ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 27

Stop tinkering with our education

My choice of topic for this Oration was inspired by some of the lesser known achievements of Mr Lalith Athulathmudali - those initiated while he briefly held the portfolio of Minister of Education and Higher Education during 1990-91. My former colleagues at the Ministry used to often quote the visionary Reforms he attempted to introduce into the system.They still speak glowingly of how they looked forward to the intellectually enriching weekly meetings he held to brain-storm new policy.

Lalith Athulathmudali was a visionary. He thought far ahead and had a mature worldview on education. He understood that education was the key to economic progress and he referred to it as ‘the vehicle that carries the antidote to poverty’. He also stressed that; at the core of education development should be pluralism, which embraced a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural character. This, he said was essential, to a country like ours.

As a student, he shone in intellectually superior academic environments like Oxford and Harvard. As a university teacher, he taught under similar challenging circumstances in Tel Aviv and Singapore.

In the Education Sector, I consider as his most significant achievements, the following:

  • Decentralising school administration – by replacing the 25 district based Regional Education Offices with 111 Divisional Educational Offices, and by initiating steps to introduce School Management Boards for better governance
  • Expanding educational opportunities in the rural areas and estate sector –by developing selected schools in every district and division and by starting the Plantation Schools Development programme.
  • Upgrading the status and quality of teachers –
  1. initiating fast-track teacher training using the distance mode, to train all untrained teachers recruited before his time,
  2. pledging to have an all graduate teacher cadre,
  3. increasing teacher salaries,
  4. conceptualising the Sri Lanka Teacher Service,
  5. establishing the first two Tamil medium National Colleges of Education for pre service teacher training, in Vavuniya and Addalchanai
  • Promoting tri-lingual proficiency in schools and making it compulsory for Sinhala medium students to learn Tamil and vice versa, while encouraging English usage
  • Emphasising the teaching of Maths and Science and laying the foundations for computer education in the early nineties.
  • Broad-basing secondary school curriculum by including technical and vocational training and introducing the Junior Technical Certificate Course for grade 9
  • Expanding higher education by increasing intake into universities and conceptualising Technological Universities and Affiliated University Colleges to enable entry for secondary school leavers
  • Creating the National Education Commission (NEC), by enacting legislation in Parliament. Even today, it is the only education policy-making body in existence
  • Mahapola Scholarship scheme, his most famous achievement, has over the years enabled thousands of promising underprivileged students to continue University education.

Although Mr Athulathmudali’s vision for education was based on modernism, he primarily drew inspiration from the ideals of the legendary Dr. Kannangara who believed in and promoted equity and social justice. Mostly, Mr Athulathmudali championed depoliticising education, freeing it from petty and quibbling party politics and he was one of very few Ministers to keep that promise.

Lalith Athulathmudali

Sadly, his lofty attempts could not have a lasting impact on our system. His tenure was too brief and his tragic exit from politics and life brought to a closure all attempts at Reform during that period. Today 14 years after the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, I am honoured to deliver this oration instituted in his memory.

Education Reform is an emotive subject which is intimately entwined in politics. And this is not a phenomenon unique to SriLanka. It is seen in most parts of the world, where Governments declare their intention to change systems of education. In Sri Lanka we have witnessed attempts at Reform from the Kannangara era (1931-1947), Dr. Udagama’s tenure (1971), President J. R. Jayawardene’s White Paper 1981, and finally the Education Reform agenda of President Kumaratunge’s administration during the last decade.

Sri Lanka has been celebrated as having high education achievements and learning, when compared to other countries in South Asia. This reputation has been largely built on the high literacy levels and the high levels of primary school enrolment, as well as gender parity in education access and achievements. In fact we are often lauded at international forums, for being one of the very few nations from the developing world to have come close to reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the Goals set out by Education for All (EFA) - both programmes initiated and pursued by the United Nations. We are commended for enjoying a high place in the Human Development Index (HDI), despite being a country with a middle level income.

