Business Times

Education: Where are we heading?

At a recent discussion on education convened by a group of concerned doctors, a key focus was on the misleading contents in textbooks in schools and also an overload of information. One doctor explained how his daughter’s history textbook contained such a lot of information that it was virtually impossible to remember everything in time for the final examination. “For example, one page has the names of 16 people and many other names of places? How can a 12-year old remember and memorise all this? Why do we need all this information when many, many years ago, information in text books were essentially to give a rounded knowledge to the child and prepare them for life?” he asked.

At the same discussion, a principal of a reputed school pointed out the many flaws in the process of preparing question papers saying some of those involved in this were not competent, apart from other issues. Recently an enterprising medical teacher created a school bag that has been approved by the authorities as compulsory use by children to reduce or balance the weight on the back and ensure they don’t suffer from stiff necks or have long term damage to their spine and back.

Likewise, an overload of information is growingly become a problem in the education syllabus. That’s not the only issue. Look at the rising number of tutories which has become a compulsory part of a child’s daily routine. Often students are taking extra classes at a tutory from their own school teacher! “What has happened to our education system,” lamented a parent, standing outside one tutory in Colombo, waiting to pick up his daughter.

Add to these woes is a gradual move to reduce state spending on government schools, an issue which is drawing protests from unions. Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of a teachers’ union says that the government is gradually putting pressure on school societies and communities to meet all expenses in schools other than the salaries which is what the government is likely to fund in future. “What is happening to free education?” he asked.

Presently there are two categories of non-private schools. There are the fully, funded government schools and the partly-funded (assisted schools) in which the government only pay the salaries of teachers while the school takes care of all other expenses through charging of facilities fees and donations.

With the return to English-medium education during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure as President, the tuition culture has become ingrained in social structures – so much so that even the most brilliant student seeks some kind of tuition guidance to ensure there is no psychological disadvantage. “My daughter doesn’t need tuition but when you are in a classroom where the majority are taking tuition, then there is pressure on the child as to whether she could pass without tuition,” said another parent, again waiting outside a tuition school.

The tuition syndrome, which was seen as a menace some years back but come to accept as a part of societal pressure, has many other concerns – a proper environment for the children and proper teaching standards. Most of these tutories are in unsafe locations, are fire-hazards and where dozens of students crowd around in tiny cubicles. There are no fire-escapes and/or other safety precautions.

As per standards, that’s another issue. Education – which has become a business commodity rather than an essential need – finds parents running helter skelter looking for the ‘best teacher’ for their children in maths, commerce or science at the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. In the absence of standards (and now that tuition has become an unofficial requirement), word-of-mouth about the best tutory or best teacher is the only guidance left for parents and students. Often students end up spending a lot of money moving from tutory to tutory looking for the best teachers.

There are no common standards or guidelines from state authorities in this ‘unofficial’ sector. (The government is only now preparing guidelines for international schools, more than 30 years after they were created and registered as businessess under the Companies Act).

Ironically many schools have also been dragged into this education ‘mess’ and watch helplessly as their own teachers spend more time outside the classroom (in tuitories or providing individual tuition at home – earning a lot of money in the process).

Education is becoming like the country’s health sector where private hospitals are becoming more crowded than state hospitals and engaging government doctors whose time spent in state hospitals is questionable. What has been discussed here is only the tip of the iceberg in education. There are many more issues in this sector.

With Sri Lanka moving into a new era of development in the post-war period, it is imperative for the evolution of proper models for education, health, society and the economy. (Haven’t we and many others said this before to no avail!). The Business Times has often proposed the creation of a think-tank to chart a development plan or revive the National Development Council of yester-year.

Sri Lanka, in particular, needs a proper education, health and social structure, to ensure children receive a proper and decent education, communities are cared for properly by the state, and an ageing population has decent access to health and care-givers. An economy must be built on these fundamentals not on a bits-and-pieces-formula like what is seen happening in education.

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