Education for Life | Sunday Observer

Education for Life

23 January, 2022

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the developing world (and even among the developed countries) that provides free education literally from the cradle. Not just education per se, the State gives free uniforms and textbooks to all schoolchildren. Along with free healthcare, this is one fundamental right that all Sri Lankan Governments have honoured since Independence in 1948.

Sri Lanka thus has a very high literacy rate compared with other countries in the region and the school dropout rate is also rather low, with compulsory education at least till age 16. Moreover, girls are not discriminated against when it comes to education, unlike in many other Asian and African countries. In fact, at most examinations girls outshine boys in many subjects and streams.

Sore point

But examinations are a major sore point in our education system as students “cram” for the various subjects offered. Sometimes, this leaves really bright students out of the higher studies and university equation while those who cram get through. Another consequence of the examinations system is that thousands of students who qualify for universities are unable to proceed further as the State universities can absorb only a limited number of students – around 40,000 per year. The others are left out of the race for higher education. On another level, students who fail mathematics and certain other subjects are deemed to have failed the entire examination, which bars them from entering the A/L classes. Thus their education stops at O/L itself.

Let us imagine that you are one of the 40,000 lucky students who get admitted to the State Universities. The State pays for your education and the parents will fund your other expenses. So far so good. But the real crunch comes when you have to find a job at the end of your studies. Unless you qualify as a doctor or engineer, it is very difficult to secure a job immediately after graduation, especially if you have gained qualifications in certain arts and humanities subjects. And one more thing – the English knowledge of most graduates is likely to be poor, which puts them at a grave disadvantage in the jobs market.


The mismatch between the qualifications of graduates and the real-world requirements of the employers in the jobs market is a real cause for worry. If you go through the vacancies pages of any Sunday newspaper including this one, you will come across hundreds of jobs, some of which are advertised week after week. This suggests that there are no takers for some of the jobs. At a time when unemployment hovers around the 5 percent rate, this is a pathetic situation. Graduates who have no knowledge of the real world requirements of the employers have no chance in this job marketplace. Sometimes, school- leavers who can speak fluent English can secure these jobs, pushing the graduates out further.

The time has come to effect an overall change in our education system to reflect the needs of the times. This has been talked about for ages, with little to show for it. Simple curricula changes are not sufficient in and of themselves. Education should be holistic – not only aimed at the job market or higher education itself. Rather, it should be a recipe for success in life itself. The aim of education should be creating well-rounded, disciplined individuals who can adapt to any situation in life.

Learning life skills

As per the famous book titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in the Kindergarten” (R. Fulghum, 1990), we learn many life skills from using a pair of scissors to drawing with a pencil really early in our lives. We never really forget these skills even if we live for 100 years. But some of the subjects and themes that we learn, from algebra to calculus, are forgotten as soon as we leave school. These probably have no relevance to our day to day lives, unless one is engaged in a profession that requires such skills. This is the fundamental problem with our education system as it is now – one cannot relate to the world outside.

Several decades ago, the school curricula included a range of life skill subjects from carpentry to motor mechanism. The idea was that even those who leave school midway (say, Grade 8 or 9) would still be able to find a job easily. Right now, the picture is not so rosy for those who opt to leave school early on their own or as dictated by the examination results.

A holistic approach needed

In any case, the school should not be a place only for book learning. It is a place that imparts discipline, moral values, leadership qualities, respect for elders and religious ethos. Of late, there is a tendency among teachers and parents to focus entirely on book learning and examinations which have become a rat race. This is why parents send their children to tuition classes on top of the six hours of schooling. This focus only on book learning and passing the examinations at all costs can produce a generation that does not respect the very society they live in.

Our educationists should study the education systems of countries that have achieved developed status within the past few decades and draw any relevant lessons from their experiences in terms of education. Many countries are now turning away from the harsh examinations system to focus on other methods of evaluating students’ performance. This ensures that the best students enter the universities, not only those who memorise the books.

In any case, reforms to our education system are long overdue. The Education Ministry and all other relevant stakeholders must expedite this process. It should encompass the entire gamut of education, from kindergarten upwards. Education being a lifelong process, there should also be opportunities for people to learn new subjects midway through their careers. There should also be clearer paths for certain higher education goals. No one should be left behind in this new realm of education and there should be equal opportunities for all to achieve life’s goals.