Notes to the People: Reforming the Education System

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 30 2021
Columns Notes to the People: Reforming the Education System


Let me make a confession at the very outset. Since my retirement from the university system, I have not studied in a serious and comprehensive manner the developments in the educational system including the proposed changes to the extant acts in both the higher and school education. The idea of writing a column on education reforms was conceived by two events. 

First is the Aluth Parliament (AP) at Derana discussion on educational reforms while the second an increasingly growing agitation against the Kotalawala University Bill and the demand for a salary increase of public sector teachers. Hence, in Bourdieu’s words, I feel that it was my habitus that had turned me back to the subject of educational reforms. 

Habitus is understood “as a system of lasting, transposable dispositions, which integrating past experiences, functions as a matrix of perceptions”. Let me deal with two subjects, though are interlinked and superimposed, separately, because the issue of salary rise and the changes in higher education were not explicitly taken up at the AP discussion. 

Agenda for Educational Reforms 

Four prominent people who are in charge of designing the system of education were present at the AP discussion together with a Principal of a leading Colombo girls’ school. 

The State Minister Susil Premajayantha, who was once a Minister of Education and appears to be more perceptive and practical than the current Cabinet Minister of education initiated the discussion outlining the general cycle of educational reform and how the proposed reforms could be given a long term and permanent character. In a way, it may be better to separate the subject of educational reforms from the day-to-day running of the educational system. This begs the question.

 If the Government is making plans to overhaul the education system in order to cope with the current and future needs and challenges of the country, why does it bring into the Parliament bills like the Kotalawala University Bill aiming at piecemeal changes? Does it mean that the intended reforms will be confined only to school education, not to the higher education? If it is so, the reform proposals would be doomed to collapse. Prof. Upali Sedara, a wellknown educationist in the island, focused his presentation on the efficiency of the extant education system. He has revealed that as far as the internal efficiency of the system is concerned, Sri Lanka is on par with many developed countries.

 Hence, according to him, the problem remains in its external efficiency. What does the education system offer to other sectors of the country? This question was flagged with considerable detail by the Dudley Seers Commission in the early 1960s and reemphasised in many studies and commission reports. My friend, Dr. Chris Edwards of the University of East Anglia, once remarked one of the issues in Sri Lanka was it followed as far as the system of education was concerned the British system. According to him, German and Japanese systems that focused more on training middle level technicians, mechanics and so on would have suited well for Sri Lanka. 

Educational system principles 

Dr. Sunil Navaratne, former Secretary to the Ministry of Education and the Director of the National Institute of Education, explained the principles on which the future educational system would be designed and organised.

 At this phase of the discussion, the moderator asked, I think, a pertinent question: Do not we adopt these principles, like student-centered education, living in multi-cultural environment and so on, even now in the present school education system? The principal of the leading girls’ school in Colombo, who is in a way an implementor of the system at school level, also informed those principles are added to the system a long time ago. 

Then, what would be the novelty in new reforms? The answer to this question by two specialists was that those principles were hitherto added exogenously and not embedded in the system that is heavily conditioned by the hegemonic examination orientation. So, what is proposed is to internalise those ideas in the system making the system less oriented to examinations.

 Since the State Minister and two experts had been involved in educational policy making in the past under various Governments, one may justifiably raise the question why they had failed in the past in introducing reforms that they are now designing. What were the constraints? Do they think that those constraints are now being removed? 

Core Principles 

Though not explicitly, Prof Sedara has referred to two core principles that Sri Lanka has so far preserved and defended some deviations since 1977 notwithstanding. The first is the principle of free education. There was a rich discussion on the subject in the 1940s. Kannagara Report (KR) recommended free, meaning fee less, education from lower kindergarten to bachelor’s degree level to those who were qualified for it. So, it does not mean that everyone who was enrolled at kindergarten level would be ensured to the admission to university. 

Having referred to KR, Prof Sedara informed that KR envisioned only 5 per cent of enrolled at KG level would be given placement at the university system. KR proposed to open other avenues for the rest of students. At the same time, Dr. N.M. Perera being in his prison cell at Bogambara wrote a piece called The Case for Free Education in which he proposed that in order to make free education meaningful school differentiation should be reduced. 

The second principle, according to Prof Sedara, was that the education system should prevail as a public system. Because, it should be oriented towards meeting a societal deficit: a deficit that is not created by individuals or families. In a way it was this idea that was reasserted in 1962 by the Minister of Education, Dr. Badi-ud-din Mahmud who brought in a piece of legislation for taking over of private schools thus at the same time reducing the differentiation of schools. Prof, Sedara has informed that as it was done by a parliamentary act, the private sector is not allowed to enter into the domain of school education. 

The private schools that remain today are the schools that were allowed to stay in private hands by 1962 Act. Unfortunately, what we witness today is that the Sri Lankan education system has been gradually deviating away from these two core principles. One last thing. The success of school education system depends on teachers, their continuous training, skill advancement and of course their commitment. So, in many countries, teachers are well remunerated. No doubt, Sri Lankan teachers at all level are underpaid. 

The revision of university salaries some time ago has made that anomaly very much prominent. When I entered the university system as a young lecturer, the ration between my salary and the salary of a newly recruited graduate teacher was 4/ 7. Today this is approximately 3/ 10. This anomaly is once again a social deficit that has to be taken into consideration in preparing the national budget whatever its implication of it on the fiscal deficit.

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. [email protected] com  

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 30 2021

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