Whither education?

Posted on August 2, 2007  /  9 Comments

We Sri Lankans boast about a literacy rate of over 90%. Yes, statistically it’s true. But, just get out of your statistical frame of mind, and look at the stark reality. Most of our schools are not fit to be called schools in the true sense of the word.Those schools are so appalling that they simply cannot contribute towards sustaining a high literacy rate. Also, most students in these schools may be able to read and write, but can they do anything more, like solving a problem, applying what they have learned etc?


In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on the worldwide web, education is defined as encompassing teaching and learning specific skills, and also something less tangible but more profound: the imparting of knowledge, positive judgement, and well-developed wisdom.

Education has as one of its fundamental aspects the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Education means ‘to draw out’, facilitating realisation of self-potential and latent talents of an individual.

There are over 9,500 schools in the country. Of these, how many are contributing to national well being? Are the education and school authorities aware of their onerous task and national responsibility of ensuring that the schools throughout the country deliver quality education to all students? We have our doubts. Quite apart from imparting knowledge, are these schools inculcating the moral values that education must provide to all students?

Of the so called National schools, how many can proudly declare that they produce law abiding, morally sound, ethically upright students? The 500 odd National schools, if they are to continue as a separate entity, have to offer something better: they must produce the country’s intelligentsia, mould future leaders for all spheres, ensure that they contribute to the national well being, and provide the backbone to the national development efforts.

In reality, all our schools must be made “National schools.” Why step motherly treatment to a staggering 9,000 odd schools by naming them as Provincial schools? 13th amendment or otherwise, education is national as much as defence is.

Good, purposeful and forward looking education must be truly national if we are to benefit out of it. It cannot be just limited to Colombo and a few townships. Every child, wherever he comes from, must be able to receive a truly national education so that he or she can someday effectively contribute to the national well being.

Let us not leave it just only to the government of the day. All of us as responsible citizens must play a significant role in this most important aspect of our national development. There are numerous business and other organisations that are doing well; they are using as their human resource what our school system has produced.

People of this country have contributed to the free-of-charge education provided for the last 62 years by successive governments. Business houses benefit out of the sacrifices made by Sri Lankans, poor or rich. It’s time for those business houses to return the favour by nurturing some of our schools that are situated in the remotest rural areas.

Many schools in the urban areas have in the form of well wishers, their alumni, parents and large companies. Remote schools in the villages do not have anyone to look after; they are nobody’s baby. In fact, these are the very schools that need support and assistance to progress.

It appears that the Government is sincere and serious about reawakening the villages. At last, it has dawned on the rulers that our villages are the backbone of our survival and prosperity.

Improving the village schools is the best way to uplift our villages. Infrastructure development is well and good, but if our rural children are not given the best of education, how can we be satisfied with our village development initiatives?

What then should the Government do? Do not leave it exclusively to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry cannot, because if they could, why haven’t they done it during the last six decades? In the name of rationalisation, they have been closing most small rural schools (claiming its World Bank advice) in remote areas faster than Susanthika could do the coveted 100 metres!

There was a dedicated band of people with Prima Donna of Primary Education, Kamala Peiris leading it, keen to save our small rural schools. That had been many years ago and it is not known whether such a group exists in today’s education set up. No use appointing a commission to report on this. Such commissions will take at least 3-5 years merely to define what small schools are and then to compile a list of them.

President Rajapaksa with his rural touch and love for the rural folk must be the prime mover in this initiative.

He should ask the Divisional Secretaries and the District Secretaries to compile a list of all schools that do not have alumni or any other support from businesses or NGOs, but if some meaningful assistance is provided, could contribute to the national development through progressive student development. Also, these ground level officials could tell the President what schools could be amalgamated to provide a meaningful education.

There is clearly no point in having two schools within a short distance of each other, particularly when one is having only a handful of students. We might as well have one with good facilities and a full complement of teachers.

President Rajapaksa also must create a small group of people drawn from eminent retired public servants to coordinate the revival of remote rural schools. This could function under his Secretariat.

The President must invite willing but reputed business organisations to foster these schools that are identified. No commercial advertising or any other canvassing for products must be allowed in lieu of support. The businesses must do it as a Corporate Social Responsibility programme.

What could these business houses do? Provide many things that will improve education. That’s the objective.

They could build a small library with about 2,500 books and other reading material, provide a few computers with a resource person to orient children, pay for a good English teacher to improve the standard of English of the students, provide audio visual teaching aids with suitable learning material, improve the surroundings with landscaping, spruce up the buildings and help the school to showcase productivity. One can come up with a long list of things that could be done.

It would be a real public-private partnership that both the private and public sectors could be proud about. Companies that support schools well must be recognised by the Head of State. That will also give those companies valuable national level publicity thus helping them in their business activities.

It is critically important that the rural schools are vastly improved to provide quality education to rural children. We hope that the Isuru Schools programme envisaged in the Mahinda Chintana will be a reality.

