How not to "fix" the GCE O-level debacle A toxic cure for a fatal disease

Posted on June 4, 2007  /  2 Comments

by Kumar David

The results of the December 2006 GCE O-level examinations are appalling but not in the least surprising. The writing has been on the wall for years. The reasons are so well known that they hardly bear repetition – a breakdown of the school system, untrained and semi-qualified teachers, political interference, abandoning English, public indifference and screw-loose Education Authorities. As though all this was not bad enough, the solutions now proposed veer between taking the statistics to the massage parlour and superficial appeals to the government, the President or whoever comes to the mind of commentary writers. The massage parlour solution A Mr. Anura Edirisinghe, bearing the designation Commissioner General of Examinations, has come up with the solution: “The Examination Department has instructed Education Directors island-wide, specially in areas with low performance schools, to increase the rate of pass in the GCE O/L exams”. My God! So this is how bureaucrats perceive and solve this monumental breakdown of the fabric of our school education system. (Quotation from The Island, 19th May, Special Report “Inching Towards Illiteracy”). The whole rotten establishment is no different; let me give you three more quotes in a similar vein from the same Special Report. (Sorry about being a stickler for grammar and punctuation in italicised parenthesis below; after all we are talking about literacy aren’t we?)

* President Mahinda Rajapakse has taken up the issue. The issue was discussed at the Cabinet meeting. The Ministry is expecting to change the situation by 75 per cent within (the) next three years.

* “Recently instructions were given to all Zonal Education Directors to reduce failed (sic) percentage by 5 percent” says Minister Premajayantha.

* Chairman of the National Education Commission Professor A. V. Suraweera said that the Education Ministry should be instructed to resolve the situation. (“) It is not coming (sic) under the NEC (“), he said. I

t is clear that the solution is going to be a fudge, a lethal fudge. These pronouncements illustrate that the administration, top to bottom, does not grasp the central issue, learning, or rather the lack of it. They are not going to address core issues; their interest is in a quick fix, it’s a matter of getting the graphs and bar charts pointing the right way up to save their pants. This generates grim concern that the statistics are going to be well and truly massaged – examination papers will be set to lower standards, the structure made easier, assessment and marking more lenient. The whole lamentable establishment from school, to Zone, to Ministry, to Cabinet will do a monumental fudge. “Instructions have been sent to Zonal Directors to reduce the failed (sic) rate” – indeed! As they perceive problems, so bureaucrats will “solve” them. If they think that the solution lies in pulling-up some Zonal bungler and faxing out a raft of instructions, well they are getting ready to fix the statistics, not address the problem, not recognise how deep and malignant the aliment is. A fatal disease The breakdown in the school system is so bad that it belies adjectives. About a week ago I spent some time with a group that is going around the electoral wards of the Colombo Municipal Council hoping to build grassroots peoples’ networks on matters of everyday concern. These activists have talked with tens if not hundreds of low income families in the last several months. The universal experience with schools is no breaking-news at all, but just to hear it again was woefully depressing. “By about age 12, children are just fed-up (epavela) with school. Most teachers don’t bother with their classes; the classroom is only a recruiting ground for fee paying after-hours tutees.” Going to school, education, learning all seem to be an empty sham. I do believe that there are many good and diligent teachers, but they are heavily outnumbered. Unsurprisingly, this is what the 2006 GCE O/L statistics actually say. It is easy to point a finger at teachers only, but the problem is far more systemic.

