and encourages active societal engagement. This is especially critical in a society such as ours that is so sharply divided on so many levels.  

The Aragalaya revealed some of these divides in stark ways recently. The diversity of the Aragalaya space, brought together many groups that usually do not function in the same space.  Former soldiers and families of the disappeared, the disabled and the abled, the heteronormative and LGBTQI communities, the liberals, the Marxists and the anarchists, the well-heeled, the down trodden, the economically marginalised. The difficulties experienced in consensus building were partly a result of these divides. But perhaps, the sharpest differences arose when this phase of the Aragalaya started drawing to a close. For some of the groups and individuals for whom struggle is a constant, for whom the sources of power were so distant – the Aragalaya was significant in that, it demonstrated how people came close to dismantling those structures of power that had kept them in the margins for so long. For others, not so distant from those structures, for whom the system was stacked in their favour – when it worked as it should – the last few days of this phase of the Aragalaya proved to be disquieting. The internal logic of the Aragalaya as it grew, challenged the very structures of society that maintained systems of privilege and power that had hitherto worked for some. This made certain sections of the Aragalaya deeply uncomfortable. 

The education policy of the NPP addresses some of these key divisions in our society. It recognises that a system of education can and should provide a space where rather than reproducing the divisions of society, it can provide the means and experiences to bring people together. That is, it can and there should be a space that encourages dialogue and reflections on the nature of society, what needs to change and how we can change it. In that process, it will also create the kind of human resources a society needs to achieve the goals we set for ourselves, individually and collectively.  Therefore, creating that kind of education system – one that works for all – and not just a few, one that works irrespective of class, status and position – is what we hope to establish. Education, in the NPP manifesto, is a key priority sector.

In that sense, to reduce the conversation on education to private vs State education or the labour market is in our view extremely constricting. It ignores the fundamental problems and issues that need to be addressed in our education system. While we understand that questions about funding education are a result of the dire state of education currently and the anxieties generated because of families being forced to choose private education through the lack of any other means of obtaining a proper education, our focus on education is not with the providers of education as much as the structures, content and outcomes of education. The providers of education will be expected to deliver on those outcomes, to reflect the goals and vision of education as a transformative force in society. Our focus is on addressing the fundamental problems of education – and drastically changing this current system of education that has failed to serve so many in our society.  

By Harini Amarasuriya