It is one activity that the Government cannot afford to delay or mess up. Once and for all, we need to solve the ever recurring problem of lack of good schools for our children. Improving rural schools will minimise rural-urban migration and retain the rural folk in their salubrious habitats.

Let us be bold enough to admit that most teachers in rural schools do not care about their wards; they gossip, engage in private interests, or just go to the classroom and let the students do as they want.

As much as 15 -20 per cent of the entire teacher cadre is absent throughout the school system on any given day! There is ample evidence that teachers in most rural schools do not teach at all, because if most teachers in rural schools did their job properly, 49% of the school candidates couldn’t have failed the GCE Ordinary Level examination last year.

A detailed analysis of the results clearly shows that poor performers mostly came from rural schools, almost all managed by the Provincial Councils. If these schools that are expected to prepare students to pass their first hurdle in life in the form of a public examination cannot do that, then clearly we must reorganise these schools with a precise objective. That’s why we believe that education must be truly national.

Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.

Mark Twain

[The Reformist]



  1. Nishantha Kamaladasa

    Education had failed not only because there is no infrastructure but because basic paradigms of education are wrong. Education had failed not only because there are not enough teachers, but also because teachers are not competent or not visionary or not geared. It had failed not because the teachers don’t teach but also what is teached is not relevant and the way it is teach is inappropriate. It had failed not only because there is no one to patronage, but no one to patronage it rightly. Education had not only failed in the rural village but also in the so called national schools right in the centre of Colombo. Education had failed not only in the poor schools but also in rich schools which probably had all the amenities necessary. It is not the books in the libraries that matters but whether there are systems and procedures to facilitate children to read and learn; whether there is enough encouragement for them to read and learn. It is not only the number of computers in the school that matters but for what purpose they are being used. Education had failed not only because the faults in the education system but the flaws in the larger system. Eliminating disparity is one thing but addressing the totality of education is another. Not only the former latter too needs immeadiate attention of the educationists.

  2. We already have plenty of educationists in The National Institute of education and the Ministry. What makes you think that they can bring about systemic changes?

    I see one of two ways systmeic changes.

    1. Political leadership
    i..e political leaders who can rally people around the new ideas for reform and officers who can implement
    2. Competitive forces from outside
    (In spite of rabid opposition to the idea, private options are widening. not only the upper middle but middle and lower middle classes are increasingly seeking private opportunities). Govt will have to sit up and take notice and start giving scholarships to the needy to attned these schools.

  3. Nishantha Kamaladasa

    Sorry, I am responsible for the mix up; that lead to the Sujatha’s probing question. Probably I used the wrong word. When I said “Educationists” I meant those who are interested in education, who wants to have their say, who like to see a change in the system and who would be reading the educationforum as a result. Put a stop after “immediate attention” in the last sentence; erase the balance and read again.

    The point I wanted to raise was that there could be more people who like to address the disparity issue; but very few who could see the problem as a larger one and disparity being only one part of it (could be significant though).

  4. Nishantha,

    I do not fully agree with you that education has failed in Sri Lanka. On the contrary we have an unblemished record for educational achievements all over South Asia.

    For example, you might say 50% of students fail O/Ls, but we should not forget that figure is much better than (a) what it was in 1960s or 70s in Sri Lanka and (b) what it is today in any other South Asian society

    What we see today is not exactly a failure in education system as such. It is more a failure in our economic system to create more jobs for the ones coming out of the system. This is highest at university level.

    Everybody cannot be a doctor, Engineer or a Professor. Every child cannot be an Einstein.

    The point is we need to develop the economic system of the country too so that it can absorbed the educated. Otherwise no matter how much we develop the education system there will not be of much use.

  5. Nishantha Kamaladasa

    We have produced a society that is inflicted by a conflict which had already costed so much to us. We have produced a political culture for which no one is happy (even politicians complaining). We have produced an economy that depends more on meagre earnings of our workers who slave in Middleeast. We have produced professionals who don’t practice such in their vocations. We have produced a nation that is not capable of competing with the rest of the world (most countries who were far behind Ceylon has surpassed Sri Lanka). We could be happy of academic achievements of few individuals but by and large education system had failed to produce a civilized society, intellectuals, professionals and value.

  6. Nishantha,

    Yes, I agree with what you say except the last sentence.

    I know we have a problem. But my question is how fair is it to blame the education system? Even in countries having far advanced education systems than ours we see corrupted politicians and officials. Isn’t the cause somewhere else?

    Are we beating the ‘gona-hama’?

  7. Nishantha Kamaladasa

    Dear Tuk

    My response to you ended up as a long article. I am afraid it is long to be called as a comment. Sorry I don’t know how to post it here (limits of my education!). That will appear in Education Times of Sunday Times in one of these days. Hope you get a chance to read.

  8. Hi Nishantha,

    I am glad to note that you have taken such an effort to respond me. I will look for the article.

    Meanwhile, I have noted the e-mail address of the coordinator of this blog in the first page. If you mail your response to that address they may publish it here too.

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