Professor Thilokasundari Karyawasam maintains that the O/L system has been blindly transplanted from the UK. Presumably she is referring to the emphasis on continuous assessment and the increase in the number of subjects to ten. The former can work only when students feel a deep sense of ethical honesty about individual assignments and there have to be a sufficient number of teachers to assess, follow up and discuss assignments. We have neither built up this student ethos nor trained adequate numbers of teachers to handle learning experiences of this nature. The system has suffered four flat tyres. An article by Manel Ahhayaratna (Daily Mirror, 22 May) explains how scheme after scheme was tried and abandoned even before each was properly tested and O/L policy went on a roller-coaster ride from one educational philosophy to another. Mr. Jayatissa Perera is more blunt in the Opinion-Letters page of The Island of 23 May; I refer any reader who enjoys horror stories about political interference and iniquity to read his contribution, “Towards a nation of ignoramuses – response”. Some specifics Newspapers have gone to town in the last few weeks denouncing the appalling statistics hence I need to repeat only a few. Island-wide, over 51% of December 2006 O/L candidates failed, about 22,000 (8.5%) did not pass a single subject, there are 57 educational Zones in Sri Lanka where over 50% of candidates failed and there are about 150 schools from which not a single candidate passed. The all-island failure rate (not even a simple pass) in critical subjects is as follows: English 63%, Mathematics 57%, Science 52% and Sinhala 20%. The so-called passes in English, Mathematics and Science include about 20% Simple or S-Passes in each case; and if you ask those in the know, they say that S is no pass at all. And now to geometry; over 90% of students failed to qualify. They ducked or erred in the compulsory geometry question in the maths paper. The media reports that a not dissimilar number of teachers are also oblivious of the discipline because they have never learnt it (Aside: M. A. Kaleel contests this in the Opinion page of The Island of 28 May). Geometry is more than about the size, shape and relative position of figures and the properties of space, it is much more. It is about systematic deductive reasoning and disciplined logical thinking – there is good reason to believe the old story that Plato forbad anyone ignorant of geometry from crossing the threshold of his Academy. Most Sri Lankan youth, then, will be stranded outside, loitering on the pavement. English It has also transpired that most students did not even attempt the writing and reading oriented tasks in the English language paper. They satisfied themselves with tick the box or MCQ-type of activities. If a large population sample of 250,000 candidates was asked to answer MCQ-type questions by pure random choice, what percentage would pass fortuitously? Of the mere 37%, or minuscule 17% if you eliminate the S-passes, who purportedly passed English, since many avoided writing and reading oriented tasks, one dreads to speculate how many were pure flukes. Karu Gamage writes as follows in the Opinion page of The Island, 21st May: “In the future, English medium qualified school graduates will grab all job opportunities in the private sector. Where are we heading.” Being a rather less gracious person, I wrote in the Sunday Island of March 18 in the course of a long lament about the decline of English: “Let me say it up-front and make no bones about it; there is no hope for good science and technology, with all that this implies for industry, modern agriculture and the economy unless this country nurtures a body of professionals soundly schooled in English.” There is a two-fold link between English and Mathematics. In days gone by many maths and science teachers from Jaffna served in the south mainly in the English medium; their absence is now being felt. Given the huge expansion of the school system even if available, they would only contribute to a small part of today’s needs, nevertheless making more English medium maths and science available to all students will be helpful. Secondly, the medium of instruction in universities in engineering, science, medicine and as many other disciplines as possible must be English. If the Indians, Singaporeans, Africans and Hong Kongers can do it, so can we. To rescue drowning O/L students we must ensure fluency in a world language, or watch them perish. The public must wake up The outpouring of public comment in the last three weeks is heartening. People are waking up to a new reality, the solution to problems lies in the hands of the community. Ministries, governments, presidents, the lot, are hopelessly inept and impotent; even if they wanted to do something, they are incapable of anything. As the bus (society) careers down the precipice towards the ‘failed state’ abyss, changing the driver is pointless; JR, Premadasa, CBK, now Mahinda and who knows maybe Ranil one day, were/are all equally impotent drivers. Change the driver and keep hurtling down the chasm? What’s the point? It’s time to change the bus – social mores and ethos. The rot is in society. People’s consciousness must transform. An informed and concerned populace has to get involved; there is no other way. The complicity of the people themselves in the politics of patronage and corruption is rampant. If anything is to be achieved – and that includes peace – it must originate in an ethical renewal. Shades of Gandhi you may say; yes. His greatest struggle was not against the British Raj but against prejudice and ignorance inside, that is within his own people. Who killed Gandhi? The answer tells the story. Shenali Waduge in “What and who created this mess?” (Daily Mirror 28 May) says “It may be well and fine to always leave the blame with politicians” and proceeds to draw up a list of culprits including the education ministry, teachers and school principals, parents and students, and demonstrates shared responsibility for the debacle. Nevertheless she does not quite hit the nail on the head. The ultimate responsibility for a cancer of this magnitude lies with the people themselves, incorporated as they are in a web of patronage and corruption. There is something that has gone wrong in Sri Lanka’s experiment with democracy. It has become the root of our failed state syndrome – venal politicians, systemic corruption and the breakdown of not just law and order, but decency itself, are merely phenomenological manifestations of something deeper.

[This article has provided many references to encourage those with a stake – parents, students and teachers, to read and actively intervene].


  1. There is a major gap in Education in Urban and Rural communities. We has tried and tried to bridge this gap, but nothing really makes sense when we see examination results. Teachers of course do a job, with many forms to fill, many school activities and little time to attend to weak students.

    On the other hand no teacher wants to serve in a rural community. No transport, Accomodation , family problems. We have extra teachers in urban schools, and no teachers in rural communities.

    We need to innovate education with other means, We can no longer place the responsibility on teachers. Its the students who has to pass. Government need to provide methods to make students study. The beurocartic officials need to change them selves to solve this problem.

  2. Education is only as effective as the educator wants it to be. As long as one believes that education is about memorizing scripture or poetry or knowing f=ma or the long list of ‘dignified’ presidents of our country, then there is no hope for us.
    Knowledge and the practical application of it is a topic that our educators have not grasped. If one was to suggest scrapping the whole system and starting from scratch, then that would not be the worst possible beginning.
    The students and teachers, to a great extent, are mere pawns at the hands of an ignorant and unconcerned monster that we call ‘education in Sri Lanka’.

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