However, when describing our achievements, we often choose to ignore our failures and the serious gaps in the system i.e,

  • Poor secondary school achievements, like low pass rates at O’level (Dec 2006 47.7%)
  • Poor performance in competitive subjects like Maths and Science, and poor competence in English (O’level pass rates Dec 2006 – Maths 42.6%, Science 48.3%, English 38.8%)
  • Poor exposure and performance in Information Technology (IT). According to recent surveys, only about 70% of schools have electricity, 38% have computers and only 32% of school teachers are literate in computer usage. We have approx. 4.3 million students and 30,000-35,000 PCs giving a ratio of approx. 137 students for one PC. (0.77 PCs per 100 students) and about 15 PCs for every 100 teachers.
  • inadequacy of the provision of secondary education to rural and plantation sector children. The national policy says a secondary school child should have access to a school within 4 kilo metres from the child's home. In some areas we have no secondary schools at all, while most of the secondary schools in the rural areas and in the estate sector are a poor apology for qualitative secondary schools
  • Only about 525 schools (out of about 2,500 schools with A’level classes) offer science subjects at GCE A/L. And the majority of these schools are found in urban areas. Rural children from families with financial constraints have no options other than to choose a resource-poor, secondary school that offers only Arts/Commerce subjects. This is the primary reason for more than 75% of university entrants to be from Arts-based subjects. A distinct departure from what is seen in secondary and tertiary education in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and India. These countries emphasise on the need to have more graduates equipped with science and maths based subjects, in order to expedite growth in technology and business.
  • Sri Lanka has the lowest Age Specific Participation Rates (APR) in tertiary education in South Asia (in Sri Lanka <3% of the relevant age cohort have access to University, while most developing countries in the region have levels of 10-25%)
    In the case of education expenditure,
  • Sri Lanka is one of the lowest spenders on Education for the South Asian region, i.e
  • Expenditure from the National Budget 7-9% (international average expenditure on education 5.5% of GDP and 13.3% of total Govt expenditure – OECD 2006)
  • Teacher salaries, at 1.5% of per capita income are considerably lower than India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea.
  • Per capita expenditure on students in primary, secondary and tertiary sectors falls well behind other countries. As a proportion of GDP Sri Lanka has the lowest public expenditure on education, whereas it has the highest per capita expenditure on defence.

In my presentation today, I intend speaking of the attempts that were made and the failures encountered in introducing changes to education policy during 1995-2005. This is a period about which I can speak first hand, since it was during this period that I held responsibilities in the National Education Commission and the Ministry of Education.

The vision of the Government at the time was to modernise the education sector, to make it relevant to the contemporary needs of the 21st century, in keeping with global changes in education. The core principles of this programme were:

  • Prioritising Education in national development with increased Government investments and committed political will
  • to couple equity in education with excellence in quality
  • to introduce modern developments in curricula, examinations and text book preparation, teacher/principal training and in school/university governance

I will highlight some of the key initiatives introduced within these categories and the issues that we faced during implementation.

This was based on the imperative to shift from rote learning and didactic teacher-centred teaching, to student-based-learning, where activities and projects were introduced from the primary classes upwards. The new primary curriculum, organised through Ky Stages 1, 2&3, was integrated and activity-based, where children learnt through play.

Activity-based-Oral English a new subject introduced for the first time, enabled 5 year olds to learn a few English words during school hours. This was coupled with introducing English Language at Grade 3. These moves were largely welcomed by parents.
The secondary school reforms (Grade 6-13) were more complex and took longer to implement. The key changes introduced initially were,

  • replacement of the integrated curriculum with subjects, within a ‘thematic approach’ in the transitional years (age 11-14)
  • Activities and Projects were included appropriately
  • English medium instruction (as an option) was introduced at Grade 6 -Maths, Science, Health Science and Environment, as well as into A’level Science classes in selected schools where trained teachers were available
  • Reducing the number of A’level subjects from 4 to 3
  • Biology introduced in place of Botany and Zoology
  • General English and General IT (Information Technology) were introduced into the A’level as core subjects

Intensive and structured teacher training preceded the introduction of the new curriculum in the different Grades.

Modernising text books was a key component of the Reform programme. The out-dated, drab and monotonous books given free to children were written either by the National Institute of Education (NIE) or the Education Publications Department (EPD). These books, for some years, have been in want of factual accuracy and sometimes neglected ethnic and religious sensitivities. This had led to controversy and intense political debate.

In the search for excellence in books, the Ministry introduced a Multiple Book Option (MBO), a practice widely used internationally. Through the MBO, a wider choice of books was made available and schools were given multiple options for each subject. Both local and reputed international writers and publishers of books were invited to bid, in an open and transparent manner. They were to produce books in accordance with the syllabuses prescribed by the NIE of the Ministry. It was hoped that the element of competition would lead to higher standards and better quality of books. Subject Specialist Panels appointed by the EPD were mandated to approve the manuscripts prior to awarding the tenders. Children and teachers welcomed these new books which were undoubtedly of superior quality.

This method was in operation until the end of 2005, but has now been abandoned; reverting back to the old system where there are no options in book selection.The monopoly of book writing and publishing once more is vested with the NIE and the EPD of the Ministry.

