Once the renowned economist Milton Friedman said, “Let parents choose to educate their children wherever they wish at the taxpayer’s expense. The principle of this idea is simple and it said, “the state pays; parents choose; schools compete standards rise; everybody gains.”
This shows that even the fathers of neo-liberal economic policies advocated free education but not what we have understood and are ready to protect sacrificing even lives.
Sri Lanka had many achievements to be proud of and one of them is the high standard of education. According to statistics the higher literacy rate around 90%, is the highest in the region. This is one of the main advantages we have in attracting investors in many fields. Every investor who comes here gives credit that our talent pool is second to none.
However, it seems that Christmas is now over as all sectors of the economy and education as well is in a serious crisis. This is a well known secret for over several years and our education gurus were planning many high brow proposals but nothing has been implemented on the ground and could not reverse the drift in the general education system.
The statistics of last year’s O/L examination show the depth of the crisis and it is indeed shocking. According to reports more than 50% of the students have failed in Mathematics and English at last year’s O/L examination. A total of 21,813 students failed in all subjects.
These statistics have awakened the authorities and even President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed a committee to study the reasons and report to him. There is a big debate as to the reasons for this situation but nobody seems to understand the underlying reasons.
The late Education Minister C.W.W. Kannangara, who introduced free education in Sri Lanka correctly saw the future and his vision was fulfilled. The country came out of illiteracy and laid a solid foundation for socio economic development.
However, the free education did not help our leaders or the citizens to creatively think of the free education concepts and we all protected the old free education system sacrificing our lives. There are hundreds of young university students starting from Weerasuriya who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of free education.
The education system in the country has been stagnant for many decades. The sector did not receive government funding in keeping with the increase in the student population.
Infrastructure, teachers as well as the quality of the teachers did not increase or improve to maintain the quality of the education. New investments did not come to the system. Political interference, absence of a prudent national policy and changes initiated from government to government or minister-to-minister played havoc with the system.
The administration of the education system has deteriorated to rock bottom forcing students to shift to private tuition centered education.
For many years, the World Bank (WB) has proposed reforms to education. As the WB is funding to improve the quality of education they put these reforms as conditions. However, the society recognised them as a move of privatising the education sector.
There are reasons to suspect WB proposals as well as some unrealistic proposals. The problem is not the WB but our politicians and authorities who did not see the fast changing world and incorporate them to the education system.
As a society we totally oppose private education institutions be it student movements or parents. However, according to 2004 statistics 50% of the students attend tuition classes or private education, paying from their own pockets and not from taxpayers’ money as Friedman said.
This private education in the country is an informal sector and there is no government regulatory system to ensure the quality or a standard. Similarly the University Grants Commission’s recent move to regulate private university education system has come under fire with protests from the students.
To address the issue and come out of the crisis the authorities as well as ordinary citizens of this country should understand the ground realities, global trends and new ways and means to ensure a meaningful free education system.
From admission of students to grade one to sit national examinations the issues remain unsolved. There is a huge competition to admit students to a few popular schools in the country. While they become popular the rest of the schools are known as unpopular. Hundreds of rural schools are closing not because of lack of teachers or WB recommendations, but because there are no students.
Rural schools face a lack of qualified teachers. One major reason for the poor results of Mathematics and English is due to lack of qualified teachers. On the other hand most of the teachers are not dedicated compared to the early generation of teachers.
Last year’s low O/L results have raised many issues in the school system. Firstly, the crisis in the education administration is very serious. Media reports said that on any given day 40,000 teachers are on leave.
It is a well-known fact that many school teachers neglect their school work for the sake of private tuition. Every teacher in this country enjoys three months of paid leave during the school vacation while teachers also enjoy annual, casual and maternity leave.
After the salary anomalies were rectified some time ago they also draw a substantial salary, but in most instances the dedication is sadly lacking.
When teachers practising this noble profession are not dedicated and take leave haphazardly they cannot cover the syllabus, which results in students failing the examination. Most parents send their children for tuition but if you don’t get a dedicated teacher who will understand the student and teach accordingly it can also be a disaster.
According to the study of the O/L results 90% of the students have not attempted the compulsory geometry related questions in the Mathematics question paper. It was revealed at a discussion that some mathematics teachers have requested students not to answer the geometry questions, as it is difficult.
We can only assume that teachers who made such requests are themselves not competent to teach geometry. When the wrong person is appointed to the wrong place we only see deterioration. In most instances people with the minimum qualifications apply and will be recruited because they have fulfilled the minimum qualifications requirements.
In the event a teacher who has fulfilled the minimum qualifications teaches a subject the parents will have to keep their fingers crossed. According to the well researched book World is Flat written by Thomas Friedman the keys to the globalised world are Mathematics and Science.
Sri Lanka immediately grabbed the free education concepts and implemented them correctly. The state paid but there is no choice for parents. There is no competition between schools or there were no two kinds of schools to compete and therefore there was no improvement in standards. Finally everybody loses.
To change the scenario dynamism and competition should come into the system. But still the taxpayers should bear the cost of education.
(This article without a byline is from Sunday Observer June 10, 2007)