Key reforms were introduced into the three public examinations (Grade 5 scholarship exam, O’Level and A’ level) based on the recommendations by expert committees:

  • Grade 5 exam paper was revised to test Essential Learning Competencies, deductive thinking, analytical and application skills. Reducing the focus on factual recall, improving the quality of the paper and making it child-friendly, were considered priority.
  • Revision of O’Level papers, bringing them on par with GCSE (UK) and other comparable exams in developed countries, making available the option for students to take the exam in the English medium
  • At A’level the Common General Test was made compulsory for those who seek admission to University. It tested general awareness on national and international affairs, problem solving, analytical skills and simple mathematical skills.
  • Item banks were introduced for several subjects.
  • School-Based Assessment was institutionalised into the secondary school. This landmark initiative scientifically assessed students continuously during the year, and the marks scored were recorded in the GCE O’level and A’ level certificates.
  • Revising Exam Time Table – speeding up the delivery of O’level exam results to March, so that A’ level students can start term in April/May. This also ensured that students did not aimlessly stay at home for more than three months after the O’level. Holding the A’ level exam in May each year also enabled those who wished to apply to university overseas to do so, until the UGC called for applications. This scheme has also been changed since last year.

One of the reasons for the public to lose faith in our education system was the corruption and injustice that prevailed every year with Grade 1 admissions. It was an open secret that irregularities in the selection process took place at the school level as well as at the Ministry/Provincial level. The degree of political interference in this matter is also well known. Even honest officials and administrators are powerless in decision making. Due to political pressures the Secretary to the Ministry has to often violate the School Admissions Circular that he himself signs!

Having studied the problem in depth and after having gone through series of consultative processes through the National Education Commission for many years, a new system for processing applications for the popular 325 National Schools was devised. This scheme did not in any way tamper with the quotas allocated for children who lived near the school (the ‘area rule’) or had siblings attending the school or had parents who had attended that school.

The innovation was to make the application process transparent from the very beginning. By feeding the applications into the computer using specially designed soft ware, and by posting the results on the web site at every stage of the selection. Those children who were eligible, short listed, and those who were eventually selected knew to what school they had gained entry. There was no mechanism to surreptitiously include a candidate who did not meet the required criteria. Nor was there room for political and other influences to creep in. This was primarily because the new system ensured transparency from the word ‘go’.

The necessity to restrict Grade 1 class size to 40 (although the internationally accepted norms are between 25-30), so that reasonably healthy teacher: pupil ratios could be maintained was also insisted upon. The futility of trying to implement a child-centred primary curriculum with classes that were overflowing with 50-55 children, where the teacher could hardly see, let alone interact with the child, was highlighted by all the educationists who worked on the Primary Reforms.

The President, who was also the Minister of Education at the time, informed all Government MPs and Provincial politicians to not interfere with this initiative, allowing the officials to handle the process, as per the legal circulars. The time table for the application process was advertised in the media and it was adhered to.

For the first time an admission process that was free of corruption and where deserving children got places in prestigious schools despite social class, took place. At the same time courageous measures were adopted to address issues of corruption in the admission process in the previous years and this led to the interdiction of several school principals.However this entire scheme was done away with and the Operations Room for School Admissions, equipped with computers and trained staff was dismantled during early 2006.

  • Upgrading rural schools in every divisional secretariat division (Navodya Project) with ‘higher order spaces’, modern libraries, introducing science and IT labs, and audio-visual rooms.
  • School Based Management – to decentralise school governance and administration using models that had been successful in other countries.
  • Amity Schools in selected districts, for children of all communities and religions
  • Quality Assurance of international and private schools
  • Constructive engagement of the private sector in university and higher education.

For the past so many years, the tragedy of the Higher Education system has been that less than 3% of the relevant age cohort and less than 15% of those who qualify at A’level, can secure placements in universities. This has made Sri Lanka one of the countries with the poorest rates of higher education enrolment.

Dr. Tara de Mel, former Secretary, Ministry of Education delivered the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration at the BMICH on November 26 on ‘Reforming Education in Sri Lanka: Attempts and Failures’. The Sunday Times invites readers to share their views on the educational reforms and the present state of education in Sri Lanka. Send in your contributions to ‘Education Views’, c/o the Editor, The Sunday Times, No. 8, Hunupitiya Cross Road, Colombo 2, fax 011-2423258 or email

The 15 state-owned, state-funded and state-managed universities in 2006, could offer only 17,287 places to the 119,555 students who qualified.

Moreover, these universities can hardly meet the required quality that we see in reputed universities elsewhere. They ceased to be halls for intellectual inspiration and academic strength long ago.

To be continued next week......!

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